By Kelly Wilkinson
The Indianapolis Star
Indianapolis (AP) – Every now and then you can hear melodic howling in Beech Grove. It comes from the world’s rarest dogs, and sometimes from their owners.
Wizard of Paws Wildlife Education is a small nonprofit wildlife sanctuary that’s home to three New Guinea singing dogs, as well as other animals that cannot be released into the wild.
The sanctuary is small now, but Jasmin and Tyler Wieczorek, a married couple who run the shelter, have visions of growth. Jasmin is developing a plan to help save the dwindling dog species by using specific breeding practices designed to diminish inbreeding.
Presently, the shelter houses three New Guinea singing dogs, six captive-bred domestic foxes and a pole cat. The couple also has domestic pets. They specialize in dog and cat varieties.
Some of the animals that the Wieczoreks take in come from fur farms, breeder rescues, and abuse and neglect situations. Others come from people who purchase exotic pets and become overwhelmed when animals like foxes don’t act like domestic dogs or cats.
The sanctuary will also save foxes from states where new laws make it illegal to own them. Surrendering the animals to a shelter like Wizard of Paws prevents euthanization of the animals.
The most unique characteristic of the New Guinea singing dog is their singing, which sounds like a melodious howl. Sometimes the Wieczoreks howl themselves to induce their dogs to show off.
No one knows why the dogs sing, but Jasmin thinks it could be a form of communication when the social dogs are separated from each other.
The dogs round their mouths and sing upward. They can even match pitches.
The dogs are a favorite of opera singers because they can go up and down in their pitch and octave, Jasmin said. She laughed as she noted that her dogs will match fire trucks driving by and tornado sirens being tested near their home.
“When you got three of them trying to go at the same time, it can get pretty loud, even on the outside of the house,” she said.
The dogs are also double-jointed with rotating wrists. Their bodies are extremely flexible: They can put the base of their skull in between their shoulder blades, allowing them to fit through a small hole if their heads will fit. Their flexibility and long, skinny bodies help them climb trees, which was necessary during their days living in the mountain highlands.
Among the other animals that call the small Wizard of Paws Wildlife shelter home are six foxes. They are named for characters in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” There’s Groot, Starlord, Gamora, Rocket, Nebula and Drax.
Because the foxes were bred in captivity, they lack hunting skills. It is a felony to release the animals into the wild, so they must be surrendered to one of the few sanctuaries that are equipped to take the animals.
Jasmin becomes emotional when she thinks about working with injured and abused animals. Gaining the trust of an animal that wasn’t socialized or that came from an abuse or neglect situation is so rewarding for her.
Jasmin remembers meeting Kovu, one of her singing dogs, for the first time. He was an owner surrender.
She got down in his enclosure at the rescue shelter and reached her palm out to him with her eyes averted. She had never seen a dog as “broken” as Kovu, she said. When he eventually put his head in her hand, she knew she would be taking him home with her.
Every day she spent 8-9 hours working with and reading to Kovu in his new home at their sanctuary. Eventually Kovu walked with his tail upright, and he began to flip his head, showing happiness. The first time Jasmin saw Kovu flip his head when he saw her, she cried.
“It means he’s happy,” Jasmin said as she remembered her thoughts that day. “And it’s probably the first time in his entire life that he’s been happy.” To see that huge change was so rewarding, Jasmin said.
Another success story for the Wieczoreks is Rocket, one of their foxes. Rocket was an owner surrender that came to Wizard of Paws Wildlife emaciated, with a collar growing into his neck. He was diagnosed with severe PTSD and anxiety.
Jasmin had to buy Kevlar gloves to protect her hands when she would try to touch, feed or work with the animal. Specialists told her she should put him down because he would never be socialized.
But Jasmin worked with Rocket separate from the other animals for hours every day. After over 4,000 hours working with him, Rocket would eventually be able to interact with others. Seeing that huge change still brings tears to Jasmin’s eyes. It made everything, including getting her left hand broken when Rocket bit through the Kevlar glove, worth it.
“I don’t care what the situation is. If someone is surrendering an animal for any kind of reason, I’m not going to make a judgment on them,” said Jasmin, who is not afraid to take on the difficult cases. She takes advice from veterinarians and other experts to gain information about what the animals may have gone through in order to help them heal.
The New Guinea singing dog, one of the rarest dog species in the world, is an ancestor to the Australian dingo. Jasmin said the dogs migrated south into Queensland, Australia, when it was connected to Papua New Guinea by a land bridge.
The dogs are so rare, they are possibly extinct in the wild now. The last report of seeing them in the wild was in the 1950s, Tyler said. Now there are about 250 of the dogs in captivity in the entire world.
No one knows how many of the dogs are in the U.S., but Tyler said four were brought over in the 1950s. Because of this, all of the dogs in the U.S. today are related, Jasmin said.
There are no singing dogs in the U.K., as it is illegal to have them there, the Wieczoreks said. None are in Europe, and very few are in private hands, they said. The dogs are mostly in zoos and sanctuaries now.
Because the species is dwindling, most of the dogs are related to each other.
“It’s kind of sad,” Jasmin said, “because when you get into wanting to do captive preservation programs and keep the species alive, you gotta do DNA testing to find out which dogs can be paired with which. And when they all share about 60-80% of their genome, it’s kind of hard.”
But Jasmin loves the science, and she’s passionate about the prospect of helping rebuild the singing dog population.
“I’m all about science,” she laughed, “I love the science. It’s my jam!”
And it is the science that she can really talk about, as she lays out Wizard of Paws Wildlife’s long-term plan that would take six generations to clean up the genetic makeup of the New Guinea singing dog.
Because the Australian Dingo is the closest genetic relative to the singing dog, she hopes breeding with imported Alpine dingoes would set the singing dog on the right path to reduce inbreeding.
Jasmin’s plan calls for breeding different combinations of singing dogs and dingoes. Geneticists tell her the plan is solid.
When the Wieczoreks can find a larger property, they hope to expand their operation, getting more singing dogs to help with the project. They want to DNA test them to make sure there are no genetic disorders or defects.
As Jasmin dreamily talked about the “long and drawn out process,” Tyler chimed in, saying they are “basically recreating the species.” Jasmin clarified: “We’re trying to recreate it and clean it up genetically.”
Armed with knowledge, research and lots of patience, Jasmin and Tyler Wieczorek are dedicated to the wildlife they work with: socializing them and returning them to lives of trust, partnering with them in education, and giving seminars to people who wish to learn more.
New Guinea singing dog