Tuesday, May 09, 2006

They're howling again at Wolf Park

By Dan Shaw

Jay Villalobos had never seen a living example of his namesake, which, translated loosely, means "Wolfsville." So on Sunday he took his wife and son to Wolf Park, two miles north of Battle Ground. It was the opening day of the park, where living wolves, bison and other animals roam the prairie, albeit behind fences.

Villalobos and his wife, Kristy, who moved to Lafayette from New Orleans after hurricanes slammed the Gulf Coast last year, were among roughly 75 visitors who witnessed the wild animals as they begged to be petted and licked their caretakers, much like dogs.

"I'm pretty surprised how friendly they are with the staff," said Kristy, "They are just like big babies."

The crowd also had a chance to witness how two wolves hunted a herd of bison. The predators made several attempts to segregate five young calves from the protection of their elders, but were quickly repulsed. Apparently losing interest, the wolves then rolled about in the grass to leave behind a scent, or searched for easier prey.

Amanda Shaad, the general manager of the park, said that was what she expected would happen. In the more than 20 years in which the demonstrations have taken place, Shaad has yet to see a wolf seriously injure a bison, or vice-versa. In rare instances, the canine predators will have a "red-letter day," and nip the tail or some loose fur of their prey, she said.

Part of the reason for the lack of conflict is that a fight between a wolf and a bison would be a truly uneven affair. The bigger animal can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, while the smaller attains 95 pounds at the most, she said. Shaad said the purpose of the demonstration is to show the public how the wolves prepare for a hunt, as well as how bisons protect their young. Never, though, has the hope been to see an animal hurt, she said. For that reason, the staff will limit the number of wolves allowed to go near the herd, to give the calves time to grow used to being preyed upon, she said.

"We want to try to ease them into the scenario," she said.

Gale Motter, a lecturer at the park, said a large animal is not a wolf's first choice for food. When the predators returned to Yellowstone National Park in the 1980s, it was seven or eight years before they killed a bison, she said. "They prefer to go after something smaller and easier," she said.

Also new to the park are two coyote puppies, acquired to replace "Wild Bill," a coyote that died in Jan. 2005 at the age of 17. Andrew Miller, who is graduating from Purdue University with a degree in wildlife science, has the task of accustoming the animals to humans. That is necessary to prevent the coyotes, naturally shy creatures, from being unnerved by the crowds of onlookers who come to the park, he said. It also makes it easier to administer veterinary care, he said.

He estimated that the amount of time he will spend working with the animals to be about 2,000 hours, he said.

"I sleep with them and bottle feed them," he said.

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