Twenty years after beginning his quest to find what’s been called the world’s rarest canine species, James “Mac” McIntyre was vindicated. There on his camera screen were the images he’d been waiting years for. The New Guinea highland wild dog — an animal once feared extinct — was alive and well, his pictures showed.
“I squealed like a girl,” the 62-year-old said earlier this month, speaking from his Florida home. “It was emotionally such a tremendous moment. It was justification for all the work I’ve done.”
How McIntyre ended up finding the New Guinea highland wild dog, an animal whose existence had not been verified in almost 30 years, is a story as complex as McIntyre’s own. Trained as a zoologist, McIntyre has worked as a veterinary technician on a cattle ranch, zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo, high school biology teacher, logger and carpenter. But throughout his varied careers, scientific research and exploration have remained personal passions.
“On evenings and weekends, and summers too when I was a teacher, I’d conduct independent field research, on my own and on my own dime,” McIntyre said.
It was this spirit of enquiry that first led him to the South Pacific. But in the beginning, it wasn’t rare wild dogs that lured him there. It was pigs ― specifically intersexual ones.
‘Pig half-man half-woman’
Vanuatu, an archipelago west of Fiji, has the unique distinction of being home to what’s believed to be more intersexual pigs — animals with physical characteristics neither entirely male nor female — than any other nation in the world. McIntyre, who first heard of the pigs in a passing reference in a travel magazine, was so intrigued by the creatures that in 1993, he packed his bags, emptied his bank account to pay for a plane ticket and found himself halfway around the world searching the South Pacific island for swine known locally as “pig half-man half-woman.”
At the time, very little was known of the animals or even where they could be found. “I took a chance,” McIntyre said in a 1997 article about his search for the Vanuatu pigs. “People told me I was crazy, but I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try.”
It ended up taking McIntyre six weeks of island hopping and questioning strangers in the street before he found his first intersexual pig — a discovery that would spark years of research into the animal.
In 1996, McIntyre returned to Vanuatu, only this time, he had another trip planned after his pig research was complete. At the suggestion of his mentor, ecologist I. Lehr Brisbin Jr., he decided to take a detour to the island of New Guinea before returning home to the United States. Brisbin, a canine expert, had suggested McIntyre search for the near-legendary wild dog of New Guinea, an animal that like Vanuatu’s pigs had long been shrouded in mystery.
Almost all that was known of the dog was from its domesticated descendant ― the New Guinea singing dog ― which exists only in captivity.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, eight wild dogs had been captured in the New Guinea highlands and brought to Australia, North America and Europe, where they were bred as pets. Today, there are some 200 to 300 descendants worldwide of these “eight founder animals,” McIntyre said. Named for their unique and melodious howl, the singing dogs are domesticated animals who live mostly in private homes, though some are kept in zoos and other institutions.
New Guinea singing dogs have been described as the world’s “most primitive” domesticated dog. Their forebears are thought to be closely related to the dingo, a wild canine in Australia, and may have been brought to New Guinea by humans about 6,000 years ago.
Another theory is that the dogs traveled over a land bridge between the two countries, which was flooded around the same time in history. “When the waters rose, it separated the dogs into two populations. Some went to adapt and evolve in the mountains of New Guinea while the dingos evolved to live in Australia,” McIntyre said.
The wild dog is believed to have been the only canine living in the New Guinea highlands, which meant the animal did not interbreed with other species. They’ve been called “living fossils” as a result — possibly a key evolutionary link between modern domesticated dogs and their wild canine ancestors. “It’s like they were frozen in time,” McIntyre said.
He added that the “wildness” of the New Guinea singing dog is what sets it apart from other domesticated dogs. “They are as ‘undog-like’ as you could imagine,” he said. “They’re somewhere between a cat and a monkey in terms of their dexterity. They are comparable to a family dog as far as affection goes and can be trained, even to be service animals, but they still haven’t lost that wild streak. There are just some things that can’t be domesticated out of them — and that’s actually what a lot of people love about them.”
But with so many offspring from just eight original animals, the singing dogs that are in captivity today are “highly inbred,” McIntyre said. Among dog enthusiasts and singing dog owners, there’s thus been a desire to find ways to increase their genetic diversity while maintaining their purebred line. That’s prompted some interest in finding more of their wild counterparts in New Guinea — but for decades, the animal has remained elusive.
Twenty years, two photos
In 1989, Australian mammalogist and paleontologist Tim Flannery took a single photograph of a wild New Guinea singing dog in the Star Mountains of western Papua New Guinea. It’s believed to be the first photo ever taken of the animal in the wild ― and would represent the last time the animal was conclusively spotted for almost 30 years.
Expeditions in the 1990s searching for the dog came up mostly empty. At least one — the 1996 trip taken by McIntyre — suggested the animal did still roam the highlands. McIntyre said he found feces that may have been left by the animal and local villagers told him they’d seen glimpses of the dog, though rarely. McIntyre, however, wasn’t able to conclusively confirm the dog’s existence and didn’t catch sight of the animal himself.
