Most of us will never see or even hear a wolf in the wild. Yet this ancient predator of the North American wilderness looms large in our consciousness, carrying with it the mythology of many lands and bygone times.
Today, wolf lore is tempered by wolf science, but both figure largely in the debate surrounding the reintroduction of wolves into landscapes where their howls were silenced by predator-control programs in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
You can learn more about this iconic species this weekend, October 22-23, 2011, at Woodland Park Zoo during its celebration of Wolf Awareness Week. Special wolf-themed activities will take place between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day.
During this event, you’ll be able to attend talks about wolves given by zoo staff as well as representatives from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project. There will also be showings of the film Lords of Nature: Life in a Land of Great Predators in the Tundra building. Pick up further information about wolves at tables staffed by Wolf Haven and the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project, too. Kids can also enjoy coloring activities and fun facts provided at discovery stations.
These events and activities are free of charge with zoo admission.
The zoo’s wolves will also benefit from this tribute: They’ll be treated with special snacks, part of an ongoing enrichment program that encourages animals to exhibit natural behaviors and provides them with mental stimulation.
The four-wolf pack consists of four sisters who were born in April 2010 at the New York State Zoo. Doba, Shila, Aponi, and Kaya have called Woodland Park Zoo’s Northern Trail home since April 2011. You can read more about these wolves and their unique personalities on the zoo’s blog.
Wolf Awareness Weekend takes place against the backdrop of the zoo’s Autumnfest, which continues this weekend as well as October 29-30, from 9:30 to 4 p.m. For more information about Autumnfest entertainment, activities, and Pumpkin Bash, visit the zoo’s Autumnfest website here.
More about Wolves–and Their Return to Washington
A Cherokee legend depicts the tug-of-war between good and evil inside the human heart as a battle between two wolves. One wolf is wicked, the other noble and kind.
Listen to sound bites from today’s debate over wolf reintroduction, and you’ll quickly discover that the legend’s imagery aptly conveys modern-day perceptions of the wolf. To some, the wolf is a potent symbol of bravery, wildness, and wisdom. To others, it’s “the big bad wolf,” a ruthless killer.
The Cherokee and other Native American peoples shared North America with 2 million or more wolves at the time of European arrival in the 1500s. During the next 500 years, the wolf was systematically persecuted, with efforts to extirpate it ratcheting up in the mid-1800s. Wolves were shot, trapped, and poisoned. They were even tortured and maimed by some who were consumed with hatred for them.
And it wasn’t just ranchers, sheepherders, or others with a financial incentive to wipe out wolves who took a dim view of the wolf. Even the heads of major zoological organizations fell in line with the thinking that the only good predator was a dead predator.
William Hornaday, for example, had top-notch conservationist credentials: He was director of the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo) from 1896 to 1926; helped found the Smithsonian National Zoo; and formed organizations dedicated to preserving wildlife. But in his book The American Natural History (1904), Hornaday anthropomorphically trashes the wolf: “Of all the wild creatures of North America, none are more despicable than wolves. There is no depth of meanness, treachery or cruelty to which they do not cheerfully descend….[They are] rank cowards.”
By 1950, there were fewer than 2,000 wolves remaining in the contiguous 48 states, with most of those animals in northern Minnesota. More abundant populations numbering in the thousands remained in Canada and Alaska.
Today, wolves have returned–both on their own and with human help–to some of the states where they historically roamed. Among these wolves are five packs in Washington, with the nearest pack just 90 miles east of Seattle. Washington States’ Department of Fish & Wildlife is in charge of mapping out a conservation and management plan for these wolves.
The removal of top predators in an ecosystem causes a cascade of effects, and scientists are studying how the return of wolves affects populations of other living things in their habitats.
Studies in Yellowstone National Park, for example, where wolves were reintroduced starting in 1995, show that their return has had a significant impact on habitat. The wolves prey on elk, which had overbrowsed the land during nearly a century of practically predator-free life. By reducing elk numbers and changing the elks’ daily patterns of behavior, the wolves’ presence has allowed thickets of trees such as willows and cottonwoods to grow. This, in turn, provides habitat for other species, such as birds and beavers.
The effect that wolves have on their prey has long been known by Native American peoples, who had observed these canines for thousands of years. “The caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf who keeps the caribou strong”–an old saying among the Inuit of the northwestern Hudson Bay region of Canada–reflects this history of observation and understanding of ecosystem dynamics.
Just as the wolf’s presence in a food web has a ripple effect, however, so too has a better understanding of the wolf as part of an ecosystem changed many people’s perception of the animal.
Conservationist Aldo Leopold, who killed wolves as part of his job early in his career, came around to the position that wiping out predators such as the wolf was neither a desirable nor an effective way to handle a landscape.
At first, he wrote, “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.” But after shooting a wolf one day and seeing “the green fire die” in her eyes, Leopold “sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view….Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”