When we started the 2 o'clock tour at the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center in the mountains above Colorado Springs, the wolves were napping, just as wild wolves do in the middle of the day. A woman in jeans and cowboy boots served as guide for our group — eight random travelers, most of whom simply had seen the road sign, pulled in and paid the $10 fee. She led us from one enclosure to the next to see animals with names like Princess and Wakanda — tossing them treats from a Ziploc bag, so we could hear their jaws snap shut. Then she led us in a group howl, hoping that some of the wolves would join in. "Ready?" she said. "One, two, three. ..."
Our first collective howl sounded more like the bawl of a dying cow, and a couple of the wolves flicked their ears as if irritated. "You guys are pathetic," the guide said. "Let's try it again." Finally a wolf stood up, shook the dust from his coat and gave a half-hearted howl. As the guide directed us toward the gift shop, where a bottle of wolf fur cost four bucks, she tossed a biscuit over the fence. The next tour would be in an hour. The Wolf & Wildlife Center hosts thousands of visitors each year in its mission to "educate the public ... about the importance of wolves, coyote and (foxes) to our ecosystem." It even takes wolves as "ambassadors" into classrooms and other public settings ranging from Colorado's ski towns to inner-city Denver.
Each captive wolf has its own story, as does every captive-wolf operation. It was almost feeding time when I arrived at Mission: Wolf, a remote 200-acre sanctuary nestled at the southern end of Colorado's San Isabel National Forest. Wearing blue rubber gloves, two knife-wielding volunteers sawed through frozen meat. They'd cook the meat, which had been donated, in a giant pot mixed with vitamins and kibble, and then serve it to the 29 resident wolves, using white five-gallon buckets with each animal's name printed on the side: Nyati, Ned, Merlin, Orion, Lily ... and Soleil, a female rescued from an owner who wanted a fighting wolf and kept her chained to a tree for five months.
"Get Face to Face with Wolves" is the catchy slogan of the Wolf Education and Research Center (WERC) in northern Idaho, which keeps about seven wolves on 300 acres. During my visit, I heard the epic story of a female wolf named Chemukh (the Nez Perce word for "black"). She'd been attacked and wounded several times by other wolves in her 20-acre pen and was desperate to escape. Most of the enclosure was double-fenced, but there was one single-fenced section, 13 feet tall, where staff entered during feeding times. As a safeguard, that section was electrified; it was also reinforced at the top with a lean-in of taut wires no more than three inches apart. Somehow, during October 2000, Chemukh clambered up that fence, even though it pulsed with 5,000 volts, resisting a caretaker's efforts to pull her off. She made it to the top, squeezed between the taut wires and leaped to freedom. WERC's resident biologist, Jeremy Heft, described Chemukh's escape: "It was sheer will." But Heft also said that, because Chemukh was a captive-bred, human-socialized wolf, she was doomed in the wild. She didn't know how to hunt large game, and even if she didn't starve to death, she would probably be killed by wild wolves or by people.
In five years of exploring the obscure world of captive wolves, I visited more than two dozen operations, driving on dusty back roads and interviewing biologists, geneticists and other experts. My quest was inspired by my own sad experience as the owner of a wolf-dog hybrid, because I realized that many of the issues with hybrids extend to captive wolves as well.
People who keep or work with captive wolves are often earnestly trying to help the species. Motivated by a desire to ensure the long-term survival of wolves, they use science to educate the public about this elusive and intelligent creature — an icon of the wilderness, especially in the West. Many make enormous personal sacrifices, running their facilities with a lot of love and very little money. But not all captive-wolf owners have conservation foremost in mind. Some are motivated by commerce, or by a difficult-to-pin-down yearning to possess "wildness." It raises uncomfortable questions: At what point does kindness to animals morph into exploitation? What are the appropriate boundaries between humans and wolves? And why do we insist on testing the limits of those boundaries?
