Wolves get a bad rap, but they receive it through no fault of their own. The wolves in Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs were both motivated only out of hunger, Wolf Blitzer was probably just coming out of a bad breakup when he scored negative $4,600 on Celebrity Jeopardy!, and Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full only seemed lackluster because it had to be compared to his earlier masterpiece Bonfire of the Vanities. In fact, wolves are lovely creatures deserving only of our admiration, protection, and beaver carcasses.
No one thinks better of wolves than the good people at the International Wolf Center in Ely, MN. The center was founded by renowned wolf expert David Mech in 1985 and opened to the public eight years later so that people from all around the world could learn more about the magnificent brutes and the role they play in our ecosystem. While the center doesn’t push a radical pro-wolf agenda, and would rather that their visitors decide for themselves whether wolves are worth their time of day, it’s hard to come out of the place without a newfound appreciation for all things lupine.
The center has seven ambassador wolves in all, although three of them are retired and not on display. (The retired wolves may either have health issues which preclude them from participation in the exhibit pack, or have lost their place in it due to intricate hierarchical machinations.) You can watch the exhibit pack doing wolf things from the center’s giant observation windows and learn more about how they get along without human interruption.
The wolves’ antics draw nearly 40,000 people to the center annually. The biggest draw, as one might imagine, is feeding time, enjoyed greatly by the wolves once weekly just as it would be in the wild. It is then when the wolves are treated to an entire deer which had previously met with an unfortunate fate on the receiving end of a pickup truck’s bumper. The wolves are given occasional treats in between the weekly feasts as well — beavers, done in either by trappers or farmers who weren’t keen on having large portions of their land converted into ponds.
The wolves’ delicate hierarchy is especially evident during feeding times. Lips curl, snarls are issued, and an occasional warning nip is administered. A real squabble might ensue if one wolf attempts to dig up another’s trove, and although tensions might run high over a deer haunch that has been buried in the ground for a couple of days, the wolves are still a family of sorts and would never be too rough on one another.
It’s hard to observe the wolves and not see many things which your dog would also do: the lazy midday nap, the eternal investigatory snuffling, the classic hind-leg-to-back-of-ear scratch. They even like to roll around on gross dead things, a behavior which scientists believe may be performed either to claim ownership of said dead thing, or to bring evidence of it back to the pack.
“By visiting our center and watching our wolves, visitors get a greater understanding of the role we all share in protecting our ecosystem,” said Krista Harrington, interpretive center manager of the International Wolf Center. “Our wolves are ambassadors to their species. The public is able to follow them all throughout their lives, beginning with the day they arrive as pups, to learn the truth about wolves.
“In the wild, wolves naturally avoid people. If you encounter one, it’s likely to run as far away in the other direction from you as it’s able. On the exceptionally rare occasion that a wolf should muster up the courage to approach you, it’s important that you not feed or otherwise try to interact with it in any way. No good comes to wolves when they become accustomed to humans.”
Krista said the International Wolf Center’s goal is to provide the public with scientific facts about wolves. The wolf’s role in the ecosystem is presented and discussed freely there, as is the trouble wolves get into when they prey on livestock. “We are not an advocacy group, and we don’t present biased information about wolves,” she continued. “We simply want to give people a better understanding about them so they may reach their own informed opinions, and we continue to grow our international outreach daily.”
I don’t have to be quite so objective — I love wolves, and you ought to as well. If you’re planning a trip to Minnesota’s north country any time soon, please visit wolf.org to learn more about the International Wolf Center and all that it has to enjoy. Check out the live wolf cams while you’re on their website, too!
By David Scheller