Help Dogs Save Cats

by Cheetah Conservation Fund
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Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
Help Dogs Save Cats
CCF Puppy
CCF Puppy

I have had so many amazing experiences in my six months as an intern on the ‘best section’ at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) (an inside joke among all the CCF departments). However, one of the best was assisting Gebhardt Nikanor, Livestock Guarding Dog Educational Officer, with a Livestock Guarding Dog puppy placement. I chose to work with the dogs during my internship here, which meant I helped with the day-to-day husbandry of all onsite livestock guarding dogs (LGDs), assisted with dog veterinary procedures, and helped manage and maintain the data records of each dog that has come through the program.

It also meant I had the opportunity to assist in the raising of five litters of puppies from birth all the way until they were old enough to be placed on farms across Namibia. These dogs, Anatolian and Kangal Shepherds, have been guarding livestock from predators for over 6,000 years in Turkey and CCF’s research shows can reduce livestock losses from 80-100%. This means that farmers across Namibia don’t have to kill predators such as cheetahs, as they don’t have to worry about predators preying on their herds.

We place our puppies at around 11 weeks of age. Each farmer has to submit an application and go through a pre-approval process, and once approved pays N$1500.00 (approximately US$100). Gebhardt delivers the puppies and teaches the farmers about basic care, and then undertakes check-ups throughout the dog’s life. He also administers vaccinations and dewormers at these check-ups. Gebhardt drives all over Namibia making sure all of our dogs on farms (currently 168 dogs) are properly taken cared for.

My boss, Calum, the Livestock Guarding Dogs and Small Stock Manager at CCF, asked if I wanted to join Gebhardt sometime to place one of the puppies, and of course I said yes. I talked to Gebhardt, and he agreed.

At 6:00am he picked me and the puppy up at CCF and we headed out. Gebhardt pre-planned that this puppy would go to a farm outside of the capital, Windhoek, so it was about a 5-hour drive one way. We stopped to get coffee and snacks in Otjiwarongo, and then we were off. We talked about all kinds of things and bonded over our shared love of coffee. I slept some as well. We passed Windhoek, and Gebhardt navigated the back farm roads as if he grew up there.

We arrived at the farm and met the owner at the gate. This puppy was going to guard cattle, one of the first few times we have placed our dogs with large stock. To keep the puppy safe while she is still little, we decided she would need to sleep in a smaller crate inside the kraal with the cattle, in order to bond with the cattle, have a safe place to go in and out of, and for the cattle to not see her as a threat.

The owner of the farm would not be taking care of her, instead his farmworker, who stayed at the cattle post, would be doing daily care. For the farmworker to bond with her, the owner told him to name the dog. Gebhardt showed him how to feed and care for her, and the owner signed our contracts. All of this was happening in English, Afrikaans, and Oshiwambo, Gebhardt being able to speak all three.

We left, planning to do another check-up in a little less than a month. On the way back we stopped in Windhoek for more coffee and some chocolates, and then made the long drive back to CCF. We got back around 18:30, just in time for dinner. It was an amazing day, not only getting to see so much of Namibia but getting to interact with local farmers and see how our dogs start their journey. These dogs do amazing work, and I am so grateful I got to spend time with them and see them in action.

 

Puppy Delivery Road Trip
Puppy Delivery Road Trip
Gebhardt Delivering Puppy
Gebhardt Delivering Puppy
Cattle Farm
Cattle Farm

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Calum and one of the new LGD
Calum and one of the new LGD

The Cheetah Conservation Fund's (CCF's) Livestock Guarding DOG (LGD) program continues to go from strength to strength due to the kind donations of many people. As one of CCF's main conservation programs, it acts as a pivotal program in the mission to help mitigate human-wildlife conflict on farms across Namibia and thus saving cheetahs. CCF has placed 680 puppies on farms within Namibia since the program started in 1994, with 135 dogs currently out on farms. These LGD's have worked so well that they managed to get an 80-100% reduction in livestock losses on the farms they have been placed.

2021 has been a very successful year for the program as due to kind donations, we were able to expand the program to 11 breeding females and three breeding males, and we built new housing. From these 11 breeding females, we managed to have six litters totaling an amount of 50 puppies, all of whom will be placed on farms here in Namibia. This will be very advantageous as we currently have a 4-year waiting list (around 140 applicants) of people wanting to use this method in an aim to protect their livestock from predators.

As we continue into 2022, we look to expand the program further to make the waiting list as short as possible and look further afield to help more countries facing human-wildlife conflict. 