Prior to the passage of the 1973 federal Endangered Species Act, which protected wild wolves beginning that year, people openly stole wolf pups from dens to supply the fur industry and zoos. Over the years, captive breeding has produced gray wolves and wolf-dog hybrids for the fur and pet trades, Hollywood, wildlife parks, and research and public education centers. There are even established genetic lines prized by private wolf and wolf-dog breeders.
It's difficult to determine the exact number of captive wolf operations. According to a federal database, about two dozen operations in the West have a federal license and the word "wolf" in their names, ranging from the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in Ramah, N.M., to the Wolf Howl-O Exotic Petting Zoo in Kelso, Wash. But many licensed captive-wolf operations don't use the word "wolf": Howlers Inn, for example, a bed-and-breakfast near Bozeman, Mont., keeps wolves in a three-acre enclosure and a one-acre enclosure that have water features, trees and boulders.
The most ethical operations are nonprofits that provide a sanctuary for animals with nowhere else to go. These places try to educate visitors about wolf behavior and biology, hoping to win support for wild wolf conservation. Raising money, however — whether an operation is nonprofit or not — is an unavoidable part of the mission. WERC, for instance, solicits donations, asking people to "adopt" its wolves. The overhead for each of WERC's six wolves runs about $12,000 per year, including food; immunizations, surgery and other veterinarian services; maintenance of fences; round-the-clock supervision; and liability insurance in case a visitor gets injured, according to WERC's director, Chris Anderson. Some of the small mom-and-pop sanctuaries barely survive; they welcome visitors, but request donations, and they're thankful for every penny they get.
With all the activity — including unplanned reproduction (which often occurs) and people who acquire wolves as pets and then find it doesn't work out — there's a surplus of captive wolves. Pretty much every operation is filled to capacity. When the economy tanked, affecting wolf-related businesses, Bear Country U.S.A., a drive-through wildlife park in South Dakota, called up Mission: Wolf to see if it had room for seven surplus pups — three Arctic wolves and four Canadian grays. Mission: Wolf's director, Kent Weber, told the Colorado Daily that people have tried to give him more than 6,000 wolves since he started in 1988, but he's turned down most because he can't take care of more than a few dozen at any given time. Yet it's hard to say no. Weber and his wife, Tracy Brooks, who's effectively Mission: Wolf's co-director, accepted all seven of the wolf puppies from Bear Country U.S.A.
Some people defend keeping captive wolves by saying the animals have never known anything different and don't long for the outside world. They feel safe in their enclosures, delighted with their three hots and a cot. Yet while many captive-born, human-socialized wolves might act friendly and even loving toward people, those animals are still wild at a genetic level; their natural instincts have not been selectively bred out of them over multiple generations, as has been done with domestic dogs. They won't display tame behavior reliably or pass such behavior on to their offspring.
And everything in their evolution makes wolves want to run, not stay behind fences. Nature has designed them to travel 30 to 50 miles a day; in Idaho, the typical size of a wolf pack's territory — the area where wolves hunt and defend their food sources against rival packs — stretches over 360 square miles. Many captive-wolf owners are frank about the difficulties they face: aggression, repeated escape attempts, self-mutilation.
Captive wolves actually demonstrate more violent behavior than wild wolves. Tour guides often refer to the more dominant (read aggressive) captives as "alpha wolves," a largely outdated term coined by animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel in the 1940s. Schenkel applied the term "alpha" to winners of the fierce contests for dominance he observed in a group of captive wolves, where only the animals that prevailed — sometimes the survivors of lethal fights — could mate and produce offspring. He assumed that wild wolves lived in a similar system of dominance and forced submission. Renowned wolf biologist L. David Mech, who has extensively studied wolves in the wild, has called the whole alpha concept into question, pointing out that at its core a wild wolf pack is made up of Mom, Dad and kids. Calling a breeding male and female the "alpha pair" makes about as much sense as describing human parents as "alphas." As adults with survival skills and experience, wolf parents are natural leaders, but they don't abuse their offspring physically or psychologically to make them behave. Displays of dominance and submission, as when a wild wolf rolls on its back, are voluntary, not forced, and serve to maintain friendly relations within the pack, much as human social courtesies do. Mech prefers the term "breeding pair" to refer to reproducing members of a wild wolf pack.
