The Way of the Wolves | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Miscellany

The Way of the Wolves

These Parts--Battle Ground, IN: Life in a wolf pack is a daily drama of dominance and submission. At Wolf Park in Battle Gound, Indiana, scientists and visitors get a front-row seat.

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

The people from Ohio are gathered around the wolf playpen, anxiously awaiting the appearance of the wolf puppies. They're getting their cameras and video recorders ready.

The playpen is an eight-foot oval grassy area enclosed by a two-foot-high barrier of corrugated metal. In the background, the black and brown lumps grazing in the dandelion-spotted field are bison. "We have a new [bison] calf that's about three weeks old," says Monty Sloan, resident wildlife photographer here at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana. "You can barely see it there. A little splotch of orange." Indeed, you can see an amorphous orange dab nestled securely among several stoic bison.

Wolf Park's founder and patriarch, Purdue University professor and former University of Chicago faculty member Dr. Erich Klinghammer, brought the bison here in 1981 because they are natural wolf prey. He saw it as an unprecedented opportunity to observe wolves' hunting strategies, which are difficult to observe in the wild. He had a hunch that healthy bison would be in no danger because wolves are opportunistic hunters--they attack weak or wounded prey. He thought the wolves would yield to a healthy bison's charges and challenges, and he was right. No wolf or bison has ever been seriously hurt in the bison demonstrations open to the public every Sunday.

On the far end of the bison pasture, along the barbed-wire fence, there's a herd of sheep. You can hear them bleating. Klinghammer calls them "self-propelled, solar-powered lawn mowers."

There's little activity among the main wolf pack on this hot day. Imbo, the male leader (known as the alpha male), sleeps in the large fenced-in enclosure atop a wooden wolf hut, which looks like a flat-topped A-frame doghouse open at both ends. His subjects sleep on the ground beneath him. They don't look imposing, little more threatening than sleeping Alaskan huskies.

Just beyond the wolf enclosure are the giant cages, big enough for flight, that Klinghammer used when he was researching the behavior of pigeons and doves. He decided to take up wolves when he developed a severe allergy to the birds. Up the gravel road, beyond the ridge, swans glide across Turtle Lake. And just beyond the lake is a cluster of small enclosures, each housing one or two wolves. These are the outcasts: most often, physical weakness makes them unable to assert any dominance among other wolves, who are quite status-conscious. In the wild, these wolves would be loners, and probably wouldn't last long.

Ginny Kunch, executive puppy mother, finally emerges from the white mobile unit that serves as wolf nursery with an armload of three brown wolf puppies. "These are my kids," she says, setting them down in their pen to frolic. The visitors from Ohio ooh and aah.

"Look at them. They're so tiny!"

"Aren't they adorable!"

"They look just like puppies."

Less than a month old, they whimper like puppies. Kunch tells the assembled that a wolf's natural instinct is to fear and avoid humans. But these wolves, like all other wolves born here, will be tame: they have been separated from their mothers 10 to 21 days after birth and raised by humans. That's the only way to get them to accept human contact throughout their lives.

Pat Goodmann, Wolf Park's research associate and the only paid wolf worker, explains: "I wouldn't go so far as to say they regard us as pack members. They know there's differences between us and them. We at least have a status analogous to that of trusted and well-liked visiting anthropologists. We can get an inside view of what it's like living in a wolf pack."

The wolves here are never truly domesticated--they retain all their instincts--but they do accept the humans enough to respond to their howls. Wolves howl either to mark their territory (warning other packs to stay away) or to assemble the pack. When familiar volunteers enter the pen now and howl, the wolves bound up to them to howl themselves and prance.

"Executive" is part of Kunch's title because all Wolf Park volunteers spend some time raising the pups--that way the wolves learn to accept a variety of humans, not just one. But Kunch has the greatest responsibility. She wanted more than anything to be this year's executive puppy mother. (Sloan was mom last year.) So she was elated when on April 22 Betsy dug a den under the hut she shares with Sirgei, father of these pups. She disappeared into the den for about four days, until a thunderstorm flooded it and forced her to bring her pups out a few days earlier than expected. She then kept them in the hut.

Kunch, Sloan, and Goodmann entered the pen on the 13th day. "Betsy was eager to see us and be greeted by us," Kunch says, "because they hadn't seen us in two weeks. We walked with the adults to the back of the pen so that they wouldn't see what was going on, and Erich entered and retrieved the pups. The adults were a little agitated. They paced around. They knew something was up. Before too long they oriented toward Erich, but he was already leaving. Betsy ran immediately to the den and started searching. It was hard to watch her searching like that. To me, anyway, she looked kind of sad the first couple days. But she seems to have forgotten about it."

