Sunday, May 21, 2006

Researchers get wild at Wolf Park

By Timothy O'Connor - Summer Reporter

A steady whirring sound makes its way across the lake on a chilly Sunday afternoon. Barks and howls dance in and out of the rhythmic noise creating a midday symphony for the audience in attendance. The perpetrators, a pack of seven wolves, can be seen off in the distance. A few minutes later, the howling stops and a woman chides the wolves to come closer calling each by name.

This is Wolf Park, a research reservation in Battleground, Ind. Since Wolf Park was founded in 1972 by Erich Klinghammer, a former professor at Purdue, it has researched social rank hierarchy among wolves.

The wolves eventually make their way over to the viewing area across a land bridge. Handlers await their arrival and begin playing with the canines. One wolf jumps up on a dead tree stump and looks at one of the handlers at eye level. Their faces touch. Another handler gets down on his knees and allows a wolf to kiss him.

"There's a lot of politics in a wolf pack," said John Davis, education coordinator. "The way you tell the rank is to watch to see who submits to who."

After the wolf demonstration, the crowd is escorted around the main holding area to a much larger field where a herd of bison are grazing. The handlers introduce two wolves into the field which immediately begin making their way toward the bison. The bison mostly ignore the carnivores as they walk around the herd looking for weak points to strike at.

Amanda Shaad, the managing director for Wolf Park, assures the audience that there is nothing to worry about. She says that in all the years they've been doing the predator-prey demonstrations the bison have always won. She is soon proven right when the wolves make their move only to be chased away time and time again by the half ton plus bison. After awhile, the wolves give up and begin exploring the field for smaller, less menacing prey like garden snakes or field mice.

Shaad relates one of her favorite memories of the bison demonstration. Six years ago, a wolf was chasing one of the calves around the field. In the middle of the chase, the wolf stopped to urinate and surprisingly the calf stopped, too, as if to wait for the wolf to finish. When the wolf was done the chase continued.

"We want people to see how the wolves test the herd and how the bison protect themselves," said Davis. Davis has been working with wolves for over a decade. As a handler, he's been bitten several times, though he describes the experience as more of a pinch. "To work with a wolf, you have to be equal or greater to them in rank in their eyes," said Davis.

After the bison demonstration, Davis walks over to another wolf pen that has three inhabitants, including his favorite wolf, Miska. "I'm the only one here who will say Miska, give me a kiss,' no one else really wants them in their face," Davis said. "For some reason him and I just have a thing going." Along with allowing Miska to kiss him, Davis occasionally feeds Miska his favorite treat, White Castle hamburgers. "Without onions," said Davis.

Davis explains that the allure of Wolf Park is how much easier the facility makes it to do research. One of the goals of Wolf Park is to tame the animals so that they're comfortable around people. In the wild, wolves will flee if humans come within a half mile of them. The wolves at Wolf Park, however, are used to humans they don't run away and are far easier to observe.

Davis then comes upon a small pen holding two coyote puppies. Playing with the puppies is Andrew Miller, a recent Purdue graduate and staff member at Wolf Park. "We've used everything from pieces of wood that they're interested in playing with to pizza boxes," said Miller of training the young coyotes. The toys help prevent the animals from developing repetitive behavioral problems. Miller said the handlers use clicker training to reward the animals for good behavior. Clicker training is done by pairing a sound with food so that the animals associate the sound with a reward.

As Davis heads back to the wolf demonstration another staff member walks by holding a plate of frozen mice. While icy white rodents won't sound appetizing to most humans, it's the equivalent of a tasty popsicle for Wolf Park's citizens.

Wolf Park is located at 4012 East 800 N. Battle Ground, Ind. It is open to the public 1 to 5 p.m., every day except non-holiday Mondays. For more information, visit

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