Follow the unforgettable journey of a close-knit family of wild dogs in Zimbabwe and witness rarely-seen behavior, from tender moments with newborn pups to the thrills of hunting wildebeest, to close encounters with their greatest enemy – the lion.
♪♪ NARRATOR: Her name is Puzzles.
She's a wild dog mother, and her burgeoning family will need every ounce of her courage and cunning.
She has a new litter of pups, a dozen insistent little mouths to feed, and their territory is a world of danger.
[ Trumpeting ] ♪♪ The young dogs must run fast and work together.
They are the smallest predators to bring down big game in the African bush.
But it's not their large prey that threatens them most.
This is a land of very big cats... where small, brave dogs must sometimes run for their lives.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Animals chittering ] NARRATOR: It's winter in Zimbabwe, and in a hillside cave, a mother is tidying her home.
[ Rustling ] She's an African wild dog known as Puzzles... and hidden in these recesses, she has twelve new babies to care for.
[ Pups whining ] ♪♪ ♪♪ For the next few weeks, she cannot leave them.
Which means she cannot hunt to feed herself.
Instead, she must wait each day for her mate and the rest of her pack to bring her food.
♪♪ ♪♪ Her life is about to take a dramatic turn.
But before we get to that, we must go back 9 months, to a time before she was confined to her den.
It's spring, and Puzzles and her mate, Jigsaw, have settled in the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve.
When they arrived last summer, they were the only survivors of a rabies epidemic that devastated the region's dog packs.
Soon after, they started something wild dog couples almost never get right -- raising a family by themselves.
Normally, it takes a whole pack to raise a litter.
To succeed, they would need adult siblings or grown offspring to help them feed and protect their 3-month-old pups.
But they have neither.
[ Pups whining ] The most active part of the pups' anatomy seems to be their stomachs.
So the parents must do their best to provide 2 meals a day, and that's often Puzzles' job.
Although she's around 8 years old and well past her prime, she's still a skilled hunter.
As the shadows lengthen and the temperature drops, it's time for the couple to get to work.
This evening, it's Jigsaw's turn to babysit while Puzzles hunts.
The pups are still too small for her to take along, and it's not safe to leave them alone.
Puzzles has Malilangwe's 130,000 acres as her hunting grounds.
Following the valley floor, she can maintain this light-footed stride for miles.
In the cool hours of dawn and dusk she must find something small enough to take down alone, yet large enough to feed her growing family.
Like these impalas, her favorite prey.
♪♪ The odds are against her succeeding, but with so many mouths to feed, she can't afford to fail.
♪♪ Meanwhile, her son, Jet, easily recognized by his striped tail, is teaching himself to hunt.
♪♪ ♪♪ Although he seems clueless today, in the coming months, his leadership will be central to the survival of the pack.
♪♪ Nearby, Jigsaw is keeping a watchful eye.
♪♪ Lions will go out of their way to kill wild dogs, simply because they both hunt the same animals.
And lions expect, well... the lion's share, of all prey.
[ Lions growling ] [ Flies buzzing ] But lions are not the only villains here.
Roads kill, too.
Evolution has not prepared dogs for speeding vehicles, and they're not streetwise.
As wilderness shrinks and dogs roam beyond protected areas, disease and human activity are devastating their species.
Fewer than 7,000 wild dogs remain.
While Dad lets the pups play in the road, Puzzles has singlehandedly caught a ram nearly twice her size.
Now she must collect her family.
[ Puzzles calling ] That's music to their ears.
It's their mother's dinner call.
But they must be careful.
Lions eavesdrop on wild dogs, then track them down.
The pups are still learning where their meat comes from, and Dakota, with a white patch on her neck, is more inquisitive than the others.
Wild dog etiquette dictates the youngest eat first, so Puzzles and Jigsaw soon hand the meal over to the pups and their massive appetites.
Each little dog is able to wolf down several pounds in a single sitting.
The parents are also hungry, but their family is vulnerable right now, and they must stay alert.
♪♪ The months pass into summer, and the pups are now old enough to follow Puzzles and Jigsaw around their territory.
