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NY: For Ambassador Wolves, a Life in Captivity So That Their Species Can Run Free


A safe, personal encounter with a wolf can change people’s attitudes toward these animals, but it comes at a price

The noise starts out somewhat faint, like a whisper, on this wooded hillside in the lower Hudson Valley of New York. Then the shrill cries grow in intensity, blanketing the area and morphing into unmistakably canine howls.

Atka the wolf and a little girlPhoto courtesy Wolf Conservation Center

Atka, a 11-year-old Arctic gray wolf, is one of three ambassador wolves at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY. The wolves were raised to be comfortable around humans.

This is the Wolf Conservation Center, a nonprofit founded by celebrated pianist Hélène Grimaud in South Salem, NY. The wolves housed here include nearly 20 endangered Mexican gray wolves and endangered red wolves, plus an Arctic gray wolf and a couple of Canadian/Rocky Mountain gray wolves.

The Mexican and red wolves are somewhat removed from the camera clicking and wide-eyed stares of daily visitors. Thanks to the Species Survival Plan and US Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan, these endangered animals may one day see the wild. But the Arctic gray wolf, an 11-year-old named Atka, plus the two Canadian/Rocky Mountain gray wolves — two-year-old siblings Alawa and Zephyr — will remain in captivity. They have been chosen as ambassadors for their species — a fate that was determined when they were wee newborns.

The life of an ambassador wolf is a luxurious, albeit unnatural, one. Atka, Alawa and Zephyr were hand-raised before they even opened their eyes as pups. They’re not house-trained — they live in a large, fenced-in enclosure — but they are comfortable around humans. That means visitors to the center are able to get up close and personal with the wolves, with only a chain-link fence separating the two different species of mammals.

“They’re socialized, and that way when visitors come to our center, they’re not going to be hiding,” says Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center. “Wild wolves are extremely shy, frightened of people, and the last thing they want to do is … sit in front of a whole bunch of people. So we really try to socialize them, and that’s going to help us really forge a connection between our visitors and their wild kin, kind of open the door to help people understand what wolves are because they are actually seeing wolves.”

Atka, who is the honorary CEO of the educational center, also travels to schools, libraries, and museums around the Northeast. Last year he clocked 160 programs. Seeing his sable fur and calm ways usually impresses audience members of any age. “I love seeing people’s eyes widen,” says Howell, who has been working with large animals in captivity since 1999. “Once they see Atka, he kind of demands respect, and people respond appropriately.”

Although having a wolf in captivity poses an ethical dilemma (ambassadors will never live in the wild, but they help educate humans), Howell says Atka, Zephyr and Alawa have it pretty good. They were bred by private breeders and after arriving at the Wolf Center they were raised with the help of a nanny German shepherd and overseen by local veterinarians. They are taken on leashed walks and given enclosure space with heavy vegetation. Their only hunting of live prey, though, happens when a critter stumbles into the enclosure and “makes a poor career move,” Howell says. Otherwise their diet comprises a variety of raw chicken, beef, turkey, and venison. Except for the inevitable threat of cancer later in life, the ambassadors are safe and never hungry.

Photo courtesy Pat Tucker and Bruce Weide

No one knows the moral dilemma of raising a wild animal better than Pat Tucker and
Bruce Weide who lived with a gray wolf named Koani for 16 years.

“[Atka’s] going to live longer than his wild brothers and sisters would,” Howell says. “He’s going to have the best healthcare. He’s never going to be hungry. But, you know, I think one of our biggest challenges here at the Wolf Center is thinking of ways to say thank you to all three ambassadors because although they are going to have those benefits I just mentioned, they’re never going to face the, you know, daily challenges and adventures that wild wolves will. And wolves, they really do belong in the wild.”