Calling a captive group of mostly unrelated animals a "pack" — as many captive-wolf operations do — is misleading in a number of ways. In captivity, wolves can't cooperate to hunt together or disperse to form new packs. As Weber of Mission: Wolf points out: "Throwing a bunch of captive wolves together to observe pack dynamics is like throwing a group of prison inmates together to study family relationships." Wolf handlers sometimes receive the brunt of confinement stress and territoriality, even from bottle-fed, human-socialized wolves — getting nipped or bitten or chased out of enclosures. At Arizona's Eagle Tail Mountain Wolf Sanctuary, Kelly Reed told me that some wolves that have lived at the sanctuary for more than eight years remain unapproachable. "They come to me if they want to," Reed said. "If they don't, I let 'em alone." I watched as some animals paced inside their fences, treading the same pattern over and over, wearing trenches a foot deep in some places.
In 2006, a wolf-like "mystery predator" roaming central Montana killed 120 sheep before federal officials shot it from an airplane and sent the carcass to a wildlife forensics laboratory in Oregon. Dyan Straughan, a forensic scientist specializing in wolf casework, concluded that the rampaging predator had DNA from Wisconsin and Alaskan wolf populations. Although wolves do travel great distances, "that kind of mating just doesn't happen in nature," Straughan said. The animal bit sheep over their entire bodies, hunting instinctively but without the knowledge to kill efficiently. It was probably a captive-bred wolf that had either escaped or been dumped.
To attract paying visitors, even some of the most respected facilities blur the line between conservation and entertainment. They argue that providing some amusement — pettable wolves, wolves with hokey Indian-style names, and "trick wolves" that jump through hoops and balance on teeter-totters — keeps the tourists interested and helps educate them.
Wolf People — on Highway 95 south of Sandpoint, Idaho — illustrates how operations can have a variety of goals. Owner Nancy Taylor has been in the business for 18 years. Not only does she sell wolf-related jewelry, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and clothing, she'll also help you set up a Wolf People "franchise store" with the "trademarked logo" and a full inventory ready for your customers; "live wolves ... are always a big attraction," her website says. Yet Wolf People also advertises itself as "A Northwest Wolf Education Facility," claiming to dispel old myths and negative attitudes in a state where the governor and a majority of the legislators want hunters to kill 75 percent of the wild wolves. As I paid for my tour, the woman running the cash register said, "You can hold a wolf puppy and get your picture taken. It's really fun." One litter of pups was planned, she told me, but "the other was (giggle) a happy surprise. We needed pups because some of our wolves are older and getting ready to pass on."
In one visit to Wolf People, I was in a group of about 10 tourists. We climbed into our cars to caravan to the wolf enclosure a couple miles up the road. Once we arrived, however, we were told to stay in our cars. A gangly young employee, his face pale with worry, was scouring the compound: A wolf had escaped its enclosure. Ten minutes later, it was caught and returned to its pen. (I learned afterward that a white wolf had escaped a few weeks earlier by digging under a fence; it still hasn't been found.) When the tour finally started, our guide hauled out a large tub of hotdogs so the wolves would "get their lazy butts up" to the fence; some leapt four vertical feet to snag a hotdog. The guide spent the entire hour-long talk telling us about the care of the captives — certainly a subject of interest — but said nothing about wild wolves and their plight on that day or the next, when I attended a second tour.
