OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Sitting in an Oklahoma City Zoo auditorium last year, Trisha McDonald got the spark that would send her on the adventure of her life.
McDonald listened as Greg Rasmussen, who’s considered the world’s leading expert on African painted dogs, spoke passionately to zoo patrons about the plight of one of the world’s most misunderstood animals, never envisioning she and a colleague soon would be working with him in Zimbabwe for two weeks.
But that’s life working at the zoo, where the pay might not make you rich, but the experiences will.
The zoo paid for the trip by McDonald, a zookeeper, and Erica Buckwalter, who runs some of the zoo’s youth education programs, with money collected from its “Round up for Conservation” program, which allows visitors to round up to the next dollar on zoo purchases. Since 2011, the program has raised about $355,000. Some of that money has found its way to the Painted Dog Research Center. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is another program recipient.
In return, staff members are sometimes invited to see the work firsthand.
“It’s great for professional development and to gain experience you can’t get at the zoo, and then come back and share it with guests,” said Rebecca Snyder, the Oklahoma City Zoo’s curator of conservation and science.
Any full-time employee is eligible to make the trips.
“It’s not very common at most zoos,” Snyder said. “Staff does go out into the field, but often it’s researchers or veterinarians. There aren’t a lot of conservation projects willing to take on people for any length of time because it’s a lot of work for them.”
For McDonald and Buckwalter, the trip would include everything from a bloodless coup to an unscheduled encounter with Africa’s largest animal.
“After a long flight, we finally made it to Zimbabwe. Getting through customs was a little hairy but Dr. Rasmussen met us at the airport and helped us. On the drive to Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT) we saw donkeys and cows grazing along the highway and road signs warning drivers to slow down for wildlife. One sign had an African painted dog picture on it! By the time we got to PDRT it was late afternoon. We unpacked our bags and got connected to their Wi-Fi so we could let our family know we arrived safely. We spent the rest of the day chatting and watching the sunset,” said Trisha McDonald.
Getting to Zimbabwe isn’t a simple hop across an ocean. Buckwalter and McDonald flew from Oklahoma City to Dallas to Washington D.C., where they had a long layover. A 14-hour flight got them to Ethiopia, followed by five more hours in the air to Victoria Falls in northwestern Zimbabwe.
Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for nearly 40 years, first as prime minister and then as president. It was during their layover in Washington that the two zoo workers learned he’d just been toppled in a coup. They contacted the U.S. State Department and emailed Rasmussen asking if they should continue. He reassured them it was safe.
“In the U.S. when we hear coup, or military takeover, we’re like ‘Oh gosh this is terrible. Bad things are going down and you don’t want to be there,'” Buckwalter said. “But when we got there it was ‘Welcome to the new Zimbabwe!’ People were putting out their new flags. It was a party atmosphere.”
A first timer to Africa, McDonald had played out how it would look in her mind countless times. Gnarled Baobab trees and vast swaths of grassland ruled by prides of lions and elephant herds filled her daydreams.
But as they piled into Rasmussen’s truck and headed toward the trust’s compound less than 30 minutes from the airport, a much different Africa unfolded before her eyes.
“The landscape wasn’t exactly what I was expecting,” she said. “Zimbabwe has a lot of small trees and areas that are covered with bush. But as you’re looking out the window and there’s a troop of baboons just off the road, that’s sort of the first indication that you get that you’re not in Oklahoma anymore.”
“I was wide-eyed trying to take everything in, from the local street signs to just about everything else,” she said.
For Buckwalter, who participated in a study-abroad program in Kenya during college, any trip to Africa is cause for celebration.
“My heart just sings,” she said. “It makes me happy to say I’m stepping in Zimbabwe. But hey, I was in Ethiopia earlier. But the whole of Africa is my home. You feel like you’re constantly in awe.”
“Greg gave us a tour of the compound and it’s remarkable, but the vision that Greg has for it is truly astonishing. He’s thought of every aspect of camp life and made sure that’s based in conservation,” said Erica Buckwalter
Rasmussen is considered among the world’s foremost authorities on painted dogs. Born in London, the Oxford-educated 62-year-old has spent most of his life in Africa. He survived a 2003 light plane crash that left him 3 inches shorter. Painted dogs and their plight in the wild has long been his passion. Named for the colorful coats, painted dogs look a bit like a small hyena. They live and hunt in packs and are critically endangered. Rasmussen estimates there are only about 3,000 left in the wild.
Considered nuisance animals by farmers and ranchers, they are often poisoned, trapped or shot in the same way coyotes are in the United States. The trappings of civilization, like paved and dirt roads intersecting the countryside, are the scenes of other deaths.
Rasmussen started the Painted Dog Conservation Project in 2002, The Oklahoman reported.
The project’s compound is comfortable, yet Spartan, its footprint minimal, with bricks, gravel and other materials locally sourced and, in many cases, recycled. Its lab is powered by solar panels. Rain provides much of the compound’s water.
