by katherine jurgens
South Salem, NY – Wolves are worth saving. In a world reeling through crises after crises: a surging pandemic, socio-political and economic upheaval and the loss of so many lives and livelihoods…this chaotic environment we call home needs wolves.
Wolves stabilize and restore balance to struggling ecologies. Their resilience and collaborative society can, as the late Canadian naturalist and wildlife writer R.D. Lawrence explored in his book In Praise of Wolves, help our own species learn more effective ways to make peace with ourselves and the world at large.
With that ethos in mind, it is only natural that “Wolves are Worth Saving” is the mission statement and greeting message of the Wolf Conservation Center of New York.
Situated in the secluded, rural hamlet of South Salem, New York, the WCC is home to 42 wolves: the Mexican Gray and the Red. Both species are endangered, with the Red Wolf listed as critically so. Habitat loss, human ignorance and persecution by and on behalf of cattle ranchers threatens their tenuous existence in the wild.
Such multiple, interconnected challenges require a response as nimble and coordinated as the wolves the WCC works to protect.
In fact, the center pursues a dynamic multi-pronged strategy that combines science-based public-education, advocacy and ongoing participation in two federally managed breeding and wild-release programs.
These programs, which form part of the American Species Survival Plan, seek to ensure healthy genetic diversity among rare and endangered species held and bred in captivity.
Basically, only the most genetically healthy animals are selected for breeding, with the hope that once they (or their off-spring) are released into the wild, their genes can then spread and express themselves throughout the remaining wild populations.
“We are coordinating our efforts with two specific Species Survival Plans: one for the Red Wolf and another for the Mexican Gray Wolf,” explained WCC Executive Director Maggie Howell. “Typically, SSPs are associated with zoos, but we are not a zoo, we are a wolf conservation center worthing with wolves and only wolves – which makes us an outsider contributor to these two SSPs, with wolves as an important stake holder.”
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Howell said the possibility that one of the center’s wolves might eventually be returned to the wild through an SPP is her favorite thing about working at the WCC.
But a related passion is public education.
“If we really want to protect and preserve wolves in North America, we need to teach people about wolves and help them to understand what wolves are and what they are not,” she said. “We need to help people understand the wolf’s role, and our human role, in conservation.”
Busting myths, correcting misconceptions, challenging misinformation.
The above-mentioned naturalist, educator and wildlife writer R.D. Lawrence dedicated more than forty years of his life’s work to dismantling the fear, superstition and folklore that motivates and perpetuates the persecution of wolves in the wild.
A number of Lawrence’s books detail his first encounter with timber wolves in the far remote forests of 1950’s Northern Ontario. In “Secret go the Wolves” he wrote how the howls of encircling wolves caused long-forgotten fairytales, myths and legends engrained during his childhood to engulf and temporarily terrify his then greenhorn-self.
Lawrence wrote the very proximate, hair-raising howls evoked “images of the wolf as a ravening, man-hunting creature endowed with great strength and almost mystical powers, a veritable symbol of evil. Pure nonsense, of course.”
As the encounter unfolded Lawrence realized the wolves were simply trying to bluff him into leaving the area of a recent kill they were guarding. Essentially, they were telling him to please move on so they could continue their meal undisturbed, leaving him to digest his and their behavior; leading him to ask, “How does one rid oneself of superstition when brought suddenly face to face with the physical manifestation of such mythological beings?”
He answered with a rhetorical, “It isn’t easy,” and then spent the rest of his life trying to teach people about the true nature of wolves and their contributions to a healthy ecology.
“Education. Education. Education.”R.D. Lawrence
As the Wolf Conservation Center is classified as a not-for-profit environmental education organization, it is in a good position to counter the misinformation and misconceptions that continue to malign wolves “through active public education.”
A more typical year finds visitors viewing the WCC’s three ambassador wolves and learning about the center’s work through a variety of engaging programs that include howling sessions and summer camps for children.
But these Covid-19 curtailed times find the WCC channeling its educational offerings through webinars and online distance learning programs.
Meanwhile, on-site activities are currently restricted to limited registration photography sessions. Anyone hoping to join such a session should check the center’s calendar for updated information.
Because it turns out that people – regular visitors and those who’ve only recently discovered the center while searching for novel activities in the wake of the novel virus’s lockdown – are hungry for an experience as dynamic and unique as learning about wolves.
“We’re getting inundated with requests from people asking when they can visit,” enthused Howell. “New York Governor Cuomo has said our state is at Phase Four, which means we are allowed to reopen, but we’re doing so gradually.”
So, while the WCC’s children and family programs like “Summer Wolf Camp for Kids” and “Sleeping with Wolves” are currently canceled to help limit the spread of Covid-19, the limited participation pre-registration photography program gives the public an opportunity to enjoy on-site education … and the center a means to safely reopen.
“Participants are all adults,” said Howell, “and the photography sessions are held entirely outdoors. This gives us a chance to dip our toes in the water as we learn what to do next by the way people interact with each other and the staff.”
Though serving as its Executive Director, Howell’s role at WCC is rooted in communications. She originated the center’s social media presence and currently manages ongoing advocacy, public outreach and education initiatives. She also writes the occasional editorial, oversees collaboration with other conservation organizations and directs the center’s networking and fundraising efforts.
