By JIM FITZGERALD, Associated Press
SOUTH SALEM, N.Y. (AP) — She seemed perfectly normal, so it was surprising and a little scary when Maggie Howell suddenly let loose with a long, loud, screechy yell that sounded unlike anything human.
Then came the responses. A yip, a bark, and then howl after howl, cascading down the wooded hill from two dozen or so unseen animals at the Wolf Conservation Center in the New York City suburbs.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Howell, 39, the wolf center’s managing director.
The chorus went on for more than a minute, a strange and unfamiliar sound within 45 miles of midtown Manhattan.
The wolf center is a key component in the national effort to return endangered wolves to the wild. In partnership with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the 27-acre center is raising and breeding Mexican and red wolves in large enclosures, letting them eat roadkill and whatever they catch and limiting their contact with humans.
The hope is that they or their progeny can one day be released into the wild in North Carolina or along the Arizona-New Mexico border and help save animals that were nearly wiped out by man through hunting, poisoning and loss of habitat.
There are 53 zoos and nature centers in the Mexican wolf program and 42 in the red wolf program, but the Wolf Conservation Center is among the more valuable, officials said.
“They keep several animals as wild as they can, they participate in breeding, and they can get the joy of fostering animals into the wild,” said David Rabon, who is based in Mateo, N.C., as national coordinator of the red wolf recovery program.
“Being able to do what the WCC is doing so close to a major metropolis is pretty remarkable,” said Peter Siminski, coordinator of the Mexican wolf program based in Palm Desert, Calif.
Of the 10 pairs of wolves chosen to breed for the Mexican wolf program this coming winter, two pairs are at the WCC. The red wolf program has also designated two of the center’s pairs for breeding.
So there’s great anticipation on the center’s wooded grounds in South Salem, where almost all of the space is taken up by one- to three-acre wolf pens, each with a pair or family.
During a recent visit, a pair of greyish Mexican wolves, barely visible in the dense foliage in their 1-acre pen, kept a wary eye on the humans at the fence. In a neighboring enclosure, a family of red wolves, shorter, ruddier and with pointed ears, was even more withdrawn. But suddenly all the reds — parents followed by 17-month-old pups — raced through the dappled sunlight in a clearing.
“It’s great to see them like this,” Howell said.
None of the red and Mexican wolves are given names, part of the effort to limit their human contact. Their designations are letter-and-number combinations like F1397 and M1483, with the letters designating their sex.
The wolf center also plays a key role in combatting the notion of wolves as grandmother-gobbling monsters or mindless sheep-killers. Three socialized “ambassador” wolves, not involved in the back-to-the-wild task, help educate schoolchildren and others about the animals’ nature and history. The wolf center also hosts lectures, movies and “howls,” tours that include getting the wolves to sing.
The newest ambassador wolves are juveniles — black Zephyr and tawny Alawa, both Canadian grey wolves. They loped eagerly to a fence when humans approached and tugged at their toys, which included a teddy bear and part of a bison skull.
The third ambassador, a regal arctic grey wolf named Atka, rested in a separate pen. He’d been out the previous night — visiting an upstate high school.
The wolf center’s education aspect has suffered some recent setbacks. Three of its longtime ambassador wolves died within the last year and a half of cancer or old age.
Then in July, the wolf center lost a court case and had to give up a donation of land worth nearly $1.5 million. The case pitted two conservation groups against each other: the Westchester Land Trust claimed that erecting wolf enclosures would violate an existing conservation easement on the land.
The lawsuit spoiled plans to move the educational aspects of the wolf center to the new acreage a couple of miles away. Instead, the wolf center is hoping to buy some of the land it’s currently leasing from pianist Helene Grimaud and photographer J. Henry Fair, who together founded the wolf center in 1999.
Meanwhile, staffers are hoping to see wolf mating and wolf pups in 2012.
“Hopefully, with four breeding pairs, we’ll celebrate at least one new litter, but this is captivity and these are arranged marriages, so you just don’t know,” Howell said.
The Mexican wolf was all but extinct in the wild in the 1980s.
“To save the subspecies, the Fish and Wildlife Service took a few animals from the wild and established a captive breeding program,” Siminski said.
“In 1998, wolves from the program were released on the Arizona-New Mexico border. To maintain genetic diversity, the 50 or so wolves in the wild are restocked from pups born to the 300 wolves kept in captivity.
“Breeding pairs are selected carefully, Siminski said.
“They have to know what wild prey is, they need to fear people, and they need to be good social wolves,” he said.
Pups born into the Mexican wolf program would likely be sent to a prerelease facility, paired with opposite-sex wolves and allowed to raise pups themselves before being sent out into the wild.
The red wolf story is similar. In 1970, on the brink of extinction, 14 were gathered up for a captive breeding program that led to a release in eastern North Carolina in the 1980s. There are about 115 wolves there, and about 180 in captivity.
The red wolf program uses a technique called fostering-in. Rabon said that if a wolf in captivity and a wolf in the wild have litters within a few days of each other, and the captive litter is big enough, pups from the captive litter can be rushed down to North Carolina and placed in the wild wolf’s den.
“It has to be done before the eyes open,” Rabon said. “We have found that mothers will take them in and we have no evidence of harm to the birth mother or the rest of her litter.”
That could mean that next spring, a wolf born in metropolitan New York will be in the care of a wild pack in North Carolina.
“It would be amazing to celebrate pups,” Howell said, “and then say, ‘Bye-bye, have fun, do what you need to do out there.'”