“People think you’re going to be in a mud hut, but it was a cemented circular house with a thatch roof,” Buckwalter said. “It wasn’t like we were in tents. It wasn’t a hotel. There was no air conditioning, but we had running water.”
By the end of their first full day, McDonald still had goosebumps.
The camp is a work in progress, and even though part of their mission was to help Rasmussen track painted dogs, improving the new compound was also part of it. They helped finish a tool shed, painted another building and cleaned out a lot of buckets.
“Greg would make sure we saved the lids because they have to reuse everything,” McDonald said.
Buckwalter found the work satisfying.
“Camp life is one of my favorite parts,” she said. “When we weren’t in the field we were making camp life better for graduate students who live there. It wasn’t just dogs all the time.”
“Still no dogs today but we are meeting a man in the AM at the Botswana border so fingers crossed for info on Painted Dogs. There were dogs on the Botswana border and he kept hoping they would cross over into Zimbabwe to hunt impala,” said Trisha McDonald. “He saw a dog defecate on the Botswana side and he couldn’t resist collecting it. ‘That’s science! It’s like gold!'”
Looking for painted dogs can be an exercise in frustration. They are skittish around people and often move about only in the early morning or twilight hours. Bush, trees and tall grass can make them hard to spot even if you do find yourself near one.
Much of what Rasmussen does is track their movements by looking for tracks on roadways, word of mouth and scat. It’s often luck of the draw affair.
Buckwalter and McDonald traveled with Rasmussen in an old, modified Land Rover-like vehicle, with two seats up front, a row just behind and the rest of the vehicle used to store camping equipment, satellite collars and other supplies. Rasmussen made notes on an iPad, carefully cataloging each road, and where it led.
“You have to make sure everything is in the field truck before you go out,” Buckwalter said.
The truck carried solar panels, which helped supplement batteries brought along. Rasmussen also carried a dart gun which enabled him to tranquilize and place tracking collars on painted dogs.
“We spent two days learning the truck,” McDonald said. “You have to have this stuff ready if you need to put a collar on one, or if you find traces of them. You never know what you’re going to find. You don’t know what will happen.”
Searches originated from the compound. Pre-dawn wake-up calls proceeded several hours of searching in the morning. Afternoons were devoted to camp life, and then they would go out again for several hours at dusk. Once, they stayed out overnight, ranging far from the compound.
Despite their best efforts, neither woman ever saw a single painted dog. Even so, as they recounted their journey, there was little regret in their voices.
“You can never guarantee you’ll see an animal in the wild,” McDonald said. “I knew we could see nothing, or we could see everything.”
“You’re always hopeful,” Buckwalter added, “but in my experience doing research they’re never where you think they will be. If you don’t see them, it’s just part of the process.”
But that doesn’t mean they left Africa without a most-memorable animal encounter.
“Best day EVER! Today we met Dojiwe and put on her satellite collar,” Erica Buckwalter.
On their second-to-last last day, they helped Rasmussen and the owners of a nearby game reserve fit a satellite collar on Dojiwe, a 16-year-old elephant.
Dojiwe has her own Facebook page, and quite a backstory. She was orphaned by poachers and has become habituated to humans. Her handler walks with her each day as she ranges out into the bush and grasslands. Dojiwe recently has been roaming farther away and attempting to integrate into other herds.
Some poachers in Africa use cyanide to poison watering holes, killing up to a dozen elephants at a time in some cases. Dojiwe recently stayed away for eight days, making those who watch out for her concerned she had become a victim. The collar for Dojiwe used one of Rasmussen’s satellite tracking units. A fire hose cut to the size of an elephant’s neck served as a makeshift collar.
“As we were walking up to her she came through the trees and I got teary-eyed,” Buckwalter said. “It was such an impactful experience.”
While there, they met the head of an anti-poaching unit who told Rasmussen he had recently confiscated a kilo of pure cyanide, enough to kill 2,000 elephants.
“Our last day. We have become a mini-family here. Many tears were shed as we said bye to M.K. and Mary at camp and Dr. R at the airport. This has been such an awesome experience. I hope I get to come back,” said Trisha McDonald.
Africa can have an almost mystical quality to it. Snyder wonders if it’s something in all of us. She cited a study that showed various landscapes to people from different cultures. Those in the study responded more positively to the African savannah than any other.
“The reason for that is because people evolved from Africa,” she said. “That’s how I feel when I’m in Africa, it just speaks to me. That’s the only way to explain it.”
With their experience behind them, McDonald and Buckwalter said their goodbyes and piled into Rasmussen’s truck headed for the airport. A 30-hour journey awaited them. There were tears, hugs and hope of a return trip someday.
“For me, when I come back from trips like that, I’ll find myself thinking, ‘Did I really do that? Was it a dream?'” Buckwalter said. “But then you realize it wasn’t and you have the reality.”
McDonald is at a loss for words to describe the feeling.
“I don’t know how you could ever forget your first time in Africa,” she said.