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In the News: Peoria Zoo Employee Works to Help Save Gray Wolves

Peoria Journal Star, February 12, 2013  (posted 02/18/13)

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Before you learn some of the details, Kim Scott has what sounds like the most dangerous side job of all time.

Scott, the curator of animals at the Peoria Zoo, is on a two-week trip to the western United States as part of a small team that is collecting semen samples from captive Mexican gray wolves.

The potential punch lines are endless, but her efforts are a serious attempt to help save a species of wolf that was once so endangered it was believed there were only five animals left on the planet in the late 1990s. That is correct, five.

Oh, and the wolf is sedated when the sample is collected. That helps a lot.

“I love this project,” Scott said last week, the day before she flew to California for her first of eight stops at zoos and other locations where gray wolves live in captivity. “To be a part of this recovery really goes to the heart of what it means to be a zookeeper. This is the next step of being a part of taking care of the animals — the goal is for them to be put back in the wild.”

Scott has worked at the Peoria Zoo for about two years, where there are no wolves. She last worked, however, at the Endangered Wolf Center, outside of St. Louis, where she became skilled at, crazy as it sounds, restraining wolves. In more than 16 years of working with wolves, Scott estimates she has captured and restrained more than 900 wolves in captivity.

“That’s a conservative estimate,” she said.

It’s also why she was asked to come along with Dr. Cheryl Asa, a reproductive biologist from St. Louis, and her assistant Karen Bauman. The three are making eight stops in four states — California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado — to work with facility employees to collect the semen of Mexican gray wolves. The program has been going on for years and a large number of samples have been collected and frozen, although so far, no female gray wolf has been impregnated by a sperm sample that had been previously frozen.

“We’re working ahead of the technology,” Scott said. “But, maybe some day.”

Scott’s capture technique is to guide a wolf — that enjoys being around humans about as much as it would enjoy an unsedated electrical stimulation of its prostate gland delivered with a rectal probe, more on that later —  by means of a human wall walking toward a small enclosure. When the wolf is successfully led into the enclosure, preferably no bigger than 10 feet by 10 feet, Scott enters with two others. Using a five-foot metal pole with a cinch loop on the end, she drapes the loop over the wolf’s head and then cinches it around its neck.

That action is followed immediately by a mask being tossed over the animal’s head and another assistant forcing the animal’s head to the ground with a “Y” pole and into submission. From that position the animal can be injected with a sedative.

“They don’t tend to thrash around at all and with my pole. I’m not really in any danger of being bitten,” Scott said. “I mean, that person over there could get bit, or that person could get bit, but I’m actually pretty safe.”

Once anesthetized, the wolf is placed on its side on a surgical table.

“You work fast because there’s a lot to do when the wolf is on the table,” Scott said.

Asa uses a rectal probe to locate the animal’s prostate gland and then applies pulsating electrical stimulation that results in a semen sample of about one to two milliliters. The samples are collected in small plastic drink glasses that can be purchased at any party store.

Mission accomplished.

So far only three female gray wolves have been successfully inseminated artificially. But the recovery project — a joint effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, White Mountain Apache Tribe, USDA Forest Service and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — Wildlife Services — is proving to be a success.

There are now more than 300 Mexican gray wolves in captivity and 75 living in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico.

“Our strategy for 2013 will be to increase the genetic viability of the wild population and implement management activities that support more wolves in the wild,” said Benjamin Tuggle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Regional Director in a prepared statement released last week. “Releases are one of the important tools we use for improving the genetic viability of the wild population.”

Scott expects to return to Peoria next week.

“It’s tiring, exhausting work,” she said. “But the rewards are great when you see the amazing success of returning this animal from literally the brink of extinction.”
Mexican gray wolves
  • At about 60 to 80 pounds, it is the smallest subspecies of the five kinds of gray wolves in North America.
  • Wolves are very social animals. They live in a pack which is a family group of about five or six animals.
  • Adult pairs normally stay together for life.
  • Most wolves are naturally shy of humans and avoid them when possible.
  • The program to return the gray wolf to the wild was begun in 1998.
  • There are now more than 300 gray wolves in captivity; 75 were living in the wild at the end of 2012.

This article appeared in the Peoria Journal Star on February 12, 2013.

*****

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Regional Director, Benjamin Tuggle, is quoted in this article saying, “Releases are one of the important tools we use for improving the genetic viability of the wild population.”  This is not new information.  For years, scientists have said that new releases are essential to pull the small, struggling wild population of Mexican wolves back from the brink of extinction.  Please tell USFWS Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that it’s time to put more wolves into the wild where they belong. Click here for talking points and contact information.