The location of the Amazon Wild Dog is somewhere between classified and sacred.
For a century the elusive Peruvian Wild Dog Atelocynus microtis genus has avoided man and never been found near civilization. With only a handful in zoos around the world its natural habits are unknown.
Nearly every jungle expedition has three steps: A long boat ride on a large vessel, then a short canoe trip followed by a hike to the objective. And so we journeyed from Iquitos, Peru for one day on a triple deck ship toward the Brazil border, contracted a motorized canoe and two hours later alighted on a village bank for a half-day walk to the Doghouse, the place where Wild Dogs have been spotted.
On the foot sector we hitched a ride with three grass turf farmers on an ancient John Deere tractor and struck up a conversation about the Dog House. However, all they wanted to talk about was Bigfoot. How tall? ´I have seen the branches above its head broken at ten feet.´ How big? ´The footprints are two feet long and one foot wide.´ Have you seen the creature? One nods as the others´ faces drain, ´Yes, it is eight feet tall and has one eye, lives in a hole of the riverbank and eats fish, so it is friendly to people.´ Where? ´Ahead,´ and the three men pointed with frowns in the direction we were going. The tractor soon slowed and stopped. How far?
The location coincided exactly with the Wild Dog House.
The leader of this outing is Richard Fowler of early fame with the Florida Ross Allen Reptile Institute, Babcock Big Cat and Cattle Ranch, Army 101st Airborne, and the Audubon Society. Five years ago he captured and held one Wild Dog for a photograph that appeared in the Iquitos Times to which an American university and kennel club sent kits for blood and hair DNA analysis.
During a three hour walk from the tractor we see a troop of twenty Squirrel Monkeys, a 3´ green Iguana, many species of birds, butterflies, and a 7´ non-venomous tapered Racer snake in the trail. On arrival at a camouflaged base camp two natives are already constructing a bush camp of log furniture and tarps stretched over limbs for sleeping. The banana leaf covered fire pit shelters a jar of homemade napalm of Styrofoam used as a thickening agent and gasoline that melts into a gray paste of which a dab burns for five minutes to ignite wet wood. It’s not explosive in an un-lidded peanut butter jar. There is a long handled hatchet the natives are using for the first time in place of a traditional machete because the duller strum than a machete twang carries a shorter distance into forest that otherwise might drive the dogs away. A couple leaning trees in the sodden thin topsoil have been pushed over to protect the camp during rainstorms, near a 20´ wide brook that the natives warn me to look both ways before crossing for a 5´ electric eel that cruises the waterway for fish and nonetheless can electrocute a horse if touched.
I slip out of camp and in ten minutes a piercing scream cuts the air with a heavy tramp of footsteps. I wheel to the large figure of Fowler charging at me with a three-foot Samaria Machete that he designed for Cold Steel flashing above his head like a helicopter blade in the sunshine. He digs heels to a stop with the sword drawn at his ear and yells, ´I asked you to stay out of the Dog House. It´s dangerous. Snares everywhere and you smell like a human.´
´I didn’t know I had entered,` I reply with the calm of truth. Quickly he gathers a bouquet of wild flowers, presents them in a flourish with the sword sheathed, and exclaims, ´When one man gives another man flowers it means he´s… but when a naturalist gives them it means he´s sorry.´ I accept the wild bouquet.
A minute later, ´Bbutt…´ I stop in my tracks with mouth agape at a print somewhat bear-like but two feet long and nearly a foot wide. I can’t count the toes due to rainout but there is a large one splayed outside. The locomotion is a rocker toe-heel-toe and by the size and depth of the print in sand the creature could weight over 500 pounds.
´There´s no time to analyze,´ he exclaims, and we hurry to camp that all in all is a cave carved in chlorophyll. Hundreds of one inch black carpenter ants carpet my pack for the sweat, but Fowler pulls me away by the elbow to lift my foot. He grabs a pressurized spray labeled Coyote Urine Odor Mask and sprays one boot, then the other that we may properly investigate the Dog House.
Minutes later we enter a 100 meter sandbar along the slow moving stream that´s a perfect journal of animal tracks- boar, the Bigfoot, one puma, and a single set of fresh Wild Dog prints. A dozen animal trails lead from the jungle across the bar to the brook. Two weeks ago the trails were ´seasoned´- he set seven snares and a foxhole trap spiced with vaginal discharge from his pet Chihuahua in heat and chicken feathers to attract the dogs. Now he takes off his belt and makes another loop snare, and another out of an electric cord. The method while wearing gloves is to make a one-foot diameter circle of wire with a slipknot, tie it to a thin branch bent near the ground over an animal trail, and anchor it to a log deadweight. He dangles baby live chicks by twine as bait in the centers of the new traps, and theoretically when the dog’s head passes through it triggers the bent limb to snap the wire noose tight to a metal stopper so the animal is trapped but won´t strangle. Now a total of ten traps are seasoned, baited and ready, and we return to camp.
The days and nights pass in the rainforest marked by wet and dry story telling around the campfire, monitoring the trapline, fishing, hiking and reading. Much of the work is done at night. ‘There are three professions that keep all hours:´ says Fowler. ´The policeman, soldier and naturalist…’ to which I add, ´Hobo and speculator.’ He often rousts me during a ‘south moon under’ which is the period when the moon is directly below on the other side of the earth when the animals are most active. On the sixth night a yelp takes us racing to the Dog House where a wayward hunter stuck a foot in one the snares, and by the tracks danced a jig, ran twenty yards through the jungle dragging the 20lb log weight before figuring it out, and cut free and disappeared with the trap as a souvenir.
On the return to base camp he reflects into the fire, ´I´m waiting them out. These aren´t man´s best friends or pets that bite the postman. I don’t feel defeated, just honored to be up against an intelligent creature. Location, location, location- the real estate agents have it right!´ Convinced the Dog House will eventually yield, the next morning we leave the natives with the DNA kit and return to Iquitos. A week later word filters via the jungle grapevine that a Wild Dog was caught. A day, later the blood and hair kit arrives by boat, and is over-nighted to the western world to learn more about the gene makeup and therefore ancestry, migration and habits of the Peruvian Wild Dog.
And a legend grows of Bigfoot throughout Amazonia even as the analysis is underway. Last night I went to Fowler´s apartment to which he has provided the key. Against one corner lean a pair of custom made wood sandals two feet long and one foot wide. A strong hand grabs my shoulder, and spins me around. ´It´s not easy being a monster!´ he leers, ´Slipping and sliding on riverbanks, cutting branches overhead, to create a legend to protect my capture of the Wild Dogs!´