Kunch stayed with the pups around the clock for the first few days, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the mobile unit. "They crawled all over me," she says. "Then they're more willing to accept nursing because they're familiar with my smell." If they rejected the nursing bottle, she held the nipple under her arm for a few minutes, covering it with her scent. She even stimulated the pups' urination and defecation: the pups won't excrete, and thus will die, unless their anal and genital areas are massaged. The wolf mother does this with her tongue. "We don't take motherhood quite that far," Kunch says. She used a wet paper towel.

When one of the four pups died a few days after they were removed from the mother, Kunch was surprised at the depth of her grief. She had made valiant attempts to keep the pup alive. When it wouldn't accept the nursing bottle, she fed it liquids through a tube down its throat. "His weight was very low," she says. "He only weighed about a quarter-pound more after 13 days than he would have at birth. After a while, he started having seizures." So he had to be euthanatized.

But the ones left are full of exuberant puppyhood. The male is N.K., the girls are Sierra and Chani. Kunch named Chani, she tells the folks from Ohio, after a character in the science-fiction novel Dune. "We have various disputes over the names. Erich sort of has veto power. We wanted to name the boy Niko, but Erich knew this border collie named Niko who was just this awful little thing. He liked Conrad. And I said, 'We are not going to name a wolf Conrad.' So we settled on N.K."

Chani and Sierra are wrestling. Chani has Sierra on her back and pinned. Kunch points it out to the group. "This really isn't play. This is something they consider very serious. It's a very, very early and simplistic form of testing. To some extent, they're already learning and storing information on who runs further, who jumps higher, who bites harder, etc."

The pack order is established through dominance fights. When one wolf defeats another, he or she assumes the higher rank and the other moves down. The fights for middle or lower rankings usually involve a lot of growling and wrestling until one pins the other, as Chani has just done. But when it's a fight for the top spot, Klinghammer has said, it's often a fight to the death. Mortal fights are exceedingly rare, because fights for the top spot are rare. But it's a vicious sight, the hardest fact of life at Wolf Park. "You never get used to it," Klinghammer says.

Kunch steps into the pen and retrieves her pups. "We put some fertilizer on the grass," she says, "and being a worried mother, I'm not sure it's safe yet."

Kunch leads the visitors around to the front of the mobile unit. Klinghammer appears from around the other corner in his high rubber boots, the last bit of a sandwich between the first two fingers of his left hand--he's just returned from a farm auction. Something has started the pack howling. It's an eerie, stirring chorus. The people in the group are distracted as Klinghammer makes the rounds shaking hands: they have one ear on this seldom-heard music. Klinghammer pops the bit of sandwich in his mouth, props one foot up on the steps of the mobile unit, and stands poised and ready to talk about wolves.

The group assembled to hear him are docents from a zoo in Columbus, Ohio. Babs, the leader of the group (her fellow docents introduce her as the alpha female), says, "I love wolves. I could eat with them, sleep with them." She adds quickly that of course she doesn't mean that literally. This gives Klinghammer an entree to talk about a common subject around here, people who have the crazy idea that wolves make good pets.

Mickey, a friendly little wolf in a private pen in the area for the outcasts, is an example of what can happen when wolves are "domesticated." A family in Michigan kept him as a pet until he killed a three-year-old neighbor child. Klinghammer was an expert court witness--he often testifies about wolf behavior in cases like this--and got the judge to release Mickey to him.

"The main thing with wolves is, if someone trips and falls they become prey," says Klinghammer. "The wolf was in the backyard, unattended, on a chain. The little boy came over to play with him. He thought he was a dog. [The wolf had] been raised with kids in the trailer park. But the wolf knocked him down, and that's prey and boom!" He claps once sharply. "It's interesting that the mother and grandmother of the child understood. No one was mad at the wolf. It's just a nightmare. We try to tell people not to have wolves. We try to educate them but--" Klinghammer tries to temper his irritation at the folly of humans with a little dark humor. "But I figure if a wolf kills somebody, they call me and I make money as a consultant. So I get something out of it. But it's sad."

The owner of the wolf was fined $350.

"I get a lot of strange people," Klinghammer says. "There was a grandmother came here once. She wanted five wolf puppies for each of her five grandchildren as a present. I asked her if she wanted to make sure she didn't leave any descendants."

Goodmann, who keeps notes on pack life, wrote that 1987 "was a year of social upset for the pack. The old alphas, Tornado and Venus, were mobbed within weeks of each other and had to be euthanized."

Tornado had been alpha for just five days short of ten years. "That's a lot of peace. That has to be some kind of record," Klinghammer says. He wasn't there on the day Tornado was finally deposed, but Goodmann told him about it on the phone and he gave the order to euthanatize. He can't completely conceal the sadness in his eyes as he recalls what happened.

"Tornado was chasing Faust into a hut. Then Mephisto came after him. [Tornado] wasn't quick enough, and Mephisto and some others ganged up on him. They felt somehow he was weak. He couldn't assert himself as much because he was old. He was arthritic. And so one day they decided he wasn't strong enough, and that did it. It was like a revolution."

