Wolves may become Alaska Zoo's ambassador animals

With Maggie on the move, officials are looking for a new star

Posted: Monday, August 06, 2007

ANCHORAGE - It's not easy being an animal celebrity, as six teenage wolves now auditioning for the role of Alaska Zoo public ambassador might well attest.

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That unofficial position is expected to open up later this year, or next, when current zoo icon Maggie the elephant moves south to sunnier climes.

So each morning this summer - tethered to human handlers - the young wolves have ventured outside their soon-to-be-vacated enclosure to meet other animals and explore the grounds before they try posing for any pictures with people.

Both wolves and handlers still need some polish. That's why the zoo recently solicited the services of Anchorage animal trainer Robin Scheff, who usually spends her time taming pit bulls.

Reviews so far have been mixed - at least among the other creatures who call the zoo their home. Squawking from the safety of his metal-screened aviary, George the magpie seems to genuinely enjoy the wolves' company, zookeepers say. The coyotes do too.

"Typically coyotes wouldn't want to come face to face with a wolf, but ours come right on up," says Alaska Zoo curator Shannon Jensen. "They're naive, and they're in a cage, and they've never had an instance with a wolf."

Surprise meetings with Maggie, however, have sometimes been emotional.

"Maggie doesn't like them," Jensen says. "She doesn't like anything furry. She does all her 'I'm a big elephant' things - puts her ears out, charges, makes a lot of noise."

Once, wolf handler Stephanie Scherr was walking Ruby, the runt of the litter (and prime candidate for the wolf P.R. post) when Maggie suddenly trumpeted from her yard and started to charge.

"It scared me to death, and the pup took off running - and so I was running behind her (holding the leash)," Scherr says.

"Of course it was a bluff charge," adds Jensen, who oversees the zoo's animal care. "The wolves are scared of Maggie, and Maggie is scared of the wolves. So we don't go near her now."

More recently, wolf-coyote relations have become chilly as well.

On Tuesday, while walking Denali, the largest of the six wolf siblings, Jensen paused next to a large black cage, where coyotes Archie and Wiley are now quartered. They'd recently moved out of a larger enclosure so workers could renovate it to allow the wolves to move in.

When it's finished, perhaps later this week, the improved three-quarter-acre exhibit will provide the wolves with a grassy, tree-filled knoll with natural dens and three times more space to roam in. They'll have the Siberian tigers for neighbors, along with the eagles.

Describing all this, Jensen had just said how the coyotes seemed to resent the move, when Denali sniffed their hog-wire fencing - and Archie nipped him through the screen.

"He did?" asked Jensen, surprised, turning around.

"Yeah," said wolf handler Liz Gray. "On the nose."

Denali seemed unfazed. But the coyote looked jubilant, and Jensen couldn't help but laugh.

"He's saying, 'Yeah! One for the coyotes.' "

So the life of a would-be zoo ambassador isn't as easy as you might suppose. Though the wilderness world they came from wasn't so easy either.

Since its previous wolf, Morning, died (at the ripe old age of 18) six years ago, the zoo had remained wolf-less. It had an Asian camel and an African elephant but not a single Alaska wolf. Which was odd. Because the gray wolf, Canis lupus - reclusive, cunning - is one of the keystone species of wild Alaska.

So Jensen was pleased a year ago last May when the zoo finally received a state permit to allow her to appropriate a litter of six brand-new wolf pups from the wild. All she had to do was pull them from the den where they'd just been born, north of McGrath.

There they'd entered the world in the middle of a state-managed wolf control zone, where the chances they could avoid being trapped or shot were slim. Their adoption by the zoo was generally applauded as a win-win-win.

McGrath got to reduce the population of predators that feed on nearby moose calves. The Anchorage zoo got the missing wolves it wanted for a public exhibit. And the pups themselves - born in a spot where hunters are allowed to kill up to 10 wolves a day - got to live.

Plucked from their den at two weeks of age while their parents were off hunting, the wolves began their new lives in Anchorage weighing about five pounds apiece.

"They had cloudy little blue eyes," Jensen says. "Just roly-poly puppies."

Housed in the zoo's old black bear enclosure, the pups were soon trying their best to howl. Only they couldn't. When they lifted their tiny noses to the sky, all that came out were light "oooh" sounds. Which made them instantly popular.

Then someone got an inspiration: With the elephant apparently on her way out, maybe the wolves could become the new public face of the zoo. Maybe with a little training, one or two of them could greet visitors (at a safe distance) and pose for pictures while their handlers educated the public about wolves, just like a similar program at the San Diego Zoo.

That sounded like a great idea when the pups were still small and cuddly. But now they're 14-month-old adolescent wolves, classically long-legged and nearly full-grown, measuring about six feet in length (from nose to tip of tail) and weighing almost 100 pounds apiece.

They eat well, consuming a weekly moose or caribou carcass and two pounds of raw horse meat apiece each morning. And when they emerge from their concrete barn at the back of the zoo for a morning walk, they pass a succession of horse corrals next door with live-on-the-hoof facsimiles of the meal they've just digested.

But they might make it as ambassadors yet.

The wolves just have a few behaviors to smooth out, says Scheff, the Anchorage "dog whisperer" Jensen asked to help with the handlers' training. Thrilled just to observe the wolves, Scheff volunteered her time for free.

Which is how she came to be rubbing grass on her hands just before the wolves' morning walk a week ago Friday.

"They love the grass," Scheff explained. "They love to roll in it. They love the smell of it."

But a walk with wolves can still be problematic. Led by their handlers, Rohn and Windy stepped down the trail slowly, gracefully, like long-legged basketball stars loitering after a workout. But Lucky only took a few steps, then lay down in the grass and rolled on her back - and for a long time refused to move any farther.

"You don't challenge something like that," Scheff said. At least not with wolves. Techniques that work for dog handlers - even the methods endorsed by famed TV trainer Ceasar Millan, whom she usually follows - aren't going to work on wolves.

"I don't stare down at her," she said. "You know, the temptation is strong because they're so beautiful. But when I'm standing over her, I go off to the side. I try to be very, very polite. You want to be dominant, but you can't be too confrontational."

That's just one of the difference between wolves and dogs, she said.

"With a dog, what Ceasar Millan does is very powerful. I know because I do that all day. That's because dogs are more compliant, even though they're actually more likely to bite you. More likely to attack you. These guys aren't. All you have to do is sort of redirect them and get them moving along again: Touch. Let's move. Let's go."

On their walks, each wolf wears a metal "pinch collar," which Scheff says simulates a mild nip when it's tugged. But rather than tug excessively, she advises each handler to gain a wolf's attention with a treat.

"Stick something in front of their nose. Get them to get up. Let's move. Give it to them. Good boy! Off we move. Not 'You must come! You must come!' Entice them to come."

Newcomers who visit the wolves usually get their shoes and hands thoroughly sniffed and licked. Sometimes the wolves graze the skin around your wrist with their teeth.

"They like humans," Scheff said. "They do. Some of them."

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