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Robert Simmon - Song of the Wild
06.29.12
 
You may think that your family dogs are wild, but Data Visualizer and Designer Robert Simmon, creator of the famous “Blue Marble” image of Earth, really does live with two wild dogs, one of which was even born in a zoo.

“My girlfriend and I were cat people,” says Simmon. “After her cats died, she convinced me to get a New Guinea Singing Dog (Singers) and then another.” They adopted dogs in 2006 through the New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society (NGSDCS). “We got our first puppy Kumi, a male, but were asked to help socialize his littermate Tari until the Toronto Zoo was ready for her,” he says. Three months later, Tari left and three years later another female, Jaya, arrived. “Jaya was born in the San Diego Zoo,” says Simmon. “The first pictures I saw of her were taken by tourists.” Both of their dogs are part of the conservation program.

New Guinea Singing Dog Kumi, a New Guinea Singing Dog, searches for deer in Greenbelt National Park. Photo copyright Robert Simmon, used with permission.
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Singers are an ancient, wild breed of dogs. “They are not recommended for people unless they have astonishing amounts of time to take care of them,” explains Simmon. Describing life with Singers, he says, “They’re mostly fine when you’re around, they’re happy, and they have been outside recently enough. But they can be extremely destructive and persistent if left alone.” They tried crating the dogs but found them to be “not crate-trainable.” They then locked the dogs in the kitchen with a baby gate and added fiberboard for height. “They can get extremely obsessive,” notes Simmon. “One day I came home to a completely trashed house. Tari had escaped and torn up everything.”

Simmon keeps a running account of things that the dogs have destroyed. To date, The List includes shoes, sunglasses, headphones, one armchair, two couches, and one carpet. And their dogs are young yet. He remains optimistic. “They are so much better now and almost entirely not destructive.” Now that the dogs are older, they are able to stay together in a very large, covered crate the size of a small kennel run positioned with a view of the back yard.

Simmon follows a rigorous walking schedule giving both dogs an hour walk in the morning and another hour walk in the evening plus short walks at lunch time and before bedtime. He uses harnesses because the dogs tend to slip out of collars. “The only reason we know any neighbors is because we walk the dogs,” he notes.

The NGSDCS refers to Singers as “living fossils.” According to the NGSDCS, Singers were first discovered in New Guinea only about 50 years ago. While people migrated from Asia to New Guinea to Australia about 50,000 years ago, the NGSDCS notes that no one really knows when the dogs came. The NGSDCS refers to Singers as a subspecies of wolf, but states that the relationship between Singers and Dingoes, the wild dogs of Australia originally owned by the Aborigines, remains unclear.

“Singers kind of look like a fox or a small wolf with bushy tails, but their faces are broader,” says Simmon. Their colors range from red to brown to black with possible white on their faces, feet, and stomachs. They are double-coated, with an extremely thick undercoat. “In the dark, their eyes reflect green, not red like domestic dogs,” he notes, “which may indicate superior night vision.” Singers weigh 20 to 30 pounds and are 14 to 16 inches tall.

Their high prey drive combined with certain unique physical characteristics makes keeping these acrobatic escape artists challenging at best. “They can climb trees and fences and can jump six feet, so you need a six foot fence with an overhang plus wire under the ground to prevent them from digging out,” Simmon says. “They do not respect human boundaries at all. If they see prey, they will go.

They are extremely tuned into small, furry animals.” Simmon keeps a second list, this one for creatures their dogs have eaten which, to date, includes a handful of mice and moles, several rabbits, three squirrels, one woodchuck, one opossum, and almost one beaver. Singers are also extraordinarily flexible. “They can rotate their heads 180 degrees to look directly behind them. They can lie down with their front feet pointing in one direction and their rear feet pointing in another,” says Simmon.

Aspects of the Singer’s temperament underscores that they remain wild. Their idea of play is grabbing the back of another dog’s neck and shaking, which is how some dogs kill their prey. “They are not big cuddlers,” says Simmon. “They cuddle on their own terms, which are how they always do everything anyway.” They will offer a head toss to indicate when they want something such as food. The most unique aspect of Singers is of course their vocalization. “Think of a wolf howl and make it smaller,” explains Simmon. “The sound can last three or four minutes, but is more modulated and has greater tonality than a wolf’s howl. If they are upset, they can even make a sound like crying.”

Simmon took their dogs to obedience training as pups, but they were difficult to train. He says, “They will do a ‘sit’ or a ‘down,’ but not if they are distracted and they are easily distracted, especially by anything small and furry.” The Singers eat half kibble and half boiled chicken. “We’ve tried everything, but they do not like raw food unless it is self-caught,” he says. “They are super-picky eaters. They are spoiled wild animals.”

Simmon summarizes the essential difference between a domestic versus a wild dog: “With a well-trained domestic dog, you can keep the dog’s attention even in extreme situations. But with a Singer or a wolf, there is no guarantee. That is the wild part.” Still, he loves his and thinks they are cute. He concludes, “If you saw them, you’d think they were adorable! They are adorable!”

Related Links:

› Robert Simmon - AKA Mr. Blue Marble
› More Outside Goddard profiles
 
 
Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.