Remembering the Bush Dogs

Bush dogs run through the forest in a rare image taken by a camera trap in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica. Photo: Jose F. Gonzalez-Maya and Jan Schipper from Nat Geo.

They burst out of the understory and crossed the forest trail right in front of my dog, Melba, and me–about only eight feet away. Two identical bush dogs moving as if one animal–small yet powerful, self-contained, undeterred in purpose in the way of charismatic wild creatures–then sped east through the secondary forest of Finca Cantaros, and presumably toward further forest patches or even onto the adjacent pastureland of the neighbors to the north east. No doubt we surprised them, but unlike domestic dogs, they showed not the slightest interest in me nor, strangely it seemed at the time, Melba, who uncharacteristically, didn’t even bark. The whole incident was over in seconds, too fast for me to even grab my camera. I was on my daily walk around 6 am in November 2015 and was left shaking my head in disbelief at such an amazing encounter. From the little I knew about bush dogs, I assumed that they had somehow made their way here through riparian corridors and small forest islands between the Talamanca Mountains–the Amistad International Park that straddles the highlands of southern Costa Rica and northern Panama–and our county’s mostly pasture and coffee plantation area, about 21 km away as the toucan flies.

What reminded me of these bush dogs was recently seeing a Weird & Wild post of November 30, 2017 on the National Geographic website which reported the first verified sighting of bush dogs in Costa Rica last year. They were seen at high elevation in the Talamanca Mountains just to the north of Panama where they are occasionally spotted.

Bush dog. Photo: Tom Brakefield.

About the size of a large house cat, or fox, the bush dog (Speothos venaticus) is known to live in forests from southern Brazil to Panama. Unlike other canines, bush dogs are shy, avoiding humans and spending much of the day in their burrows and hunting by night. The species is very social, almost always appearing in pairs, just like the ones I saw in Cantaros.

Since my sighting wasn’t “verified” by any witnesses or photographs, I have come to believe that wildlife encounters with reclusive animals like the bush dog may not be quite as rare as officially thought. I recall that a bush dog was reported seen in the forest of the Las Cruces Biological Station around 1996 by a professional photographer who, like me, was unable to get a photo because the sighting was too brief.

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