By Gus Cantwell
Many University of Rhode Island students could not contain their excitement at the sight of an Arctic Gray wolf on stage in the Memorial Union Ballroom during the URI Wildlife Society’s live wolf program last night.
Maggie Howell, who works at the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) in South Salem, N.Y., overviewed the plight of the wolves in North America in front of roughly 100 community members and University of Rhode Island students. She explained that although more than 250,000 wolves once roamed the United States, “people began to kill wolves and they’re good at killing wolves.”
By the early 1970s, less than 1,000 wolves remained, almost all of which were located in Minnesota. However, the 1973 Endangered Species Act gave protection to the creatures, allowing their numbers to swell back into the thousands over time, she explained.
“We’ve taken some born in captivity and released them in the wild,” Howell said. The population of one species, the Mexican Gray wolf, had dwindled down to just five before being saved and brought back to more than 400.
Howell attributed much of the fear and disdain that led to the killing of wolves to fables such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs,” which, she explained, are not accurate portrayals of the “shy and elusive” animals.
“I think we can realize they are not going to eat our grandparents,” she quipped. “They are no danger to humans.”
Though the audience was attentive and obviously interested in Howell’s speech, it was apparent that they really came to see Atka, an Arctic Gray wolf from the WCC. The nine-year old, 85-pound male displayed no fear of the audience, proudly walking through the aisles on a leash and rolling in a puddle of tea that Howell poured on the stage.
“Atka really loves Starbucks,” she joked.
Atka, who was born in Minnesota, was nicknamed “Bratka” as a pup by WCC workers because of his refusal to accept any other wolves as his superior, Howell said. As an arctic wolf, he develops a thick, coarse coat each winter to protect him from the customary subzero degree weather in the Arctic.
Additionally, Howell explained that his paws, shoulders and tail all hold scent glands that allow him to mark his territory. This is why wolves often roll in substances that can mask their scent.
“Because he no longer smells as much like a wolf, he has an advantage [while hunting],” Howell explained.
The WCC is home to 25 wolves and is open to the public. Inside, people can meet many different types of wolves, some of which serve as teachers for people looking to learn more about the animals.
Atka served as a prominent example for students of how wolves behave and how there is a pressing need for the species’ conservation.
“It’s like wolf Facebook,” Howell explained.
The most recognized characteristic of wolves is their howl, which other wolves can hear from as far as 10 miles away. Each voice is unique and she said communication is key for their success in hunting and surviving.
“They need to be a team,” she said. This is particularly important when the pack is hunting for prey, because they usually target large animals such as moose, elk, or even bison that can feed all the wolves at once.
“Wolves hunt every day and most times they are not successful,” Howell said. When they do succeed, they generally pick the sickest or weakest animals, which she said is a “great service” to the ecosystem because it allows the strongest animals to survive and evolve.
Though they do not have an effect on the local ecosystem because wolves do not live in the northeast, Howell explained that some of their closest relatives can be found in our own homes.
“Dogs are the closest living relative to the wolf,” she said. She added that coyotes and foxes, which are both common in the area, are relatives to the wolf, as well.
Unlike their relatives, wolves are still experiencing a lot of issues nationwide despite their resurgence in the last 40 years.
“They’re fighting for their lives,” WCC Co-President David Hornoff said. U.S. Congress’s recent decision to remove the Gray Wolf from the endangered species list has once again left them vulnerable to “wolf-hunting seasons,” he said. Howell said she hopes to see this reversed and hopes scientists can make decisions on matters regarding ecosystems rather than politicians.
To help raise money for volunteer efforts in the WCC and Wildlife Society, a raffle was also held at the end of the event. Hornoff said those in attendance could use donations and the organizations’ websites to help advocate for the wolves and stressed that they “be the voice for wolves.”