Wolves, Dogs and Rapture

So… how would you feel going into a pen with a wolf? I just got the opportunity recently, and I don’t mind telling you that thought I’d be nervous. After all, I’ve worked with aggressive dogs for twenty years, and have seen and heard about enough serious injuries to last a life time. And we’re not talking dogs here, we’re talking wolves, who, by the way, have muzzles as big as tree trunks. “Why Grandma, what big teeth you have!”)

Little Red Riding Hood mythology aside, it was heaven being with the wolves at Wolf Park in Indiana. We started with an extensive training session with wonder woman Pat Goodman (who is as good an observer of subtle visual signals you’re ever going to meet, as are the other two primary wolf handlers and staff, Gale Motter and photographer extraordinaire Monty Sloan. Gale is in with the wolves constantly, and a more dedicated wolf lover and handler would be hard to find. All three of them are class acts all around, and I am truly grateful for the time they took with Jim and I during the two days that we were there.

Pat, Jim and I talked over slides and videos of wolf behavior, and got teased later because Pat and I couldn’t stop talking about subtle visual signals in wolves and dogs, and what’s the same and what’s different. Visual communication is one of my favorite topics, so the staff might have begun to wonder if we were ever going to stop talking, go to lunch and come back and visit wolves. After what must have seemed like endless chatting (to everyone but Pat and I) we finally wrapped up, went to lunch and came back and visited the wolves.

It was heaven.

They practically had to drag me out of the pen. I wasn’t nervous in the slightest, no doubt partly because the staff is so capable, and has had years of experience watching wolves and visitors (all visitors to Wolf Park can go in with the wolves in the summer time), and keeping both species out of trouble. Of course, that didn’t mean I had license to act like an idiot, and I promise I did not lose my senses and throw my arms around a wolf’s head and kiss her nose. But mostly I think it was the wolves themselves. It was, pure and simply, rapturous being in with them.

I may have been in heaven, and I may not have done anything stupid, but neither did I behave like the world’s expert on wolf handling. The first time I went in I did exactly what Pat had warned me that lots of dog trainers do, which is hold back a bit, trained as we are to avoid forcing ourselves on an unfamiliar dog. Better with wolves to walk a fine line: go too fast and you make them uncomfortable, but hesitate too long and they start, in the staff’s words, “treating you like a squeaky toy.”
“Go ahead, start petting her,” Pat said, when we went in with Ayla, the first wolf I got to meet. I hesitated because Pat had shown a slide that illustrated an uncomfortable wolf between two people. The wolf was oriented toward one person, clearly loving being petted by her, but was blinking in presumed discomfort to the outstretched hand of another. Since Ayla was trying to lick the skin off Pat’s face, it seemed rude of me to interrupt with my own petting, yet it was clearly important for me to jump in. That was actually my the only time I felt a bit unsure. Which rule do I follow? Don’t interfere, or don’t hesitate to start interacting? Ayla solved the problem by turning her attention to the visitors as much as to her familiar friends. She licked my face a few times, looking completely relaxed and then turned her hindquarters into my face. Either she was considering a hip slam or asking for a butt-rub. I opted for the later, figuring that Pat and Gale would save my own butt if necessary. My guess must have been right, because after that, Ayla and I were buddies. At least, during that session.

The next day, Ayla was shy and fearful of all newcomers. Interesting, yes? She was all over us one day, but extremely shy the next… it was one of the things that felt very different about wolves and dogs. Of course, many dogs are shy, and have moments of being braver, but I was struck at how very, very different Ayla seemed from one day to the next. It might have related to the fact that it is breeding season, and the full pack next to Ayla’s enclosure was spinning off hormones left and right, or perhaps that a new person came with us the second time.

However, the biggest difference I noticed between dogs and wolves related to their social signals. Two days of watching the wolves emphasized how clear and how ritualized their communication is. It’s true that the basic signals of domestic dogs are similar if not exactly the same in form as those of wolves, but dogs are so profoundly varied in shape and behavior that their signals don’t seem as clear as wolves. Just the structure of dogs makes things more confusing… some with no tail, some with fur over the eyes, or cropped ears, or shortened muzzles. Surely all of these differences can act to muddy the waters.

And think about how our selective breeding has altered their behavior, from the stoic Akita to the effusive Labrador. No wonder dogs can get into so much trouble at dog parks… and no wonder the general public has so much trouble reading them.
This topic deserves far more attention than I have now, but I do hope some of you are inspired to visit Wolf Park.

In summer you can go in with their main pack (six wolves in the pack, not a good idea to go in now, during the breeding season, so we went in with single wolves). The park was created, and is still run by Dr. Erich Klinghammer, who is a classically trained ethologist. That describes my early training as well—what a joy to talk with him about colleagues and the work of others! Dr. Klinghammer got two wolves several decades ago in the belief that the best way to understand an animal is to live with it (see why I love ethology so much!) and Wolf Park grew from that humble beginning into one of the country’s premier facilities for the education and conservation of the wolf. Check it out, it’s a great experience. I’ve included a photo from the weekend of the wolves on the ice at sunset. I took the photo, but Monty graciously lent me his monster lens, so he really should get the credit!
Sunset at Wolf Park