Repet resting while watching the flock
Repet resting while watching the flock
Sheperd in the goat yard at CCF's Model Farm
Sheperd in the goat yard at CCF's Model Farm
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Repet herding goats
Repet herding goats

A primary way that the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) has helped protect endangered cheetahs in their natural habitat is by providing local communities, specifically farmers, with feasible, effective solutions for coexisting with this species. One of the greatest examples of this is CCF’s Livestock Guarding Dog (LGD) program. This program was developed in 1994 to help mitigate human-wildlife conflict and provide local farmers with a cost-effective, long-term solution to protect their livestock, which are a major part of their livelihoods, from predator attacks.

A total of 678 livestock guarding dogs have been placed with farmers across Namibia in the 26 years that this program has been running. In 2021 alone, there are currently 153 LGDs working on farms in Namibia.

The basis of this program is the dogs themselves, which is why the dog team here at CCF ensures that each dog has the greatest quality of life and welfare possible.

“The healthier the dog, the better they are at guarding their livestock and protecting wild cheetahs,” Calum O’Flaherty, Livestock Guarding Dog and Small Stock Manager, said.

This year, there are 18 Livestock Guarding Dogs on site at CCF. The staff raising and handling these dogs complete thorough health checks on each dog every day. The LGDs are Anatolian shepherds and Kangal dogs, with half of them acting as breeding dogs and the other half as working dogs. The daily health checks for the working dogs vary slightly to those for the breeding dogs because of the canines’ differing roles.

Working dogs are thoroughly checked before and after they go out with the herds here at CCF. Only one working dog will watch over the herds while they graze each day, but every LGD receives the same daily health check regardless of whether they are working or not. However, it is especially important to carefully check the working dogs because they are more likely to interact with dangerous plants and animals while out in the fields. Anything from sharp warthog tusks and acacia tree thorns to spitting zebra cobras and biting baboons can pose a threat to the Livestock Guarding Dogs. 

The first component of the daily health checks is a simple behavior check. CCF’s dog team has worked with these animals extensively and thus can notice subtle changes in their behavior. Many animals, including dogs and cheetahs, often try to mask illnesses and injuries, so even a slight change in behavior, such as shifts in energy level, mobility or vocalizations, can be the first sign that something is wrong. The keepers also closely monitor the feeding behavior of each livestock guarding dog—recording how much each dog eats so that there is a long-term log of their food intake. The working and breeding dogs are fed each morning before the herds go out to graze, and the dog team checks during feeding to see if any of the animals are not eating normally, which can also be a sign that there is some underlying health issue. Anatolians tend to have very slow metabolisms, and they can gain weight rapidly. So, recording their daily diets is very important to help monitor whether they are gaining or losing weight too quickly. The keepers also pick up the dogs’ poop each day and examine it to see whether there are signs of health problems, such as parasites or diarrhea. The dog team can even tell what each individual dog’s poop typically looks like, helping them to easily identify if something seems abnormal.

For the final health check, the dogs’ bodies are then examined, starting from the pads of their feet and working up to their head, to confirm that there are no injuries, wounds or lumps. It is important to check each part of the body for different reasons. For example, keepers will carefully scan their teeth because there are many carcasses and bones left by predators and scavengers at CCF, and the dogs can often chip their teeth on those. It is also very important to check their eyes, particularly after returning from the field, because numerous dogs have been spat at in the eyes by zebra cobras, which can cause blindness if not treated immediately. The dogs are closely examined for ticks, and the dog team observes how each animal is moving and walking, as well. Anatolians are particularly susceptible to lameness and arthritis, so monitoring their mobility is vital.

Along with this daily health check routine that is completed for all dogs, the breeding dogs also undergo yearly blood work. With blood work, the dog team can examine the biochemistry and hematology of the breeding males and females to see if internally they are as healthy as they seem on the exterior. For example, the blood work can show if there are high levels of white blood cells, indicating some sort of infection in the body. All breeding dogs will also have hip x-rays done before breeding to ensure that they do not show signs of hip dysplasia. If they do, they cannot be bred because that can be passed down genetically to the offspring and can cause serious complications for a pregnant female. Breeding males will also undergo a yearly sperm analysis to evaluate whether their sperm is viable and moving normally. All dogs, both working and breeding, also receive yearly health exams, where vitals like heart rate and temperature are measured and vaccines and dewormers are administered, as well as yearly dental work.