The couple are proving to be extraordinary parents.
It's almost unheard of for a single pair to have raised a litter to this age.
But their family still relies on them for food.
♪♪ ♪♪ Puzzles is an old hand at this, and now she has the help of Jigsaw and her young pack.
Will their skills match their enthusiasm?
Undetected, they narrow the distance.
♪♪ ♪♪ Spotted!
The pack changes gears.
In hot pursuit, they can exceed 40 miles an hour.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ But today, summer's long grass has foiled them.
Dakota and her siblings will need more practice if they're going to help their parents.
♪♪ Soon, the pups spy a fresh target.
They can't resist.
Few things provide as much family entertainment as hyena hazing.
[ Chittering ] These rivals share a peculiar relationship.
Hyenas steal the dogs' kills, but away from carcasses, the dogs hound them whenever they can.
Even for Puzzles, this is a favorite pastime.
A hyenas' bone-crushing jaws could snap a dog in half.
Instead, they seem to grin and bear it, knowing the dogs will eventually lose interest.
♪♪ ♪♪ The Lions are here for one reason only, to destroy every other predator in their territory.
Today, there are too many dogs and too many hyenas.
♪♪ There'll be no killing this time.
♪♪ ♪♪ By late autumn, Puzzles and Jigsaw have defied the odds.
Nearly a year has passed since their pups were born and, astonishingly, they've gotten them this far on their own.
Now they're about to do it all over again.
Puzzles is pregnant.
And then some!
Which brings us back to where we began.
For the next 3 months, the pack's vagabond life is over, and this rocky fortress will be their base.
♪♪ Puzzles and Jigsaw have another dozen mouths to feed.
♪♪ ♪♪ Nursing these pups has tripled her energy requirements, but tethered to the cave, Puzzles can't hunt.
Her survival and that of her feeble newborns rests totally on Jigsaw and their older litter.
[ Pups whimpering ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Wild dog mothers have up to 16 teats, so there's enough to go around.
The challenge is finding an available milk dispenser.
♪♪ ♪♪ The hunters have been successful, and their return causes chaos in the den.
[ Puzzles whining ] Others are trying to get some sleep here!
Puzzles is ravenous and she begs her family for food.
The yearlings are not yet accomplished hunters, but they've helped Jigsaw carry back meat for Puzzles in their stomachs.
Selflessly sharing their undigested meal is the only way the pack can keep Puzzles alive while she nurses her pups.
And it might just stop her whining.
With her mother preoccupied, the always-inquisitive Dakota sneaks into the den.
Wild dog females are typically doting and soon, her sister, named Atom, joins her.
♪♪ They're excited to meet their tiny, new siblings.
But they know they're not really allowed in here.
[ Pups whining ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Wild dog society mostly allows only one mother per pack, the alpha female.
And that lifelong position is occupied by Puzzles.
♪♪ She's not ready for visitors.
Her clumsy teenagers could hurt her pups.
♪♪ And despite Dakota's pleas, she sees her daughters out.
Outside, Jigsaw's real duties have just begun.
He must take his apprentices hunting every day to keep the family fed.
[ Animals chittering ] [ Pups whimpering ] Once again, Puzzles is waiting for a meal.
And this winter morning, the hunters are taking longer than usual to return.
The hours pass slowly, and there's no sign of her pack.
[ Squawking ] [ Chittering ] Finally, it's Dakota leading the others.
They haven't caught anything, and something else is wrong.
Two pack members haven't returned.
♪♪ For the first time in a month, Puzzles leaves the den to search for her missing family.
They could be anywhere.
On some hunts, they travel miles from the den, in any direction.
♪♪ But she finds them close by.
♪♪ It's Atom... ♪♪ ...and Jigsaw.
Their mangled bodies leave no doubt about what's happened here.
♪♪ [ Growls ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Growls ] ♪♪ Puzzles can't seem to tear herself away from the scene.
♪♪ But she must.
She has a daunting task ahead of her now.
How will she raise all their children on her own?
♪♪ ♪♪ Puzzles' first priority is to find a new, safer den.
She can't waste another second.