And, while the protocols required by the pandemic have found Howell working remotely from home the past five months, she feels no less connected to WCC essential workers, or to the wolf families living within the center’s woodland enclosures.
“We shut our doors to the public at the beginning of March and transitioned to having just essential animal-care staff on site,” she explained. “Now we have about half our staff working. Meanwhile, I work from home. It’s tough.”
The concern isn’t just based on the fact the ambassador wolves are used to interacting with people, but also because scientists are still learning about how Covid-19 might or might not affect non-human animals, essentially; whether or not they can contract it or transmit it.
Howell said the small team that has been caring for the ambassadors through the pandemic “wash up, mask up and fill out health assessment forms before going in with the wolves.” She added that the guests attending the photo program will also be expected to wear masks and follow the same protocols. “Photographers, educators and wolves…we are all at the same risk level.”
And, as for the wolves?
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You could say that as far as the vast majority of the 42 wolves residing at the center are concerned, social-distancing protocols are the established norm. The WCC never has permitted interaction between the public and the Mexican Gray Wolf and Red Wolf families spread through the 10 enclosures found on its 32-acre property.
They reside “off-exhibit” and within as natural a setting as possible, to help best prepare any individuals that might become candidates for eventual release into the wild through an SSP program. For these wolves the pandemic has brought little change in their routines as the only humans they ever encounter are the team of essential animal-care workers who still attend to their needs.
But, what of the three Gray Wolves serving as socialized ambassadors?
“They were born in captivity and share a public-education enclosure,” replied Howell. “They have established strong relationships with people and that’s something we were definitely concerned about.
“Their primary care takers have been on top of this from the get-go,” continued Howell. “They’ve made sure they have extra enrichment in the form of various fruits and fresh fish, things to investigate like boxes filled with different scents, even homemade popsicles with fruit or meat frozen into them.”
Even so, Howell has noticed these sociable beings are reacting to the changes and challenges the pandemic imposes in ways familiar to our own very social species.
“I’ve been working remotely from home but when I do go in to say ‘Hi’ I find these three wolves are acting differently than before; bouncing around with the energy level you would expect when reuniting after an absence. They’re used to people visiting them.” You can hear the smile in her voice as she adds, “They’re used to being stars.”
For good reason. The ambassador wolves, all siblings but with the youngest born of a separate litter, are Alawa and Zephyr, both 9, and their younger brother, Nikai, 6.
“Alawa is female,” continued Howell, “and all three are neutered as they are not part of an SSP managed-breeding or wild-release program, yet their roles are critical to the survival of their species and key to the Wolf Center’s mission: Teaching the public about wolves, their relationship to the environment and the human role in protecting their future.”
“In normal times with visitors, we go on a walk through the center,” said Howell. “And all visitors, except those attending the photography event, participate in a sit-down educational program before seeing the ambassador wolves.
“We discuss history vs. fairytales, talk about where wolves are today, their ecological role and our participation in their recovery. This gives visitors a better understanding of why they will not be seeing the other wolves living in their naturalized enclosures … and hopefully a perspective to better appreciate the ambassador wolves they do see.”
Howell asserted with compassion and conviction, “We have to thank these wolves because, let’s face it, Ambassador Wolves are not living their best lives. Yes, they live longer and perhaps healthier lives in captivity and they are beloved by millions – and though some will say it’s not scientific, I do believe they feel that love when people visit. But captive wolves are not facing the challenges, the adventures and love-stories they would experience in the boundless wild.”
The WCC’s ambassador wolves share a three-acre enclosure, with the visitor area located along one section of fence. The rest of the center’s enclosures are about two acres each, densely vegetated and also partitioned with fences.
Howell said the wolves within these enclosures comprise separate family groups; sometimes multi-generational, sometimes a bonded pair. These wolves are not residing on display and the thicker brush and foliage is intended to provide the discrete and hidden places they might choose in the wild. They are not meant to be socialized and in fact live as wild a life as the center can provide.
“That’s why the ambassadors are the only wolves visitors will see,” said Howell. “This gives the other wolves a better chance at success if they are selected for a breeding or return to the wild program.
“And, because we are part of those bigger SSP programs, which wolves are selected to breed is based on whichever wolves the federal managers determine will help improve genetic diversity.”
Even so, Howell is sympathetic to the wolves who might otherwise choose their own mates in the wild. “I try to at least personally still hope, hope, hope that all of the wolves at the center understand that they are a part of something bigger and that we appreciate their sacrifice,” she said. “They are not making their own decisions and yet they really are working for the greater good of their species. They just didn’t choose too.”
Enabling people to contribute toward that greater good is another key aspect of the WCC’s conservation work.
“Alerting the public to ongoing threats to wolves in the wild through social media, offering educational opportunities and participating in the federal government’s SSP programs – all of these things overlap,” said Howell, “but along with our own advocating, we want to make sure we are helping our supporters become better advocates themselves. We want to give them the knowledge, tools and roadmap of how to navigate lending their voices to wolf recovery.”
Toward that end, the WCC’s website offers a legislator link that enables visitors to contact their government representatives, offering a chance to speak up for wolves and the broader ecologic issues their survival is linked to.
“You have to understand wolves in order to care about wolves,” says Howell. “We are working to help people think differently about wolves. A good place to start? Instead of using the word pack, think of them as families. They’re so much like us.”