The word “dog” connotes familiarity. The domestic creature that we know so well is Canis lupus familiaris. We know it as well as family.
But the truth of the matter there is a whole world of dogs we don’t know at all. When we look beyond the domestic into wild, there is a world that so utterly alien to us that we rely upon scientists and nature documentaries to tell us about it.
And the scientists know wild dogs. That is not to say that they know everything about them, but if we look at what science knows about wolves, red foxes, and coyotes, then we see that many of the questions have already been answered.
Red foxes are known because of their ubiquity. North America and Eurasia are full of them, and they’ve been introduced to Australia, where they are a pretty nasty invasive species. Wolves are known because they have become avatars for the conservation movement. It was this species that came to symbolize the wild in both North America and Europe, and its restoration is seen as a sort of redemption for all the other massacres and mismanagement that have so stained our relationship with the wild creatures. And so long as coyotes live in the canyons, brush-thickets, and suburban lawns of most of North America, they will be studied as much as they are both reviled and revered in their new kingdom.
Wild dogs have their die-hard enthusiasts. Researchers follow the African wild dog throughout the lion ranges, trying to find out more about them, and other researchers go to Chiloe to find out the deepest secrets of the Darwin’s fox.
But the truth of the matter is there one wild dog that we will never get to know. It is one that haunts the jungles and never reveals to us what it truly is.
Atelocynus microtis is how the scientists know it. English-speakers call it a “short-eared dog, and it is truly a bizarre creature. Weighing roughly 20 pounds, it slinks through the rainforests of the Amazonian interior on webbed cat feet. It has a long, pointed muzzle, almost like a coyote’s, but its resemblance to the North American little wolf is instantly shatter when one looks at its ears. They are are short and rounded where the coyote’s are often freakishly large and sharply pointed.
Unlike the coyote, which can live in the urban world quite well, the short-eared dog lives by totally shunning mankind. If humans can easily live in an area, you won’t find a short-eared dog.
Many theories about its rarity near human settlements exist, but the most intriguing is that it really is deeply impacted by the presence of domestic dogs. Domestic dogs, which derive from Eurasian wolves, carry a whole host of diseases to which the short-eared dog has no immunity. Perhaps canine disease swept through the short-eared dog population, leaving behind only those individuals with a genetic tendency to avoid people.
They wander the jungles–lowland forest, Amazonian forest, and even cloud forest–but reveal their secrets to us only in glints and glares, in quick camera trap captures and occasion run-ins along forest trails.
They materialize as mysteriously as coyotes do in the white-tail woods, yet they reveal almost nothing as they pass. They appear and are gone like phantoms in the mist.
A few years ago, one was kept captive. He was found as an abandoned puppy in the Peruvian Amazon. A veterinarian named Renata Leite Pitman kept him, and her time of this creatures, which she named “Oso,” came to be the most intensive relationships anyone has ever had with a short-eared dog. She took Oso on long walks in the forest, and Oso revealed his secrets to her.
She used him to connect with the wild ones. The approached him while he was on leash, seeming to ignore that he was attached to a human. A female offer to mate with him. A male stalked him from a distance.
She came to know that Oso had an innate fear of jaguars. If she showed him jaguar scat or played jaguar sounds, he would run in terror. He was so young when captured that there is no way he could have learned this from his mother.
From Oso, we learned that the short-eared dog is a major seed disperser, but they still prefer meat to all other foods.
We also learned that male short-eared dogs aren’t sexually mature until they are three years old. Their testicles simply don’t descend until then. For a dog of that size, that is remarkably long time before sexual maturity.
Leite Pitman studied others of Oso’s kind. She set up camera traps and put radio collars them.
But we still know next to nothing about them.
Their exact range is still hotly debated. They have been spotted as far north as Panama’s Darien Province, and it is suggested that the mysterious mitla the Percy Fawcett encountered in Bolivia was likely a short-eared dog or something very much like one.
Compared with what L. David Mech and Doug Smith know about wolves or what Stanley Gehrt and Simon Gadbois know about coyotes or David MacDdnald knows about red foxes, Renata Leite Pitman has only scratch the tiniest layer of the surface when it comes the short-eared dog.
This will be the enigma dog, the one we simply cannot know. The jungle will hide it well, and it will live without us knowing.
There is nearly a pop culture following for the thylacine, that extinct marsupial carnivore from Tasmania that looked like a wild dog with a pouch. It’s probably extinct, but it is still an enigma. It was an enigma when it was alive, and it is an even more so now that it is gone. We want it to be alive so we can have it reveal its secrets, but these secrets have passed with the last of the striped false canine.
But the short-eared dog is still here. Its mysteries are still looming long in the mist. Maybe we can find out. Maybe we can know.
But this creature seeks to avoid our kind, enemies who bring not just violence of predations as the jaguar does but also the pestilences that waft from the lop-eared village wolves through the jungle air.
Atelocynus mictrotis is canis enigmaticus. The enigma protects it, shrouds it, veils it in mystery.
And without us, it moves long the jungle paths, sniffing the air for jaguars and rotting fruit. Free but harried. Unmastered but unknown.
This is the dog we will not know as it wanders the Lost World away from us into the densest thicket.