Wolf Haven International, south of Olympia, Wash., breeds an extremely rare subspecies, Mexican gray wolves, to assist a long-term federal reintroduction effort in Arizona and New Mexico. The reintroduction has crashed into rancher resistance since it began in 1998; only about 50 wild Mexican wolves have survived in those states. According to Wendy Spencer at Wolf Haven, two of its Mexican wolf family groups have been released in the Southwest, in 1998 and 2000. Two females born at Wolf Haven are scheduled for release this year into Mexico. Wolf Haven also helps maintain a genetically diverse population of captive red wolves — a Southeastern U.S. species that was rebuilt in the wild through captive breeding. Wolf Haven has received some government funding, but for the most part its participation in the official “Species Survival Plans” for both the Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf are funded by donations.
Animal caretakers at Wolf Haven follow a stringent protocol to prepare wolves for life in the wild. Visitors never see — much less touch — wolves destined for release. Staff are permitted in the pre-release area only to provide food and water and perform maintenance on the enclosure. Remote cameras allow staff to monitor the animals without interacting with them. As Spencer put it: “These wolves must retain their innate wariness of humans. A habituated wolf (in the wild) is a dead wolf.”
Wolf Haven’s conservation director, Linda Saunders, is playing a key role in composing Washington’s wild-wolf management plan. And like Mission: Wolf, Wolf Haven uses only rescued wolves for its education program. On the Wolf Haven tours I took, there were no tricks, no treats, no petting — and nobody minded. We walked from one enclosure to the next as the guide discussed rancher-wolf conflicts in the West and explained the wolf ’s role in the ecosystem, using a flip chart to show its historic range and positive effect on vegetation health. Without any prompting, the wolves started up a chorus of howling. When a tourist asked the guide how often wild wolves eat, I realized how little people really know about these animals. The guide explained that wolves succeed in killing prey only one out of every 10 tries. The group nodded with new appreciation. To learn something about the wolf is to begin to value it.
Other captive-wolf operations are considering changing their practices to better help wild wolves. Chris Anderson, president and CEO of Idaho’s WERC, questions the tour-and-gift-shop model. “If I wanted to start a T-shirt business, I could do it a lot more effectively,” he says. Anderson is working toward virtual education. Instead of hosting 2,000 visitors each summer, he thinks he can educate 2,000 people a day through the Internet, setting up a webcam in the wolf enclosure. All of WERC’s wolves are rescued animals, and Anderson wants his operation to play an active role in resolving the conflict between ranchers and wolf advocates in the Pacific Northwest.
I met my own wolf-dog, Inyo, when she was one breath old. I had just escaped from an abusive relationship, and I invested that tiny creature with all the power of popular myth. I believed that wolf-dogs were more protective and loyal than “ordinary” dogs, so I imagined that Inyo would protect me from anyone who wanted to hurt me. But even before her eyes had opened, Inyo was struggling, hell for leather, and didn’t want to be held by any human. As she grew up, she got more determined to explore her environment and run free.
In my arms, in my house, or in a kennel, living in Tucson and then the Reno area, Inyo could not stand confinement, period. She climbed electrified fence, gnawed through heavy-gauge chainlink and my front door, ripped through drywall and insulation. Out now! I thought she loved me in her way, but she was always trying to leave, and I didn’t know why.
Scientific research told me she was an animal compelled by instinct to be free and constantly traveling over new terrain. A graceful athlete and great partner on wilderness or rock-climbing adventures, she was miserable in the everyday life of city neighborhoods, …
After Inyo’s death, haunted by her drive to be free, I learned all I could about captive wolves. Now I do whatever I can to help ease the way for wild wolves in my home state of Oregon. That includes supporting the kind of operations where dedicated staff work to make sure that the life sentences of their captive wolves help serve their wild relatives.
I’ve learned that we need accurate scientific information in order to treat wild animals humanely. And I’ve also learned that, with canines, there is a simple credo: If you love dogs, you keep them close. But if you love wolves, you leave them wild.
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To learn more about the facilities helping to recover the Mexican gray wolf, click here