By Julie Zauzmer and Sandy Bauers
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
Since late last week, employees of the Speedwell Forge Wolf Sanctuary have camped out in a pickup truck on a residential street in Rhawnhurst hoping to capture a creature they have nicknamed Penny.
No one knows just what Penny is. She — the Wolf Sanctuary crew refers to her in feminine terms — could be a dog, a wolf, a coyote, or a blend of species. But the team from the Wolf Sanctuary in Lititz, Pa., along with workers from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, local animal control agents, and residents of Penny’s adopted Algon Avenue habitat, know she prefers McDonald’s to a deer carcass.
On Tuesday, Penny, who might be an abandoned pet, eluded traps set by Wolf Sanctuary workers and regularly peeked from the edge of the woods of Pennypack Park — to the delight of spectators.
“I’ve been seeing her. I’ve been feeding her Kibbles ‘n Bits,” said Dale Pyle, an Algon resident who said he has observed the animal for the past two months.
Game Commission and Wolf Sanctuary employees have laid traps in the woods and fed the animal a tranquilizer-laced hot dog.
Next, Wolf Sanctuary worker Dustin Deyoe said, they plan to shoot her with a tranquilizer dart equipped with a remote tracking device. Once she lies down, they will take her to a vet for DNA testing. If she is at least 65 percent wolf, then she can have a home in the 25-acre sanctuary in Lancaster County.
Cheryl A. Trewella, a spokeswoman for the state game commission, said that officials first heard about the animal when someone sent in a photo. The image was fuzzy, and “it appeared to just be a dog.”
Then the wildlife conservation officer for the area, Jerry Czech, started getting calls about a coyote in the park. Coyotes do live in the city, so he just told the callers to leave the animal alone.
Then came more calls and more photos with clearer images. Based on the animal’s overall appearance, game commission officials decided it was part wolf — and that made the situation another matter altogether.
Wolves do not live in the wild in Pennsylvania. Wolf hybrids do exist, but as in most other states, anyone who wants one must first get a permit. Deyoe says that the state almost never grants those permits.
The concern is that even though a wolf hybrid may seem tame and friendly, there is always a chance its wolf nature could take over and the animal would become hostile.
With the Pennypack animal, “there’s no indication it’s aggressive, but we don’t know what’s going to happen down the road,” Trewella said.
Algon Avenue resident Sharon Newman Ehrlich began making calls to authorities two weeks ago when her dog Caesar started barking one night and she found an animal much bigger than a dog sniffing at him through her fence. She said Tuesday that she worried a well-meaning dog-walker trying to feed the animal would accidentally set it off.
“Some people are afraid to get out of their cars at night,” she said, out of fear that the animal might be provoked. She suggested that the neighbors organize an educational campaign after the commotion over the canine dies down.
“People want to be loving. They want to be caring,” she said. “But they don’t understand these animals have special diets.”
But officers say that the attention has made the creature-catching job more difficult.
Monday night, when a game commission officer got within range and pulled out what looked like a gun — but actually just held a tranquilizer dart — “everyone started screaming that he was trying to shoot it,” Trewella said.
“I know it’s a curiosity. I know people want to see it. But it would really help this animal out if they stayed out of the areas so we could secure it,” she said.