Call of the Wild
A close encounter with the New Guinea Singing Dog, a rare canid with disputed origins.
Cassandra Radcliff |
November 14, 2013
Photo Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio.
As our guide takes us behind the scenes at the world-famous San Diego Zoo, I hear the New Guinea Singing Dogs before laying eyes on them. The melodious sound is similar to a wolf howl, but it’s something unique that I’ve never heard.
An unusual voice is not the only thing that sets this dog apart from any other. From its controversial status — feral dog, domestic dog or wild dog? — to its ancient heritage and elusive nature, everything about the New Guinea Singing Dog makes it one of a kind.
We meet Senior Animal Trainers Alison Holland and Katie Cheng, who bring out two New Guinea Singing Dogs: Piccolo, 3, and Montana, 11, and their arctic wolf companion, Keeli, 10. The small dogs act a little nervous and timid at the sight of new people, but once they see their friend Keeli, they quickly become comfortable in their large exercise pen behind the Wegeforth Bowl, where they appear in the Camp Critters show several times a day for zoo visitors.
We then participate in a "howl-in,” which Holland begins with Keeli the wolf by her side. She begins the howl, and many of the animals housed behind the Wegeforth Bowl chime in with their own sounds. Now that the New Guinea Singing Dogs are still, I get a clearer look at them.
These rare canids are about 15 to 18 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh about 25 pounds. They have wedge-shaped heads, dark eyes, bushy tails and thick, coarse golden-brown fur that lightens with age. After the howl, the dogs continue to play in their spacious pen with their wolf companion. It’s already clear that although they might look a lot like pet dogs, they are quite different.
What is an NGSD?
The NGSD's inquisitive eyes capture the dog's intelligence.
New Guinea Singing Dogs, also called Singers, Singing Dogs and Highland Wild Dogs, have inhabited dense forests in the Highland mountains of the island of New Guinea for thousands of years. They have not been artificially selected by humans (like domestic dogs).
Sir Edward Hallstrom, an Australian businessman and philanthropist closely tied to the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, sent two specimens caught from the wild to the zoo in 1957. They were first believed to be a new species and were named Canis hallistromi (after Hallistrom), but in 1969, they were reclassified as a subspecies of the dog and considered a feral domestic dog. With the reclassification, most zoos stopped breeding them, which resulted in their population decline.
NGSD Listed as a Rare Breed
You might have seen the New Guinea Singing Dog listed on the websites of the American Rare Breeds Association or United Kennel Club. When these organizations listed the NGSD as a rare breed, the evidence that it might be a type of Dingo was not yet available.
The UKC, which began accepting registrations for the NGSD as a breed in January of 1996, removed the NGSD from its website several years ago. "In 2011, the New Guinea Singing Dog was moved from the domestic dog category in the regulations of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to the wild canid category, requiring a permit to breed and sell New Guinea Singing Dogs in the U.S.," says Tanya M. Rabb, vice president of corporate operations for the UKC. "It was requested that the United Kennel Club rescind its decision to recognize the New Guinea Singing Dog as a domestic dog breed."
Since that time, scientists have been unable to locate or study the rare and elusive NGSD in the wild, and controversy has surrounded the taxonomic classification of the New Guinea Singing Dog. It’s widely accepted that a population of wild dogs was separated and isolated once New Guinea and Australia were no longer connected by dry land. These dogs became the Dingo (Canis lupus dingo) and the New Guinea Singing Dog. What is unknown is if the NGSD evolved into a separate species or if it remained the same as the Dingo.
Some people, such as James K. McIntyre, director of the Southwest Pacific Research Foundation (which is organizing an expedition to West Papua in June 2014 to search for wild NGSDs), believes Singers evolved into a separate species. Others believe that the NGSD and the Dingo were domestic dogs that became feral and that both should be classified the same as domestic dogs. The New Guinea Singing Dog’s taxonomic status is still unknown, but future expeditions to the island of New Guinea and more research might help answer this question.
Senior Animal Trainer Alison Holland watches as an older NGSD joins in a "howl-in." Photo Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio.
