The Elaborate, Paradoxical, Desperate Effort to Make Wild Wolves

Wild Things
Slate’s animal blog.
May 13 2014 10:17 AM

How Do You Make a Wild Animal?

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An ambassador wolf named Zephyr at the Wolf Conservation Center

Courtesy of Maggie Howell

Just 50 miles north of Times Square, in the small hamlet of South Salem in Westchester County, a surprisingly robust population of wolves lives in the woods. For several months during winter, I watched these animals via remote webcam as they lounged beneath maple and ash trees. I caught them mating on Twitter, oblivious to their starring roles in a canid Truman Show. I found comfort in their unlikely proximity to New York City, as though a handful of animals could counterbalance 8 million humans. And on a brisk Saturday morning in March, with snow still thick on the ground, I drove up and took a closer look.

Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center, met me near a shack stuffed with frozen roadkill––the pantry––and led me up a winding path to a fenced enclosure several acres large. Inside was a watering hole, an artificial den, and a Mexican gray wolf with mottled brown fur and the deliberate pace of a sullen adolescent. Howell leaned forward, and the wolf let out a sound between a huff and a bark. “Oh, look at you being tough,” she said, raising her camera to snap a photo. The wolf was warning us, standing its ground, but Howell seemed pleased––delighted, even. Beyond education, “tough” is the sort of thing this facility prides itself on.

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The Wolf Conservation Center breeds wolves that are intended for the wild. This makes its suburban location, not far from the Waccabuc Country Club in an area scattered with sprawling mansions, somewhat counterintuitive. The Wolf Conservation Center was founded in 1996 by Hélène Grimaud, a Grammy-nominated concert pianist, after a transformative encounter with a wolf-dog hybrid led her to conclude that wolves were woefully misunderstood. Howell has managed the organization since 2005, attempting to a strike a balance between educational zoo and conditioning nursery.      

There are dozens of these sorts of facilities across the country. Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, conservationists have experimented with different methods of safeguarding animals on the brink of extinction. In 1981, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums developed the Species Survival Plan Program, which takes endangered animals and creates a healthy, genetically diverse population in participating zoos and captive breeding centers. In the case of wolves, two species are currently covered by this strategy: red wolves, circulated among more than 20 facilities in the United States; and Mexican gray wolves, moved among 49 facilities across Mexico and the United States, from California to Missouri to here in South Salem.   

The Wolf Conservation Center joined the SSP for the two species in 2003 and 2004. Along with genetic diversity and public education, it has placed particular importance on the idea of animal reintroduction by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: red wolves into the Southeast, Mexican wolves into the Southwest and Mexico.

Howell explained the rationale behind reintroduction like this: “We totally screwed up. We killed a lot of big predators here in our country. So not only is it an ecological effort on our part, but it’s the right thing to do ethically, to make up for our past wrongs and show that we can recover this animal that was just doing what it was supposed to do.” What the animal was supposed to do is be wild, and this inevitably creates a difficult challenge for a captive-breeding facility.

The Wolf Conservation Center is mostly invisible from the road, tucked up a driveway with relatively little signage. At the top is a clearing surrounded by trees, with a single modest house and several other structures that look fairly transient, as though everything could be carted off in a single weekend. There is the frozen deer shack, a Porta Potty, and a wooden classroom filled with wolf photos and instructional diagrams. The office is a messy construction trailer in its own chain-link compound; beyond that are more fences stretching across the slope of a wooded hill.

Most of the SSP wolves live in that direction, sequestered from public view. A few representative wolves––called “ambassadors”––are kept near this open area, though, and well-trod paths connect their enclosures. On the morning of my visit, Howell showed off two Canadian gray wolves, which pressed against the fence as she approached, calling, “Hello goofballs!” A pair of red wolves, one standing alert near its den, stared off into the distance. “Oh, those guys are usually shy,” Howell said, pausing to appreciate the pose.

When we retreated to the office trailer, I asked Howell why wolves exert such an obvious fascination for her. Howell grew up in Manhattan and still calls herself a city girl, but “when I was introduced to wolves I just found them to be so relevant,” she said. “They’re such a good tool in conservation, education. They’re basically, as a keystone species, guardians of the wild.”   

The idea that wolves might be valuable for their association with wildness is nothing new. In fact, it recalls the roots of modern American environmentalism, deftly explained by Paul Wapner in his book Living Through the End of Nature, a historical overview and critique of the movement. Wapner writes that the 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of a “cataclysmic temper” towards environmental concerns. During that time a vocal minority, drawing on the classic arguments of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Henry David Thoreau (“All good things are wild and free”), began to sound alarm bells that wildness was being consumed: “Our minds are taming it; our technologies are rendering it usable; our affluence is exploiting it; our power in general is transforming it.”