Examining everything from the dogs’ poop, sperm and diets to overall body condition can help our keepers detect non-clinical signs that something is wrong early on, before the issue escalates. When the working livestock guarding dogs are placed at a farm at 11 weeks old, they are then taken care of by the farmers. But, CCF’s keepers continue to monitor them by completing three-month, six-month and yearly health and welfare checks during the first year to evaluate whether the farmers are able to properly care for the dogs. During these checks, the dog team will conduct the typical health check that is done on all CCF dogs and administer dewormer and vaccines. After one year, the dog team will continue to conduct yearly checks to confirm that the dogs’ health is maintained. CCF staff also trains the farmers and provides them with educational guides so that they can complete these health checks on their own. The dog team hopes to instill in farmers that they can receive the greatest benefit from these dogs by making sure they stay healthy and ready to work. During the monthly and yearly checks, if there are any signs that a livestock guarding dog is mistreated or malnourished, the dog will be confiscated from the farmer and returned to CCF for treatment.

Through providing healthy, happy livestock guarding dogs, CCF is helping to bridge the gap between conservationists and local people and illustrate to farmers that coexisting with wild cheetahs is not only vital for the well-being of all species in their community but also economically feasible. Many of the health and welfare checks completed by the dog team can easily be applied to domestic dogs and pets. Not only is this team ensuring the best quality of life for the dogs, but they are also setting an example for how to monitor captive and domestic species on a daily basis.

 

 

Livestock Guard Dog getting eyes checked
Livestock Guard Dog getting eyes checked
Eveline Iikondja, LGD Assistant checks dog's teeth
Eveline Iikondja, LGD Assistant checks dog's teeth
Eveline Iikondja, LGD Assistant conducting checkup
Eveline Iikondja, LGD Assistant conducting checkup

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Enya sniffing the scat samples
Enya sniffing the scat samples

The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) is home to many notable species, ranging from the resident cheetahs and livestock guarding dogs to the wild giraffes, leopards and lilac breasted rollers. Another unique animal found here is Enyakwa (Enya), CCF’s main scat detection dog. CCF’s trained scat detection dogs help identify cheetah scat in the field, which is then brought back to CCF’s genetics lab to determine the genetic profile of the cheetah that left the sample. Scat collection also allows us to identify the sex, diet and origin of individual cheetahs in the wild in a non-invasive, hands-off manner—making it a vital research tool at CCF.

Enya’s work also plays a major role in addressing human-wildlife conflicts. Not only does the data from CCF’s scat collections illustrate that cheetahs typically do not prey on livestock, but Enya and Scat Dog Handler and Trainer Tim Hofmann also meet many farmers during their work. Enya acts as an ambassador for cheetah conservation, opening the door for a positive discussion about coexisting with wildlife.

The Scent Line-up Exercise

In order for Enya to successfully identify cheetah scat in the wild, Tim completes regular training exercises with her to maintain and improve her skills. The first exercise introduced for the scat detection training is called a scent line-up. During this exercise, the dog is trained to correctly select the box containing scat from its target species out of an array of scat samples. Enya is taught to select for cheetah as her target species during the line-up training.

To begin this exercise, Enya is presented with four boxes that are lined up in a row. A single scat sample in a glass jar, from either a target or non-target species, is placed under each box by an outside party, such as interns or fellow staff, so that neither the dog nor handler knows which specific sample is under each. There is a hole at the top of the boxes for Enya to sniff each scat sample without touching or seeing it. A cheetah scat sample is placed under one of the boxes, and then scat samples from non-target species, such as giraffes, baboons or domestic dogs, are placed under the others. Each time this exercise is performed, an empty glass jar is put under one of the four boxes, as well. This is done because every scat sample used in training is stored in some sort of medium, such as glass or metal, which inherently will have a scent of its own. In contrast, scat samples found in the wild will be out in the open with no storage medium. Even though the empty glass should have little to no scent, it is added to the line-up to ensure that Enya knows she is only rewarded when she identifies the target species’ scat in glass or standing alone, rather than just the scent of the storage medium that is used for all samples.

Enya will stand in front of the line of boxes, and once Tim gives the command to search, she begins examining all of the samples. She will sniff all of the scats to determine which is the target species and then sits in front of the correct box like she would if she found cheetah scat in the wild. When Enya chooses correctly, she is then rewarded with a toy. The reward reinforces to Enya which scat she needs to find in the wild. Enya will be asked to search for and identify the correct box five times to complete the scent line-up exercise. The scat samples are switched around after each search, and during one of the five rounds, only non-target species’ samples will be placed under the boxes—without any cheetah scat. That is called a “blank run” and teaches Enya that she is rewarded for being correct, not for finding a scat sample each time. It also teaches her that there may be searches where she does not find any cheetah scat. The line-up training is repeated frequently to ensure that CCF’s scat dogs are as accurate as possible when searching for wild cheetah scat.