There is no doubt that the New Guinea Singing Dog is a unique animal. The most distinctive characteristic of the NGSD is of course its song, which is extremely complex, consisting of yelps, yodels, chirps, birdlike trills, whines and howls of varying pitches. Mark Feinstein, professor of linguistics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., studied the vocalizations of a colony of eight New Guinea Singing Dogs housed at the college’s lab (from 1993 to 2003). Their vocalizations were analyzed using sound-spectrography and other methods of acoustic analysis, along with observing the behaviors associated with vocalizing and hearing other NGSDs vocalize.
"New Guinea Singing Dogs seem to have a somewhat bigger repertoire (of sounds that) aren’t found in domestic dogs, in village dogs or in other wild dogs like Dingoes as far as we know,” Feinstein says. "New Guinea Singing Dogs do bark like other canids, but it’s very rare to hear them do it. Unlike dogs, but like wolves, they typically produce single barks rather than a series of them.”
In addition to their vocalizations, the likeness of New Guinea Singing Dogs and domesticated dogs diverges in other ways. "The difference between a New Guinea Singing Dog and a domesticated dog is several thousands of years of the domestication process,” says zookeeper Barbara Letton of the San Diego Zoo. "The domestication process involves dogs coming and living alongside humans for thousands of years and humans actually selecting genetically for the traits that they prefer. For example, they eliminate the traits that make them more jumpy, more aggressive, more independent, and they keep the traits that make them calmer and more attached to people.”
The differences aren’t just behavioral. The NGSD’s carnassial tooth, the first upper molar, is larger than those of domestic dogs, a trait usually seen in wild canids. It can make different vocalizations, including trill sounds, due to differences in its throat structure. Its extremely flexible spine and legs allow it to jump 8 to 10 feet up in the air, squeeze through tight spaces and even climb trees.
McIntyre says that the captive NGSD population "numbers to approximately 200 individuals throughout the world, (but) no scientific estimates of the wild population can legitimately be made.” The San Diego Zoo, which received the first NGSD brought to the United States in 1957, now has two dogs on exhibit at the zoo, in addition to three involved in their animal ambassador outreach program.
In recent years, two large rescue operations recovered 30 to 60 Singers from hoarders. Jan Koler-Matznick, president and science advisor of the New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society believes that possibly more people have been breeding them outside of zoos and conservationists’ homes, meaning that there might be as many as 400 captive specimens worldwide.
Not a pet
Although the NGSD resermbles many domestic dog breeds, these wild animals often fit in better at a zoo or sanctuary. Photo Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio.
"I firmly believe that Singers should never ever be sold as pets like common dogs,” says Gayle Person of Melbourne, Fla, owner of Nora, one of only five black-and-tan NGSDs in captivity.
They might act domesticated in some ways, but New Guinea Singing Dogs are in reality wild dogs that have been in captivity for less than 60 years (most domestic dog breeds, on the other hand, have been living with humans for hundreds and even thousands of years).
Although they are independent, shy and aloof, they are not aggressive toward people, and they can form deep bonds with humans. However, life at home with a Singer is not simple. "Those homes capable of coping with a Singer are as rare as the Singers themselves,” Koler-Matznick says.
Tom Wendt, co-founder of New Guinea Singing Dog International, says that the right kind of NGSD owner is one who has experience with primitive breeds like Basenjis or Shiba Inus. Potential NGSD owners must also understand the NGSD and what is needed to care for them in a home environment.
New Guinea Singing Dogs are escape artists — both digging and climbing. Because of this, outdoor pens must be ultra-secure and at least 6 feet tall. Koler-Matznick says that NGSDs are "more aware of their environment, noticing even small differences that dogs usually ignore, such as whether or not the human remembered to put the extra snap in the gate to prevent the latch from being lifted.”
See NGSDs in Action
The San Diego Zoo currently has five New Guinea Singing Dogs: three animal ambassadors (Montana, Piccolo and Zildjian), and a breeding pair that lives in the New Guinea Singing Dog exhibit (Marin, a 10-year-old male, and Samber, an 8-year-old female). To meet Montana, Piccolo and Keeli the wolf, along with their trainers Alison Holland and Katie Cheng, as well as Barbara Letton, a San Diego Zoo zookeeper, click here to watch a video.
