The World of Wonder: Madagascar

Endemic species up the yin

June 1, 2017


You remember that movie, "Madagascar"? I remember it, 1) because I saw it, and 2) because every time I mentioned that I was going to the African island nation of Madagascar people would make some sort of reference to the Dreamworks film. I get it. Some of Ben Stiller's best work. 

Madagascar is a real place with real animals, real people, real problems. It's also the country that's hardest to infect in the game, "Plague," and people get way more points for referencing that over the movie. But I digress. 

Everyone's favorite freak, Geckolepis megalepis.  courtesy of NPR

Everyone's favorite freak, Geckolepis megalepis. courtesy of NPR

Back when I was a kid I received a book that I have since been unable to locate titled something like "Weird animals of the world." It was a hardcover book with maybe 300 pages, and I devoured the damn thing. I had always been really into animals, vertebrate predators in particular, and this tome held glossy photos of the most imaginative creatures that even my young mind could never conceive. It's where I discovered the harpy eagle, the pangolin, and of course, the fossa, Madagascar's most notable predator. There's also that nutty gecko that was just discovered which can shed its skin and scales for a quick escape. It looks...weird. That's why I love it. 

When I became a travel and wildlife writer as an adult, Madagascar consistently held the top of my list in terms of places where I wanted to go. The problem is there is minimal infrastructure for tourism, so travel magazines aren't jonesing for content about it, and even if I were to make it to Madagascar, I would be at a loss for what to do. Because what I wanted to do was delve deep into the wild and discover the Avatar-level weird creatures roaming about what remains of the untouched wilderness. Most of it's gone due to rampant logging, but what's left still holds a treasure trove of island-perfected evolution.

I stowed my dream alongside other unattainable goals like being debt-free or frying an egg without breaking it. Until I came in touch with The Mad Dog Initiative. Besides having a cool name, this non-profit has a cool mission. In Madagascar. That I qualify to help with.

Courtesy of Mad Dog Initiative

Courtesy of Mad Dog Initiative


The Mad Dog team makes expeditions into Madagascar performing spay and neuter programs on the local feral dog populations, curbing their population rise. Dogs spread prey on wildlife and spread diseases to them as well, making an already struggling class of animals that much more doomed.

The solution is not to kill dogs - that would suck and be cruel. But spay and neuter programs have a proven track record of reducing feral animal populations, and in situations like this, can empower locals to take over so that volunteers (like me) don't need to make 40 hour trips to do the job for them. Mad Dog provides an infrastructure and education that locals can perpetuate, increasing the positive effect on the lives of Madagascar's creatures, and providing work opportunities for its people.

Courtesy of Mad Dog Initiative

Courtesy of Mad Dog Initiative

Until that full takeover occurs, I am more than happy and grateful to lend my veterinary technician skills to the cause, while simultaneously recording what the organization is all about, and of course taking plenty of opportunities to photograph and film wildlife. I even rented a lens just for the occasion!

The less fun truth is that Madagascar is in trouble. It is easily home to the most unique creatures on the planet, from lemurs to chameleons to bigass crazy-legged spiders that I'm already terrified to encounter. But it's an impoverished country without a particular industry, and the wilderness is falling prey to the needs of people that require lumber to live. It's not an easy thing to balance.

I can't solve those political problems. I can't even solve the political problems in the United States, where we have it pretty good, relatively speaking. But what I can do is sterilize some dogs, show the world what we're doing, and make people fall as in love with this country's creatures as I am.

And what can you do? Support Mad Dog Initiative, of course. They always need funds for things like surgical drapes and sterile gloves. Even I'm paying to be here. And if financial gifting isn't an option, then spread the word. Show the world what's going on in Madagascar, and what we're doing to help. Because it's happening everywhere. And when it comes to your home country, remember: adopt, don't shop. The world does not need more un-home-able puppies. 


Over and out,

Ali Wunderman

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