I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
I showed up at the Wolf Park in Battle Ground, IN just in time to catch a tour—no time to look around or catch my bearings.
What exactly is Wolf Park? It is a preserve of sorts, set up by Erich Klinghammer in 1972 to study the behavior of wolves.
The wolves currently consist of eight adults and five pups. The pups were not on display, but we were able to see most of the wolves as we walked around the enclosures. The wolves are socialized, which makes caring for them easier (feeding them, checking on their health, giving them medical care) and allows for people to see them (the wolves are desensitized to human and thus not shy and remote as they typically would be). In fact, they are leash- and car-trained (!). (I tried to visualize a wolf on a leash.)
The tour consisted of a stroll around the outside of large enclosures, punctuated by talks about the wolves, wolf behavior, and the Institute. The wolves are not in one huge enclosure, but in several different ones. Also, the wolves are not in one great pack, as I assumed they would be, but in small ones that fluctuate as hierarchies and relationships change.
Fiona, Bicho, and Kanti live together at the front enclosure, which you can visit without being on the tour. An enclosed observation building and bleachers overlook this enclosure. When I was there, one staff member gave a lengthy and quite informative lecture and demonstration—she went into the enclosure with another staff member to show wolf-human interaction.
Wotan and Wolfgang live together in an enclosure around the back. Timber mated with one of them—the staff is analyzing the DNA to determine the father of the pups.
Timber was nowhere to be found, though I don’t think she was with her pups—after 10-14 days, the Institute removes pups from their mother to begin the socialization process.
Renki and Ayla are in their own enclosure—brother and sister who live apart from their other siblings (Wotan and Wolfgang). Renki recently had a front leg amputated due to bone cancer.
Most of the wolves are sterilized due to genetic issues—Fiona, Kanti, and Bicho all suffered from cataracts and now enjoy artificial lenses. Although our docent mentioned that this sterilization was not the typical spay/neuter that you do with your cats and dogs, she didn’t explain really what it was, except to mention that the wolves retain their natural cycles. Fiona, who is sterilized, built a den just like Timber and even brought pinecones into her den as surrogate pups. When she met Timber’s pups, she acted as though they were her own.
Interestingly, we learned about their diet. What are they fed? Roadkill. Yup, you read right. The Department of Transportation provides the Institute with roadkill. The Institute prepares the roadkill by inspecting it for illness and then freezing it. The wolves are fed three times a week.
As we moved around the Institute, we stopped at an enclosure with two coyotes. Although a bit shy, one did approach us. We all started to howl and the coyotes joined in. In the distance, we could hear the wolves answering back. Although I cannot describe it, the howling of the coyotes was quite different from the howling of the wolves.
Another time, we stopped to look across a large field. The tiny dots in the distance were a bison herd that the Institute has—seven adults (including one bull) and three calves. The calves, I learned, are red because predators are color blind. I paused to ponder this, not sure that it made sense to me. Wouldn’t predators go after the calves regardless of their color but because they are small and easy to pick off?
The tour ended at the foxes. The Institute is home to a pair of grey foxes and a pair of red foxes, housed in separate enclosures. These foxes do not necessarily look like their names imply. Curiously, grey foxes actually live in trees! Yes, really. The structures in their enclosure allow the foxes to climb to different heights and hide behind “foliage”. The other distinguishing characteristic between grey and red foxes: grey foxes have a black stripe on their tails, red foxes have a white-tipped tail. (Also, red foxes have a skunk-like scent gland.)
I recommend the tour. The guides talk quite a bit, but I feel that a lot more can be learned by asking question. (Unfortunately, the group I was with was pretty passive.) Stick around after the tour to watch the fox enclosures after the hordes of people drift away. Foxes are shy and like quiet. They will start to emerge after the tour leaves. Also, be sure to stick around for any talks going on at the front enclosure. I learned a slew from that talk and got to see the staff interact with Kanti, Bicho, and Fiona.