By Heather Bryan, PhD Candidate and Rainforest Wolf Project
From the white sands of Koeye River
Twilight at Koeye River flushes white sand dunes pink, softens the sound of howling wind in Fischer channel, and dampens the roar of the wave standing at river’s mouth. In these short moments of calm, a big bear tenderly nibbles sedge shoots. Though intent on his evening meal, his grizzly eyes watch us vigilantly at our view point behind a beached log. His nose twitches from time to time as he smells the unsavoury odours of our unwashed field clothes, but he continues his quiet munching.
Suddenly, the dog sentinel of Koeye, Bear, lopes gallantly along the beach, shattering the evening’s peace. Bear the dog barks loudly and charges the tranquil diner, who responds to the familiar commands by retreating into the forest. Having successfully done his job, Bear runs back towards us, tail high, tongue lagging, and black lips curled into a proud canine grin. The brave guardian then submits to a few scratches behind the ears in praise before rushing off again in the line of duty.
The interaction we have just witnessed between Bear and the bear exemplifies how diseases can be transmitted between wild and domestic animals, a phenomenon that is at the crux of our research questions. Fecal samples left behind by wolves can reveal parasites that exploit the gastrointestinal tract of these animals. Many diseases can affect and be transmitted between wild and domestic animals and some have the potential to also affect humans. We predict that wolves closer to human settlements and domestic dogs will harbour different parasites than those in more remote areas.
Over the past month, our team of veterinarians and assistants has visited the coastal communities of Bella Bella, Shearwater, Ocean Falls, Klemtu, and Rivers Inlet. Thanks to help from Heiltsuk colleagues, the RCMP, the animal welfare group Big Heart, and volunteers from the communities, we reached our goals of vaccinating and collecting blood and stool samples from local dogs. Vaccinations will help prevent common canine diseases that cause suffering and death in dog populations, while samples will provide us with useful information about diseases to which coastal dogs have been recently exposed.
Bear is one of the last dogs on our list to examine and sample. His lifestyle of interacting with wildlife means that he is likely a good sentinel of disease in wildlife. As we hold him down for vaccination, Bear struggles at the indignity, but doesn’t even flinch at the small pokes into his lean body. Once released, he shakes and runs away, glaring at us for the intrusion. Despite the trespass, we hope that he, in addition to the other 95 dogs we have vaccinated, and their wild relatives, will be healthier. We look forward to returning next year to revisit the five communities and to monitor changes in the health status of dogs and wolves.