SOUTH SALEM — The nearly 30 adults and children stood balanced on ice, snow and dirt in the frigid air Saturday morning, howling toward the hilltop where the wolves waited.
At a signal from wolf educator Alex Spitzer, the crowd quieted, and from the air came the unmistakeable sound of real wolves howling in response. The 15 or so children broke into grins as the group headed up the steep hillside pathway to visit Zephyr and Alawa, the ambassador wolves of the Wolf Conservation Center.
“I liked when the wolves howled back,” said 7-year-old Greta Radcliff of Manhattan, who was at the site with her parents and two younger sisters on Saturday for one of the center’s Pack Chat children’s programs, adding, “I didn’t know all the kinds of wolves” there were.
The Wolf Conservation Center has housed several packs of gray, red and Mexican wolves on what now is 27 acres of undeveloped land since it was created as a nonprofit organization in 1999. Nearly 8,000 people visit the preserve during the year, participating in several on-site programs including the Pack Chats, Evening Howl programs, Wolf Day Camp and environment lecture series. Another 30,000 to 33,000 people get visits from arctic wolf Atka, the center’s off-site ambassador, or spend time with center staff learning about wolves.
Programs like Pack Chat help fund the center, which has a budget of about $500,000 a year. Feeding the wolves is not as difficult as it could be, since local police and hunters drop off deer carcasses either killed on the highway or already butchered for venison steaks. The wolves mostly eat hooved animals in the wild, although on Saturday they also had a bit of chicken and bananas.
“A lot of the stories that kids are told about wolves, like Little Red Riding Hood, aren’t necessarily true,” Spitzer said with a smile. “This is just to make it a little bit of a fun program and give kids a chance to see wolves. It’s the biggest thing we can do.”
Saturday’s Pack Chat drew a family of cousins of center volunteer Samantha Smith, including several from Frisco, Texas.
“I love it,” said Kristi Smith, 25, of Darien, Conn., who was keeping her mother, Karen Smith, also of Darien, company as other family members stood by the wire fence, staring at a male red wolf in the distance that had not been socialized to humans.
“You get more of an understanding and appreciation for wildlife,” said Letty Williams, Karen Smith’s sister-in-law and grandmother of 5-year-old Bobby and 3-year-old Brendan Williams of Frisco. The boys said they really liked to hear the wolves howl. After the program was over, they and the adults stood exchanging howls with Atka through the fence.
Winter is wolf time. The animals that were on view for visitors were in full coat and active, a difference from their summer behavior when they would rather sleep. Siblings Zephyr and Alawa, who at 18 months old weighed 80 and 70 pounds, respectively, had been raised to be comfortable with people. That didn’t stop Alawa from growling and nipping at her brother as the visitors walked up to their enclosure, a reminder that even wolves socialized to humans were still wild animals.
Andrew Radcliff, 41, Greta’s father, said he brought the family to South Salem on the recommendation of a friend who had visited the center in the summer.
“He said if you come in the winter, it’s a lot more fun. The wolves have their (winter) coats,’ Radcliff said. He and his family said the trip up from the city was definitely worth it.