The lions could return at any moment.
Higher up the cliffs, she finds what she's after.
It's difficult to access, and there are plenty of small hiding spaces inside.
They should be safer here.
♪♪ At first, the big adventure excites the pups.
But it's a long way for little legs... so Dakota urges them on from behind.
They're soon exhausted.
♪♪ Puzzles can't afford to let them rest.
They're too exposed out here.
♪♪ The pups have had enough.
They've decided to go back home.
♪♪ ♪♪ There's only one way she's going to move them now.
One by one, she carries each of them to their new home.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ At last, they're all here.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ It's been a marathon day for this remarkable single mother.
She's exhausted, but her family is safe.
All across the land, winter tightens its cold grip... while Puzzles' next challenge is to get everyone fed.
She rallies the yearlings to go and hunt.
And now she's not the only one begging.
her growing pups want meat, too.
[ Pups whining ] Puzzles must put all her faith in this brat pack to keep herself and the pups alive.
♪♪ It's a huge test.
Did Jigsaw pass on his hunting skills?
♪♪ There's no adult now to keep them focused.
And there are many distractions.
Dakota's curiosity gets the better of her.
♪♪ These are not usually wild dog prey, so there are no guidelines for catching them.
♪♪ ♪♪ It's time to get serious.
They need to find impala.
Jet takes the lead, and soon, he spots a herd.
♪♪ ♪♪ It's chaos, as prey and pack take off in all directions.
Even for experienced dogs, it's impossible to coordinate a hunt in these woodlands.
If they're to succeed, each dog will have to work alone.
♪♪ ♪♪ Back at the den, the pups hound Puzzles like one large, insatiable stomach.
She's hungry and short-tempered.
She needs a break.
♪♪ ♪♪ But her growing pups have other ideas.
Their appetites are starting to strain the supply.
♪♪ [ Puzzles groans ] and there's no escaping them.
♪♪ She's here somewhere.
♪♪ ♪♪ They've sniffed her out.
♪♪ At last, the hunters are back, and not a moment too soon!
Their bloody faces tell of a successful kill.
[ Pups whining ] Dakota is quick to feed her hungry mother and the pups.
Individuals will sacrifice almost anything for their pack, a behavior wired into their DNA.
If they can keep this up, Puzzles' family might just make it.
♪♪ Just when everything was going smoothly, the yearlings begin to act up.
The big sisters have decided it's time for the pups to see the wide world beyond the den.
♪♪ ♪♪ Puzzles is not so sure.
With infinite patience, she carries the hostages back inside each time.
♪♪ ♪♪ But the yearlings are quite insistent.
They soon find that, if you kidnap one, the others are sure to follow.
♪♪ Soon, Puzzles relents and lets her pups explore the world within sight of the den.
As the weeks pass and winter flies by, they venture farther and farther on each outing.
Adult supervision is never far behind.
And then, one day, Puzzles decides it's time to leave the den for good.
It's been four months since the pups were born, and for the first time, she and all her children run together as a pack.
It's a dangerous time for wild dog pups.
Their adult coats might camouflage them, but they still can't run fast.
Night is falling.
The older dogs will have to keep their wits about them tonight.
[ Animal howling distantly ] [ Animal roaring distantly ] During their first spring, Puzzles introduces the smallest dogs to their woodland home, teaching them about hunting and how to avoid enemies.
♪♪ It's a time of important discoveries... like who knew so many other living creatures shared their landscape?
And of such alarming dimensions!
♪♪ ♪♪ They're still learning what danger actually looks like.
Until then, they'll take their cue from their mother.
♪♪ Another week, another lesson -- Elephants can be unpredictable.
[ Elephant trumpeting ] And mostly, they do not like wild dogs.
[ Trumpeting continues ] Seriously... they don't.
[ Trumpeting continues ] As they crisscross the wilderness over the next few months, the pups learn the lay of the land.
Until one day, the land itself undergoes a startling transformation.
[ Thunder rumbling ] As in most of southern Africa, Zimbabwe's annual rains arrive in the summer.
The deluges bring a season of plenty.