With continuous training and practice, including exercises like the scent line-up, Enya’s ability to identify cheetah scat allows CCF to gain in-depth knowledge about the status and biology of cheetahs in the wild while ensuring as little human-cheetah interaction as possible.

Scent line-up exercise with handler, Tim Hofmann
Scent line-up exercise with handler, Tim Hofmann
Enya sits beside box containing cheetah scat
Enya sits beside box containing cheetah scat
Enya being rewarded with tug of war play
Enya being rewarded with tug of war play

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Bottles of Glitter
Bottles of Glitter

To some, looking after 40 captive cheetahs might sound like a dream job. Feeding them, exercising them, just being around them all day sounds like an amazing job – and it is! However, some people forget the other half of animal care – cleaning! And a big part of cleaning involves picking up scat, or poop, every single day. And with 40 cheetahs currently at our center here in Namibia, that means a lot of scat! However, this is one of the most important parts of the daily care of the animals.

Like most wild animals, cheetahs are very good at hiding pain, or sickness. By being able to pick up very subtle signs early on, we are able to catch health problems early, and treat them before having to bring an animal into the veterinary clinic. Small changes in behaviour, appetite, but also in things like the consistency or smell of their poop can tell us a lot about their health. It is important that we not only pick up the poop every day for hygiene and cleanliness, but also as a way to do a health check on all of our animals.

We analyze captive cheetah scat for a couple different purposes here at CCF. On the husbandry side, we collect a scat sample from every individual once every three months for parasitology – to check for any internal parasites like worms that might be living in the cheetahs. We also collect a sample from our male cheetahs once a month for hormone analysis. It is illegal to breed any large carnivore in captivity here in Namibia, so if we have mixed groups of males and females, our males are either castrated, or they are on a Deslorelin contraceptive implant, a form of birth control for cheetahs. It can be used on the female cheetahs, however, there can be drawbacks to this including diseases such as cancers becoming prevalent in females that had the implant. Because it was a new method to use it in male cheetahs, CCF has been collecting data since 2012 on the long term effects on hormone levels. 

In order to collect these samples every month, we need to know which scat sample collected belongs to which cheetah. While some of our cats have very specific spots they will always poop, we cannot always guarantee which sample belongs to whom. To identify the individual scat sample in the enclosure we use glitter! Yes, arts and crafts glitter! It is non-toxic, and does not get digested. We put in on their piece of meat, and it comes out the other end in their poop! You could also use other non-digestible material such as rice, lentils, or beans, as long as it is not poisonous to cheetahs. But picking up “sparkle poop” once a month sounds like a lot more fun, and the interns always have a fun time hunting for specific colors in the enclosures.

It is possible we could collect this data in a different way, for example through blood draws once a month. The biggest thing about collecting scat, is that while it may be smelly, it is non-invasive. At CCF, the Cheetah husbandry and care team do a lot of training with our captive cheetahs in order to make procedures like blood draws as calm and comfortable as we can, but some cheetahs still do not like it, no matter how much training we do. By collecting scat, we do not need to anesthetize the animal and we do not need to restrain the animal in any way. They can go about their normal day, and do their daily business, and we still will get the same results.

We don’t just collect scat from our captive cheetahs at CCF. Thanks to the work of our scat detection dogs and their handler Tim Hofmann who visit farms and find scat from wild free roaming populations on farms, we consistently have new samples from wild cheetahs to analyze and study, allowing us to gain valuable insight to the wild cheetah population here in Namibia. We can look at the health of the animal through parasitology, but we can also extract DNA from that scat in our genetics lab and see exactly who that individual is. Multiple samples from multiple individuals allows us to put together a picture of the wild population not only on our farm, but also all across Namibia. We can also figure out what the animal has been eating through hair analysis. Hair from prey is not digested and will also be found in the scat sample. By looking at the hair closely under a microscope, we are able to identify what species was eaten. This helps us in human wildlife conflict cases, as we are able to determine whether a cheetah on a farm truly is a “problem” animal that has been eating goats or sheep, or if they are hunting their normal prey by doing hair analysis on a fresh scat sample.

There is a reason we call cheetah scat “black gold” here at CCF. One tiny piece of scat from a captive or wild cheetah can tell us almost anything we want to know and allow our conservation efforts to move forward to save this amazing species.

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Cheetah Conservation Fund

Location: Alexandria, VA - USA
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Twitter: @Cheetah Conservation
Project Leader:
Shannon Sharp
Operations Director
Alexandria, VA United States
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