Singers are intelligent and learn quickly, but training these shy and independent dogs requires patience. Even well-trained NGSDs can take off running after any animal that looks like prey, including small dogs, and they can be aggressive with other dogs, especially unfamiliar dogs or those of the same sex. "There are some rare occasions where people have trained them enough to where they can actually open the back door and call them back,” Wendt says. "I wouldn’t ever trust a Singer to do that because if they see a cat or a rabbit or something, the instincts come back.”
Person adds that Singers are so smart that "you can almost see the wheels turning in their heads, like they are figuring something out.” They learn basic commands quickly but only if they want to. "You cannot force a Singer to do what it doesn’t want to do,” she says.
Conservation through captive breeding
NGSDs are estimated to number from 200 to 400, and conservation groups strive to increase the population responsibly. Photo Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio.
If the New Guinea Singing Dog is not a domesticated dog and does not make a good pet, why do private owners keep them? Although some people keep them as exotic pets, others keep them for conservation purposes. If no one breeds and keeps this dog before its conservation status is confirmed, it might become extinct. "The key is to get their numbers up before it’s too late, and with less than 400 left, it’s very difficult,” Holland says. "That’s a low number. That’s a very low number.”
The New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society promotes captive NGSD health and genetic diversity, wild NGSD conservation, scientific study and public education. NGSDCS members and zoos list their breeding stock with the International Species Inventory System so pedigrees can be traced, health issues recorded and breedings planned carefully.
Gary Wellborn and his wife, Tina, of Douglasville, Ga., are members of the NGSDCS and have bred their New Guinea Singing Dog Jingle twice. "(The NGSDCS chooses) a breeding pair carefully, spreading them as far apart genetically as possible … and the society chooses where the pups will go,” Wellborn says. The resulting puppies go to zoos, become animal ambassadors or are kept by private owners.
The NGSDCS arranged for a young male named Hagen, who was born at the Exmoor Zoo in England, to fly to the Wellborns to breed with Jingle in 2010. Hagen and Jingle have had two litters; the first in 2010 produced four males, and the second in 2012 produced two males and two females. The NGSDCS says only two to three documented litters of New Guinea Singing Dogs are born every year.
Nora is one of only five known black-and-tan NGSDs in captivity.
With a somewhat different mission than NGSDCS, the group New Guinea Singing Dog International promotes the rescue and ownership of NGSDs in home environments for those who have experience with primitive dog breeds.
"One of the main reasons the organization was formed was to rescue those Singers that were improperly placed or in a situation where they needed a new home,” says Wendt, who co-founded New Guinea Singing Dog International. To find a home for a rescued Singing Dog, Wendt first evaluates the dog to see if it’s capable of living in a home environment. Wendt says that if the dog is not fit to live in a home, he finds "either a municipal zoo or a sanctuary, or someplace where the dog will fit and live a decent life.”
NGSDI also maintains a studbook and promotes breeding NGSDs for genetic diversity. NGSDI tests the dogs’ DNA at the University of South Wales in Sydney, Australia, to help plan the best breedings. Wendt bred a litter of five last year and successfully placed all five pups in private homes.
Read more about Wild New Guinea Singing Dog conservation and future expeditions to New Guinea to find them, read "Learning More About Wild New Guinea Singing Dogs."
The author, Cassandra Radcliff, pets a New Guinea Singing Dog named Montana at the San Diego Zoo. Photo Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio.
The people-friendly New Guinea Singing Dog enchants everyone who meets one. However, if you think you might want to own a NGSD, think twice. To own a NGSD is in most cases to own a wild animal, not a typical pet. If you want to dedicate your life to helping a wild dog with an uncertain conservation status, reach out to one of the organizations dedicated to protecting the unique New Guinea Singing Dog. If you want a pet, it’s better to find a domestic breed that will want to fetch your paper every morning and play at the dog park with his other dog friends.
Cassandra Radcliff is an editor and writer based out of Orange County, Calif. She is the Associate Editor of Dogs in Review magazine. "Call of the Wild" originally appeared in the 2014 Dog World annual magazine.
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