♪♪ And with each passing day, the youngest dogs grow stronger and fitter.
♪♪ ♪♪ Puzzles has been a single mother for five months and has achieved the impossible.
Statistically, at least half her offspring should be dead by now.
Instead, she's brought nearly all of them this far, alive and unharmed.
She has every reason to celebrate.
♪♪ Last year's litter has been an integral part of her success, and they're now adults in their own right.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ With resolve and devotion, she's raised a thriving pack.
And she's not done yet.
She now leads a formidable battalion.
Impala alone will no longer feed this army.
They turn their attention to bigger prey.
But bigger prey means bigger risk.
Taking on wildebeest is a dangerous proposition.
Hooves can slash and horns can gore.
Adult wildebeest might be too much for this young pack.
But with summer's plenty, the wildebeest have dropped their calves.
And now they try to keep them safe behind a phalanx.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ A final onslaught from the pack, and the herd loses its nerve.
A calf can't keep up... and in less than a minute, its life is over.
♪♪ Puzzles' pack has reached its peak in size and strength.
For the rest of the summer, her family will dominate these woodlands.
[ Animal roaring distantly ] It's been 6 months since they left the den, and with nothing to slow them down, they can roam far and wide, keeping their distance from the lions.
Rivers might present a barrier... until Jet takes the plunge.
Since his father's death, he's become an important leader in the pack, and Dakota and the others are ready to follow him.
♪♪ ♪♪ They've been seduced by greener pastures beyond the protection of the reserve.
Now, even fences can't contain them.
♪♪ It's a fateful decision.
[ Vehicle approaches ] [ Calling ] Jet calls to his dead sister.
♪♪ ♪♪ They're all distraught.
[ Calling ] Dakota can't understand why her little sister won't respond.
In this large, tight-knit family, the loss of any member is heartbreaking.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Puzzles has worked so hard to keep her family safe, but she was powerless to prevent this tragedy.
♪♪ ♪♪ The passing months have taken their toll on Puzzles.
She's still the heart of her family, but she can't keep them together forever.
Dakota will soon say good-bye.
On their outings, she's come across the scent of other males, advertising for females to join their pack.
If Dakota wants a shot at motherhood, she must leave to join them.
♪♪ Before nightfall she sets out, taking four sisters and her mother's lessons with her.
♪♪ ♪♪ [ Squawking ] Winter has returned to Malilangwe -- the season when wild dog pairs raise their newest litter.
A year after the lions killed Jigsaw, his loss still affects Puzzles.
This year, with no mate, she'll have no new pups, no den.
But later today, she'll settle an old score.
[ Lowing ] The morning begins like any other, with the pack setting out to find food.
♪♪ Strong as they are, they have no hope of taking down an adult buffalo.
It's not worth the trouble. There's easier prey to catch.
♪♪ ♪♪ Up ahead, they can smell a fresh carcass and edge in for a closer look.
It's the lions, but not the whole pride.
Jet is ready to confront his father's killers.
Scavenging is not normally in their playbook, but if they could steal this kill, it would be a huge windfall.
[ Yipping ] ♪♪ The young male is outraged by their boldness.
But the dogs draw strength from their numbers and push forward.
The cats do the math -- they're outnumbered.
Jet is the first to approach the eland carcass, even though the stench of the killers still lingers.
♪♪ ♪♪ He claims the lions' meal and the pack soon joins him.
♪♪ ♪♪ The young lion has changed his mind.
And they haven't seen him.
♪♪ ♪♪ Puzzles stands her ground.
She's not giving way.
Not this time.
♪♪ She's playing with her life.
The lions are the rightful owners of the carcass.
♪♪ Her army gathers around her... and they enjoy a rare victory when the young lions finally surrender.
But as long as they share these woodlands with lions, it's a war that will never end.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Her life as a mother has had its losses, but Puzzles has triumphed.
With only 700 breeding pairs alive today, her contribution to her species has been invaluable.
♪♪ ♪♪ Thanks to this remarkable mother, a healthy population of African wild dogs lives on another day.
♪♪ And long after her own footsteps fade, generations of her offspring will still course across this wilderness.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