Lanky and lean, the mysterious, misnamed, and misunderstood wild dog of South America is a sight to behold. Though it resembles a red fox on stilts, it is not closely related to the vulpine (fox) family. Despite its common name, it is not closely affiliated with wolves, either. But it does sport a dramatic, dark-colored mane down its back that flares up when the animal feels threatened. Meet the beautiful, big-eared, red-haired, long-legged maned wolf.
This species is aloof for a canid and less vocal than other wild dogs. “These animals are the opposite of what people think they know about dogs,” said Tammy Batson, San Diego Zoo lead keeper. Once visitors lay eyes on these elegant-looking creatures, Tammy said they really “give people a reason to care.” Each day at 1 p.m., keepers give a talk and training demonstration at the maned wolf exhibit near the Zoo’s Skyfari West, and guests can see the wild dogs in action.
Its blazing fur, solitary lifestyle, and omnivorous diet thrust the maned wolf into a genus all its own: Chrysocyon. Native to Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru, the maned wolf inhabits grasslands and scrub forests. It is thought that its exceedingly long legs allow the animal to see above the tall grass while hunting and running. Unlike true wolf species, maned wolves tend toward a solitary lifestyle but do form monogamous pair bonds. Though a pair shares a large, permanent home range of up to 17 square miles, each member hunts independently and only comes together for breeding. However, male maned wolves in zoos provide regurgitated food for the young, which indicates that they may stick around to help raise their offspring in the wild as well.
Yet another quirk of the maned wolf lifestyle is its diet. Although classified as a carnivore, it is really an omnivore. During the rainy season, it eats mainly lobeira, a tomato-like fruit from a low, spiny bush—in fact, the fruit is also called the “wolf apple” for this reason. Studies of maned wolf feces have indicated that just over three-quarters of its diet is made up of fruit and vegetable matter. The other portion consists of small mammals, reptiles, birds and their eggs, and insects. With so much of its diet being vegetarian, a special prepared diet was created for these animals in zoos—it contains less animal-based protein (and reduced sodium) and more plant-based protein. This helps control cystinuria in this species, a condition in which an amino acid called cystine forms stones in the kidneys or bladder.
Rather than chasing down prey, maned wolves tend to stalk and pounce, their large, erect ears ever alert to the telltale sounds of their next meal. They are most active during dusk and dawn hours, spending daylight and nighttime hours dozing under the cover of thick brush.
Maned wolves have a somewhat abbreviated vocal repertoire compared to other wild dogs. They don’t howl or bay, but they do use three other sounds: a deep-throated single bark, usually heard at dusk; a high-pitched whine, sometimes used in greeting; and a growl during antagonistic behavior. Most of their communication is done through olfactory means. Their pungent urine serves as a "keep out" signpost. Other maned wolves can smell it a mile away and discern a great deal from an individual’s “perfume.” Is the animal healthy? Ready to breed? Protecting its territory? This canid's long, slender muzzle can read the fine print of those scent marks!
At the Zoo, two young maned wolf sisters, Jasmine and Jamie, share a spacious, outdoor exhibit (they also have off-exhibit bedrooms). “At 55 pounds, Jamie is the dominant one, though her sister weighs 5 pounds more than she does,” said Tammy. They have access to fresh water and dry kibble at all times, and their special “high-value” treat is mice, used as a reward during their training sessions. These animals are somewhat shy and do not view humans as food, which allows the keepers to work with the dogs inside the exhibit. Since many animals tend to mask illness to avoid appearing weak, it is important for keepers to be able to monitor each animal’s weight as a health marker. “We use operant conditioning and positive reinforcement techniques to get the animals to make good decisions to cooperate with us,” explained Tammy. “If we can train them to get on a scale or provide urine samples, it reduces stress on the animals and the staff.”
During the daily Keeper Talk, Zoo guests can watch a keeper working with each dog, practicing target training as a useful baseline behavior. “We don’t touch the wolves,” said Tammy. “It’s important to respect their boundaries. The only time maned wolves touch each other is to fight or breed, and I don’t want either of those things.” Each animal has her own six-inch plastic target (Jamie’s is red, Jasmine’s is blue) that the keeper attaches to the fence at different places and heights. The keeper gestures toward the target, which is paired with the verbal command, “target,” and the dog touches her nose to it. The keeper uses a clicker to indicate that this is the correct behavior. Intermittent reinforcement is used for the training session, so after a few correct target behaviors, a mouse is given and gobbled down instantly. Each wolf receives 15 mice during these sessions. “This is also a great way to make sure the less-dominant animal is getting her fair share.”
Despite their beauty and retiring nature, maned wolves face a number of threats across their range, including hunting, superstition, and habitat loss as humans convert wild spaces to farms. Some rural people attach mystical qualities to various maned wolf body parts (eyes, skin, tail), which are used as a talisman or for folk remedies. Others persecute the wild dogs for taking chickens. Currently, maned wolves are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is hoped that zoos around the world can help protect this regal species by breeding them, which has proved challenging, and helping to preserve native habitat. We need to work together to give this wild dog a leg up on its long-term survival.