Orphaned African dogs saved by shelter stray

When a litter of endangered African painted dogs born at the Pittsburgh Zoo lost their mother shortly after birth the staff turned to a city shelter for help.

Honey, a Labrador-mix dog, had given birth to her own pups six weeks ago. Last week she took on a new role, acting as a surrogate mother for nine wild dogs.

It's the first time a domestic surrogate has been used to mother and feed newborn wild painted dogs. The pups' natural mother, 10-year-old Vega, died of a ruptured uterus last Wednesday at the zoo.

The zoo found Honey, who was the right size and coloration, at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. Her own pups were in the process of being weaned but she was still able to nurse.

"She's just been perfect, an absolutely fabulous mom," Zoo president Dr. Barbara Baker told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "All of the pups are gaining weight."

They were born weighing a little more than 12 ounces and now weigh 19 ounces.

The mortality rate for painted pups is 50 percent, even when born in the wild to a healthy mother. Zoo officials hope to wean the pups in about two weeks.

The African painted dog, Lycaon pictus, named for its tri-colored coat, also is commonly called the painted hunting dog. It has become endangered because of human population growth, habitat loss and hunting.

There were once roughly 500,000 African painted dogs in 39 countries. Now there are only about 3,000 to 5,000 in fewer than 25 countries.