Sixteen years later, in 2012, Tom Hewitt, director of Adventure Alternative Borneo, captured a single photograph of what appeared to be a wild dog in Indonesia’s Papua province, which encompasses the western half of New Guinea. It was a faraway shot and blurry, however, and ultimately also not considered solid evidence.
Every dog has its day
Finally, on a rainy day last September, while climbing a mountain in Papua province in New Guinea, MacIntyre found himself staring — with mounting glee — at an unmistakable paw print in the mud.
“In the end, I didn’t find the New Guinea highland wild dog,” McIntyre said. “They found me.”
Two decades after his first attempt to find the wild canine, McIntyre — who for years had unsuccessfully tried to raise funding to make a return visit — had finally made it back to the South Pacific island for a second search attempt.
When he arrived on the island, again traveling on his own dime, he unexpectedly met some researchers from the University of Papua who were also keen to search for the island’s enigmatic wild dog. Together, they traveled into the remote highlands in search of the creature.
But the conditions, said McIntyre, weren’t in their favor. It rained incessantly for weeks and “was miserable,” he said. “We went many, many, many days without seeing any signs of the dog.”
But near the end of his planned monthlong stay in Papua, McIntyre and his team caught a break.
While climbing one day in a terraced valley lined with “beautiful zebra rocks,” McIntyre played the sounds of coyote howls through a speaker in an attempt to attract the dogs. He and his team saw nothing on the ascent, but as they climbed down, McIntyre spotted something in the mud. Right next to the footprints they’d recently left were fresher prints: a dog’s prints.
“The animals had heard my audio calls and had come behind us to investigate,” McIntyre said. “This was the moment ― the first verification that there were dogs recently in these mountains.”
Over the next few days, McIntyre deployed 12 camera traps in five different spots in the area. “It was the eleventh hour,” he said. “It was getting toward the end of my trip. I figured, if there are dogs up here, this was the time for me to find them.”
Finally, on the day before he was scheduled to leave, McIntyre went out to collect the cameras. Two were duds, but the other 10 ― he’d hit the mother lode.
“They were full of pictures,” McIntyre said. “We got ‘em.”
In all, the cameras captured more than 140 photographs of at least 15 wild dogs, including males, pregnant females and puppies. The images not only confirm the existence of the wild dogs on New Guinea, said McIntyre, but they also suggest a healthy and robust population.
“The discovery and confirmation of the [highland wild dog] for the first time in over half a century is not only exciting but an incredible opportunity for science,” the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation said on its website, celebrating the finding. The organization was established by McIntyre and a team of other scientists last year to promote further research into the animal.
“There is nothing known about the natural history of these dogs in the wild,” McIntyre said. “Everything we know is from the captive population and while that’s good for comparison, you can’t project that to dogs in the wild.”
The photos offer some insights into the dogs’ behavior in the wild and their social hierarchies, he said. But more research needs to be done to fully understand these creatures. For one, DNA testing of fecal samples taken from the camera trap sites are still being analyzed to determine the possible genetic link between the wild dogs and the captive New Guinea singing dogs. In the meantime, McIntyre and his team have referred to the wild animals seen in the photographs as New Guinea highland wild dogs to differentiate them from the captive population.
“If these dogs are the same, we absolutely need to get the wild population genetics to the captive population,” McIntyre said.
He added that further study of the dogs and their history could reveal much about the evolution of the South Pacific region.
With confirmation of the dog’s existence, McIntyre said interest and funding for research into the animal has suddenly burgeoned. He’s planning a trip back to New Guinea soon in the hopes of collecting more data ― and seeing the dog himself with his own eyes.
“For a scientist to stumble upon something like this, it’s the kind of thing you dream about,” McIntyre said. “It’s very exciting.”
As for the intersexual pigs who started this whole journey, McIntyre said he still hasn’t given up on them.
He’s currently seeking backing from academic institutions to allow him to return to Vanuatu to continue his research. In the country’s northern islands, selective inbreeding has resulted in an unusually large incidence of pigs that are genetically male but that have external genitalia that are predominantly female ― a very rare condition known as male pseudohermaphroditism.
These animals, said McIntyre, could hold the secret to preventing boar taint, the unpleasant odor and taste of pork that comes from uncastrated male pigs. Most male pigs reared for pork are castrated at a young age because of boar taint. McIntyre said the genetics of Vanuatu’s hermaphrodite pigs that are male but don’t have boar taint due to a defect in their testosterone pathway could hold the answer for a new and improved vaccination for the phenomenon (current vaccinations for boar taint have been met with consumer and safety concerns).
“At the age of 62, I believe good things are starting to coming to me now,” he said earlier this month. “It seems the hard work and perseverance are going to pay off.”
Clarification: This article has been edited to clarify that a vaccination for boar taint is already commercially available. McIntyre said he believes the pigs of Vanuatu could hold the key to creating an improved vaccine.