Wapner explains that this particular arm of modern environmentalism promotes wildness as gainfully separate from human enterprise. Wild nature is something “other,” and utterly essential, for reasons both ecological (a source of life-giving systems) and romantic (“a source of principles, cultural edification, and delight”). Efforts like animal rights movements and the creation of government-protected wilderness areas are concerned with reaffirming the divide, saving the wild things from us, perhaps so they can save us from ourselves.

But reality is more complicated, of course, because this divide is already hopelessly muddied––the human hand is everywhere, tinkering. Mexican gray wolves are a perfect example of this: By the time the Endangered Species Act went before Congress, agricultural interests and the government had done such a thorough job of exterminating the species that, in the late 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to scour Mexico to find any left alive. Today, all Mexican wolves known to exist in Arizona and New Mexico are descended from a small, captive-born population, some of which were first released in 1998. Though wolves have since bred in the wild of their own accord, the population has been deliberately maintained and supplemented. In other words, Mexican wolves have been cultivated in facilities such as the Wolf Conservation Center, then placed on the landscape to heal an ailing environment. Does that change the very meaning of “wild”?

Howell acknowledges the inherent paradox in controlling the lives of animals in order to make them “self-willed” (the original meaning of wild). “It’s tough. They”––the wolves––“know there’s fences. They hear our voices,” she said. “It’s unfortunately that we’ve come to a point where this is what we have to do.” But Howell remains adamant: Wolves must be given an opportunity to regain a foothold outside captivity. “What I would hope is that these guys have a chance to be wild.”  

In order to minimize the human stain, SSP wolves are fed whole carcass deer, donated by hunters and the Department of Transportation or collected directly from the road; they’re also free to hunt anything that strays into their enclosures––raccoons, skunks, ducks. And though staff members do a daily sight check, most observation comes through those handy webcams; the wolves rarely see the staff and remain unmolested by human hands. “Under that coat they could be skin and bones and we might not be able to tell,” Howell explained. The one exception to the rule is an annual health check, and this contact is balanced out by being deliberately unsettling, with capture boxes and muzzles. “It’s good because it reminds them that we’re scary,” Howell said––humans should be seen as something to be avoided. A wolf will need to show it understands this if it is to graduate to a cargo hold, a pre-release facility, and ultimately freedom in the wilderness.

Indeed, insulating against human impact is taken so seriously now that captive-born red wolf pups are even being smuggled into wild litters. This is before their eyes have opened, Howell told me, “so you know they’re going to grow up as wild wolves.”

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Wolf reintroduction opponents shoot and kill released animals.

Courtesy of Maggie Howell

Not everybody agrees that efforts at re-wilding are worthy or appropriate. In 2006, a female Mexican wolf raised at the Wolf Conservation Center was released into the Apache National Forest in Arizona. A few months later she was shot and killed, the victim of hostile locals who see wolf reintroduction as an open attack on their ranching lifestyle. This shooting was characteristic of a much larger offensive that has cost the reintroduction program numerous animals: In 2008, for example, the wolf’s sister was released and killed in similar circumstances. “That’s tough,” Howell said, shaking her head in recollection. “It’s very hard to tell your supporters that this animal that was perfectly safe here in New York––well fed, whatever––we gave her this chance to be free, and now she’s gone.”

This gets at the other goal of facilities like the Wolf Conservation Center: overhauling public attitudes through contact and education. The ambassador wolves are meant to be seen: Bleachers for small crowds have been built beside their enclosures, and an Arctic wolf named Atka––Inuit for “guardian spirit”––often visits schools on a dog leash.

The job of these animals is to sway opinion, promoting sympathy, or at least “opening that window.” Howell encourages visitors to look into the wolves’ eyes and howl. She is happy to demonstrate, too: Standing in front of that irascible Mexican wolf, she threw back her head and let out plaintive shock of animal sound that wavered between deep pain and the high note of an aria––inhuman, uncannily lupus, and enough to give me goosebumps.

Identification is crucial if wolves are to survive vitriolic opposition on the landscape. But staff emphasize that wolves are not pets––“we’re not their pals,” one volunteer told me––and this is the impossible shuffle that places like the Wolf Conservation Center must manage on a daily basis, bringing human thinking around on wolves while also affirming the divide that keeps them separate, untouched, wild. Though several ambassadors have evocative names, wolves in Species Survival Plans are usually assigned nothing but numbers: F749, M804. “It’s important that people understand,” Howell said, as I prepared to make the short trip back into the city. “These wolves are part of something bigger.”

Lance Richardson is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter, or visit his website.

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