College senior spends summer with wolves
By Ken Abramczyk
OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Sometime this fall, Jerry Heath will run into his fellow students majoring in environmental studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Heath will be asked what he did over the summer and his friends’ eyes will open wide and their jaws will drop in disbelief.
Heath spent his summer living with and caring for a pack of wolves in Idaho. He arrived home Thursday.
Heath, 22, a senior, interned at the Wolf Education and Research Center in Winchester. For three months, Heath conducted tours of the facility for the public and, after a month of training and learning about wolf behavior, he got a close and personal view of the wolves. Some of his chores included helping dress road kill for the wolves to eat.
Heath knew after three years of studying biology and environmental studies that he had to get outdoors for a first-hand look at wildlife. Heath learned about the internship from a magazine, and applied for it because he thought that giving tours of the facility would lay a foundation for his teaching aspirations.
“It was an opportunity to teach in a different atmosphere,” Heath said. Groups on tours ranged in size from two to 15, and were of all ages. Tour groups were allowed to view the wolves, located inside an enclosure in which they lived.
The Wolf Education and Research Center is dedicated to providing public education and scientific research concerning the gray wolf and its habitat. The center’s education initiative is part of a plan to engage supporters and reach out to future naturalists and wildlife supporters. The captive wolf pack resides on a 300-acre site, leased from the Nez Perce tribe.
Heath had to form social bonds with the wolves. Wolves are very social animals, as they form packs, but are fearful of humans, Heath said.
When Heath started, he wasn’t permitted to move closer than a few hundred yards. The wolves had to get used to him and his scent and seeing him in the same area to build up a familiarity. Jeremy Heft, a biologist and pack manager who has worked with the wolves for 12 years, slowly acclimated the interns and the wolves, bringing the interns closer and eventually into the enclosure.
“They were trusting us about a month later after they saw us seven days a week,” Heath said. Heath was a little bit concerned about his safety, but he knew the center was reputable.
Jerry’s mother, Kathy Heath, said she was worried about his safety and that the project might put him in danger. Heath told his mother that it took at least a month to prepare him for the work inside the enclosure. “He had a lot of reading to do before he went into the enclosure,” Kathy said. “He had to learn how to react to them and there was training involved. He had to walk four miles every day so that the wolves would know him by scent.”
Heath learned about the wolf language: the ear position and the tail position, when they are aggressive and when are they submissive. Heath walked to check the enclosure each day to make sure that behaviorally and physically, the wolves were OK.
“If a wolf is holding its tail high in the air, that is typical of an alpha wolf in a dominant state,” Heath said. “If the wolf is holding its tail curled under its body, that is a sign that the wolf is an omega wolf in a submissive state.” Most of the time the wolves hold their tails in a relaxed position. “You tend to see these different postures in times of dispute and stress,” Heath said.
In the interns’ first entrance with the Owyhee pack nearby, one of the wolves, Himtuuqin’, approached them with his nose high in the air and his ears to the side. “Jeremy told us that this was a great sign, it meant that he was being curious, and was at ease with our presence,” Heath said. “If he would have approached with his nose to the ground and ears straight in front, this would have been a more defensive posture.
“Their language is extremely important in maintaining the social hierarchy that is so crucial to the functioning of one of nature’s greatest forces, the wolf pack. That is why it was so important for me to go through a long initiation process to make sure I didn’t accidentally challenge an alpha wolf with something as simple as squinting, staring or moving my hand toward them with the palm down instead of up.”
Heath said the first time inside the enclosure was surreal. “One of the wolves was following us closely about 10 feet behind,” Heath said. The wolves were fed once a week, usually with an animal that was killed on the road to get as close as the camp could to a normal diet for the wolves.
The interns did not want to be anywhere near the wolves when setting up their food once a week because they didn’t want the wolves to associate humans with food. The wolves’ meals were set up in a double-fenced area out of sight of the wolves. When the wolves eat, “they are most territorial, most defensive and most aggressive,” Heath said.
Heath said education is the goal of the camp. Some supporters of wolves don’t like that the wolves are raised in captivity, but once they are born and raised there, they cannot be released. “They serve as ambassadors when there is such a negative perception of wolves,” Heath said.
SYMPATHY FOR RANCHERS
Heath has spoken to ranchers and elk hunters on the tours who were not afraid to express their opinions about the wolves. One said he didn’t want to pay for something that “deserved to have a bullet in its head.”
Heath understands the complaints when a wolf downs a deer, elk, moose or a calf, but he adds that Idaho ranchers can be reimbursed for those losses by Defenders of Wildlife. “We are completely sympathetic,” he said, but he is quick to add that ranchers in Idaho lose less than 1 percent of their sheep to wolves, Heath said.
The living conditions were quite a change from Livonia. “You go from there to living in a tent,” Heath said. “We heard coyotes every night. Black bears and owls were around.
“The wildlife was incredible. The first few nights was a little unnerving. Once you get in the rhythm of life there, and as long as you don’t do anything foolish, it’s great. You’re getting away from all the technology, no electricity, no running water.” Someone from camp would travel to town to get 200 gallons of water. The water was heated by propane gas.
Once he was finished with his work as an intern, he would talk, read or just go explore the forest.
On the way back to Michigan, Heath camped four days in Glacier National Park and spent a night in Bismarck, N.D.
Heath learned that the wolves are extremely social in the camp, but in the wild, wolf sightings are rare. “You would be extremely lucky to see one because they are so elusive,” Heath said.
Heath summarized his internship in a journal entry as he reflected on his experience with the wolves, which he mentions by their names:
“Piyip, Himtuuqin’, KucKuc, Leq’eyleq’ey, XayXayx, and Miyooxat all taught me numerous things, but the most important lesson was taught by all of them. This lesson was learning how to listen. The forest is full of voices and the wolves have a very intricate language that, if we can learn how to listen to them, we can come to understand them on a deeper level.”