Environmentalist Baba Dioum is best-known for this quote from a speech he made in 1968, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Wolf Park has been in existence for more than 40 years, teaching visitors about wolves and their place in the environment. If visitors leave, not loving wolves, but at least understanding them, that’s a step in the right direction, because people need to understand the importance of predators in nature.
As a dog owner, I enjoy comparing and contrasting wolf and dog behavior, and Wolf Park seminars and watching the wolves interact helps me better understand dogs. And it’s just fun.
On this visit, we visited wolves in two separate enclosures. While all the wolves were, at one time, all part of the main pack, wolves don’t always get along. Tristan, for instance, had to be removed when his two sons started ganging up on him. He and another wolf were then moved to another enclosure. In the wild, Tristan would have been killed, or driven off, and lone wolves don’t typically survive. Even in a pack, a wolf’s life span is four to five years. At the park, the wolves live into their teens. One wolf, who recently died, was 17.
Because the wolves are tame, they associate people with good things. The eagerly run to the fence, hoping for treats, and, when visitors are allowed into the enclosure, these wolves have learned that people are good for scratching places that itch. They are tame, but they are still wolves, and they don’t allow the liberties that many dogs allow people. They need to be introduced.
The wolves frequently greet each other by grabbing each other’s muzzles, and it’s fun to watch them try the same thing with staff members. Humans have such flat faces that there’s not much there to grab. The wolves like face-to-face greetings (but never staring) and will try to jump up, but that’s discouraged, so, seminar participants are taught how to brush the wolf aside, never grabbing the wolf’s legs, because this could make the wolf panic, and a panicky wolf is not a good thing.
Fortunately, the Wolf Park staff knows the wolves very well and can advise on what is and isn’t appropriate. Sometimes a wolf will roll over, inviting a tummy scratch, but then the wolf may suddenly realize that a total stranger is scratching his stomach and panic. The staff knows which wolves may safely be scratched. For instance, both Dharma and her daughter, Fiona, love belly rubs and don’t care how well they know you. The young boys, Bicho and Kanti, on the other hand, can’t be trusted to behave, so, even if they ask, visitors aren’t allowed to oblige. Visitors are allowed to get on their knees to greet either of the females, but, if one of the males approaches, the visitor needs to stand up quickly, because the boys are just too bouncy, and can easily knock a person over.The park also has a “three-second rule.” A wolf may initiate contact and may enjoy that scratch behind the ear, but then, he may start to be annoyed and, he may forget that he can move away. So, he may growl. It that is ignored, just as with a dog, a bite may be next. So, visitors are advised to count to three while petting a wolf, and then to stop. If the wolf indicates that you should continue, that’s fine … for another three seconds. If he’s glad you stopped, that’s when he’ll probably move away.
Sometimes, the wolves just ignore visitors after the initial introduction, and just play among themselves, or stretch out for a nap. Since in the wild the closest a human can get to a wolf is about a quarter of a mile, it’s a real privilege to feel accepted enough to be ignored, and to be able to just watch them. While there’s always something to tell people about Wolf Park, and I love answering questions about our trip, and about what I learned, sometimes I’m tempted to say, “Oh, I had a wonderful time. I stood very still under a blazing sun and watched a wolf sleep.”
And that’s the truth. It really is a wonderful time.