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Wolf Park—a Howling Good Time!

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Checked off my list

I have always wanted to go to Wolf Park, a nonprofit education and research facility where you can get up close with wolves and learn about their behavior. Having heard about it for years, and having met people who raved after attending one of the seminars offered there, it was on my list of places I'd most like to see.

Wolves posing on log

Wolves posing on a log

Erich Klinghammer, PhD, founded Wolf Park in 1972, and has made enormous contributions to our understanding of wolf, dog, and other canid behavior. Dr. Klinghammer and Karen Pryor have been friends and colleagues for many years. I was lucky that Karen was planning a visit to see Wolf Park and her friend, and I was able to tag along.

Arrival, and the start of our tour

We arrived at Wolf Park on the opening weekend of the season, May 2, 2009. Weather forecasts for Battle Ground, a tiny town just north of Lafayette, IN, predicted a continuation of the rain and chilly weather, but on the first morning of our visit the clouds gave way to sun and the weather warmed up quite nicely, giving us a beautiful weekend.

We were greeted with howls when we entered Wolf Park. What a welcome! The wolves were across the pond, too far away to see, but their chorus carried throughout the park. Soon the coyotes joined in, too. All I could think was, "Wow, I am really here!" We planned to attend a "Wolves and Dogs Mini-Intensive" seminar and then, later in the day, get to meet what they call "The Main Pack," the six wolves who live together in the largest part of the park.

Dr. Klinghammer's wife, Peggy, greeted us and took us to the education center. We toured the park to see the wolves, coyotes, the herd of bison, and three foxes. Karen, an avid birder, spotted several interesting species of birds, too. We also saw at least 50 turtles sunning on logs in the lake. The park grounds are beautiful and the enclosures full of behavioral enrichment (both natural and enhanced by man) for the animals.

karen pryor with wolves

Karen Pryor with the wolves

Safety first, and then "The Main Pack"

Following the tour, we returned to the education center for the seminar. Pat Goodmann, head wolf curator, led a session on safety for when we went into the wolf enclosure—emphasizing important information about how we humans should behave. Through photos, videos, and demonstrations, we were able to create a good picture of what to expect. The instructions were focused on keeping both animals and people safe, happy, and stress-free.

That afternoon, we went in with the main pack of wolves—it was amazing. Photographer Monty Sloan took hundreds of pictures, and Tom O'Dowd captured the encounter on video. The wolves socialized with everyone, and we all got a chance to do some "social grooming" (scratching and petting), which the wolves seemed to enjoy.

Bison Encounter

Sunday we returned for the Bison Encounter, where two wolves are put into the enclosure with the resident bison. Renki and Ayla were the "hunters" on the day we were there. From the description on the website, I knew that the wolves have never been successful in taking down a bison—a relief to me, as I wasn't eager to see the "circle of life" in real time. As it turned out, there were times when the wolves were running away from the bison!

Tia with wolves

Tia with the wolves

To see the instincts of the wolves as they sized up the herd, determining which animal might be a weak link, was truly amazing. There were several new babies in the bison herd, but the Wolf Park staff had split the herd so that moms and babies were safely in another enclosure for the afternoon. Still, the babies did not escape the wolves' notice. Renki and Ayla spent a fair amount of time at the fence checking out the youngsters, clearly wondering, "How do we get to the other side?"

Alas, fun times must end

The park was busy on Sunday with visitors touring the park, watching the Bison Encounter, and attending the interesting presentations, including one on how packs are formed (family groups and others), and how packs function in the wild. Everyone seemed to be having a great time!

Erich and Peggy Klinghammer, and all the staff and volunteers, are clearly passionate about and completely dedicated to their work at Wolf Park. Wolf Park's operational system, especially in regard to the care and safety of the animals, is exceptional.

When Sunday evening came, I was sad to leave. The entire weekend at Wolf Park was an unforgettable experience; it created memories that I will carry with me. I have vowed to return as soon as I can!

About the author
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Tia Guest is Program Director of Karen Pryor Academy, as well as a professional animal trainer.