Behind the scenes in the lives of captive wolves

  • At the end of the day, Apollo trots in his enclosure at Mission: Wolf. The facility is well-regarded, accepting only wolves that would have otherwise been euthanized.

    Chris Schneider
  • Illiamna, an Arctic gray wolf, in an enclosure at Mission: Wolf near Westcliffe, Colo., home to 37 wolves and wolf-dogs.

    Chris Schneider
  • Orion, a wolf-dog, howls in his enclosure at Mission: Wolf.

    Chris Schneider
  • Young wolves at the Wolf People compound in Cocolalla, Idaho, excitedly jump for their food as Michael Marzio enters an enclosure.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • A Wolf People volunteer prepares meat for feeding time.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • Signs like this one at Wolf People help lure visitors into captive wolf facilities.

    Ceiridwen Terrill
  • Zephir howls at Mission: Wolf near Westcliffe, Colo.

    Chris Schneider
  • Two wolves jump at the gate to their enclosure at Wolf People in northern Idaho.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • Visitors greet a captive wolf at Wolf People. Kent Weber of Mission: Wolf says that people often come away from such an encounter saying, "That was the most amazing experience of my life."

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • Volunteer Adam Sievering with Abraham, a wolf-dog, at Mission Wolf.

    Chris Schneider
  • Wolf Haven International breeds Mexican gray wolves, an extremely rare subspecies, to assist a long-term federal reintroduction effort in Arizona and New Mexico. Two of the facility’s Mexican wolf family groups were released in the Southwest in 1998 and 2000.

    Ceiridwen Terrill
 

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.

Heft came from Pennsylvania to be an intern at the center 14 years ago and fell in love with its wolves — "my new brothers and sisters," as he calls them on WERC's website. "The brutal extermination of wolves for unjustified reasons was a major rebellion platform for me and therefore I directed all my energy to fight for species that cannot defend themselves. ... My job remains far from ideal — strenuous labor ... on-call for problems all day, every day of the year; very few breaks away from camp; very little, if any, pay; no human social interaction outside of interns; no electricity or running water; living alone in a deep forest ... and the most difficult aspect: deciding when a brother must be euthanized and following through with the action. I have many scars (physical and emotional) ... Still, through it all I remain proud that I have provided the best life possible for the Sawtooth Pack," a group of wolves inside the WERC fences.

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. Captive wolves don't get a lot of attention, as the public tends to focus on the more than 60,000 wild wolves in North America. But the number of wolves and wolf-dog hybrids in captivity is much greater: about 1,500 pure wolves whose captivity is federally regulated, plus untold wolves kept by unlicensed individuals, and an estimated 300,000 wolf-dog hybrids.

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • PRICE REDUCED $94,300 - LOT SOUTH OF MONTROSE
    5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • CHARMING HOME/FARM NEAR CLIFF, NM
    3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF NEW MEXICO WILDLIFE FEDERATION
    The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE SPECIALIST I
    HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Customer Service Specialist I General Statement of Duties: Works closely with the customer service manager performing high-volume routine computer database work. Also...
  • ARAVAIPA LAND STEWARD
    The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • VP OF DEVELOPMENT
    seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANT
    High Country News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • FIVE-ACRE VIEW LOT WITH WELL
    5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.