No one knows this better than Pat Tucker and Bruce Weide, a Montana couple who hand-raised a gray wolf named Koani. Their nearly 16-year journey with this socialized wolf, who died in 2007, is the subject of the recent documentaryTrue Wolf: The Story of Koani and Her Unusual Pack (incidentally, Atka attended the film’s New York City premiere). The film captures Tucker and Weide’s efforts to give Koani a good life and their gradual realization that they couldn’t give her what she needed the most —freedom.

The couple originally took in Koani, who was born in captivity, after helping a filmmaker with a wildlife documentary that featured her. After the project was complete, they were faced with an already socialized wolf and a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. In their minds, the choice was between euthanizing the pup, or trying “to make her life as worthwhile as possible,” as Tucker put it.

“Once they are socialized and hand-raised by humans, they lose that natural caution,” says Tucker, a wildlife biologist who worked for the National Wildlife Federation on wolf education programs in the northern Rockies. “And so if they are taken out somewhere into the wild, they are going to find their way toward human habitation because they will associate that with food and comfort. And they will get into trouble, and they will get killed.”

Weide says Koani had an innate predatory pounce, but she didn’t quite know how to kill. “Learning how to bring down an animal like a deer or elk, that’s learned behavior,” he said. “They get that from the elder wolves in the pack, so we didn’t teach her that.”

Tucker and Weide utilized a one-acre enclosure with an 8-foot outer fence and 10-foot inner fence. The extra chain links were necessary so interested visitors didn’t stick a finger into Koani’s habitat. Two long walks every day on a 50-foot leash offered some semblance of a wild life, but eventually that tether pulled taut and stopped the wolf from fulfilling her desire to run free. “While that was … yanking her back, it was also yanking the strings to our heart because we knew that she wanted to run and she couldn’t,” Weide says. “That kind of thing was tough emotionally, but there’s a lot of good, too.”

Koani the wolf
Photo courtesy Pat Tucker and Bruce Weide

Much like Atka at the Wolf Conservation Center, Koani had a busy traveling schedule, visiting classrooms, museums, and venues across the US to give people a face-to-face experience with a wolf.

Much like Atka at the Wolf Conservation Center, Koani had a busy traveling schedule, visiting classrooms, museums, and venues across the US to give people a face-to-face experience with a wolf. She would impress toddlers everywhere she went. Over the course of her life, Koani participated in 1,400 programs about wolves that were attended by 200,000 people.

Weide says having a safe, personal encounter with a wolf can rid people of their romanticized view of the animal. Koani was not going to dress up in grandma’s clothes or sit down like a trained dog. Also, the contrast was stark between Koani and her canine companion, a rescued dog named Indy that helped socialize the wolf from when she was a pup. Audiences would first see Indy — grinning, wagging his tail, eager to get close to the crowd — and then Koani would walk out. All memories of a big, bad wolf would melt away.

“Koani would kind of cautiously come on and look around and then, you know, if she could she’d try to go behind the curtain,” Tucker says. “Her approach was so much less open and friendly.”

The couple recently received a letter from a woman who once sat through a Koani program. She wrote about how the wolf changed her view of wildness and this unique species.

Despite the obvious educational efforts of Koani’s journeys, Tucker says she still feels conflicted about having the wolf in their home. “With a domestic animal, you often feel like you’re their parent, and they are kind of a child, and that’s sort of how we bred them,” Tucker says. “But with wolves … they grow up and they become mature adults. And with Koani, I always had this unsettling feeling that I had another adult that I had a collar on and a leash.”

The life of an ambassador wolf is one that provides protection, an endless supply of food and some of the best healthcare in the United States. The sacrifice for such luxuries is the absence of the wolf’s access to the wild. These select few — the Koanis and Atkas of the world — give up their natural life so we humans can learn about their species. With the ongoing national debate on whether to delist gray wolves from the Endangered Species program, personal encounters with these mammals can take on a greater meaning.

As Tucker says: “If a picture is worth 1,000 words, the presence of a live animal is worth 1,000 pictures.”