That was in January of '87. Goodmann's notes reflect the ensuing power struggle. "The day after, Akili and Kesho paraded around, tails up, acting like alpha male. The next day, Kesho was hiding and Akili was accepting the homage of the pack. In April, they got into a knockdown drag-out fight. Akili won, though one foreleg was injured. He chased Kesho on three legs for the next three days."

Kesho picked two fights with Akili in June and finally pinned him. But perhaps because neither of them strutted around like alpha, it was Imbo who emerged. Klinghammer says that all the females started gathering around Imbo, so he thought he must be alpha and decided to make love, not war. Goodmann wrote, "He hugely enjoyed himself, parading around accepting homage."

In August Imbo yielded alpha to Kesho without a fight, but in September he pinned Kesho, and has been alpha ever since. "[Imbo] makes a handsome alpha and is enjoying his rank--if facial expression and body language are any indication," Goodmann wrote.

The demise of Venus came in April of '87. She died at the hands of two of her daughters, Naima and Kaleah. Goodmann wrote: "We suspect [Venus] tried to enter Kaleah's den and that Naima and Kaleah fought her off and turned it into a dominance fight.

"[Naima and Kaleah] are too much alike in personality: both bouncy and bossy, demanding tummy rubs and attention from people and both quick to assert themselves over any vulnerable wolf."

Kaleah is so aggressive that she started to pick a dominance fight with a human volunteer, Dawn. "Kaleah lunged at Dawn, growling," Goodmann wrote. "Naima does not permit her sisters to act very assertive in her presence, even if they don't threaten her directly. Naima instantly flattened Kaleah, pasted her to the ground and read her the long version of the riot act."

The intense rivalry between the sisters erupted again in the spring of 1988. They and their sister, Lailah, were all pregnant and sharing the same enclosure. "In previous years," Klinghammer says, "the females would raise the pups together. But last year they fought. They had a humongous fight. We separated them, and everybody healed up."

The optimum time for goodwill among the wolves is when the pups are returned to the pack after the executive puppy mother has had them for three and a half months. The wolves are all bubbly, just like the relatives when a new baby is brought home from the hospital. So Klinghammer thought that late summer might be the right time to reintroduce the sisters: "When you have pups, it turns aggression off just like a switch. It's just like pulling a switch. Except it didn't work that way this time. Lailah and Naima took one look at each other, and they immediately went for each other." Although Klinghammer and the others sprayed the snarling wolves with fire extinguishers, nothing would break them up. Lailah had to be euthanatized. "So we learned something."

They decided that there was no sense in even trying to bring Kaleah back in with Naima. Because fights between a male and female are almost unheard-of, Kaleah now shares a separate enclosure with Ohtsu, an old, meek, bottom-ranked male who had to be separated from the pack because he was being picked on by the others too much.

"Naima stands firmly on top," Kunch says.

"The song of the wolf is the most beautiful sound in nature," Klinghammer says. "I never tire of it. When you hear the song of the wolf, the howl of the wolf--to me, that's the symbol of the vanishing wilderness."

Klinghammer came to America from Kassel, West Germany, in 1951, and settled in Iowa to go to college. He saw his first wild wolves that year on an Indian reservation in Nebraska. "We went out horseback riding, and there were two wolves for a brief, fleeting moment."

Klinghammer came to Chicago in 1955 for graduate studies at the University of Chicago. He joined the faculty there in 1964. His PhD is in ethology, which he describes as "the study of how animals--including humans--adapt to their environment." He met his first captive wolf, the study subject of a fellow ethologist, at the U. of C.

Klinghammer, who didn't care much for big-city life, tired of the murderous daily commute from Valparaiso, Indiana, to Hyde Park. So he jumped at the chance to join Purdue's faculty in 1968. When he had to abort his pigeon-and-dove study, he obtained his first wolves from Brookfield Zoo in 1972--a male named Koko and his sister, Cassie. He knew next to nothing about wolves, but he says, "They were the first two to teach me." Koko and Cassie never mated, but Cassie had other offspring with wolves Klinghammer obtained later. Ohtsu is Cassie's only child still at Wolf Park. Betsy is Cassie's granddaughter. "She looks just like her," Klinghammer says.

The park has two purposes: research and public education. Of all the observations he has made here, Klinghammer thinks his greatest contribution has been to increase understanding of the wolves' mating system. "The mating system has no one single rule," he says. "We have the alpha male mating; we have low-ranking males mating. We have single females mating under some conditions, and at other times we'll have four females pregnant. There are exceptions to the general rule that alpha male mates with alpha female. There are all kinds of variations. A lot of these things weren't known."

Betsy's recent litter incidentally afforded them the opportunity to confirm the 63-day gestation period for wolves. The little material there was on this subject was not recent. In the wild, the gestation period is hard to pin down: it's difficult to tell which mating was the moment of conception, and difficult to observe the wolves closely enough to determine when the birth occurs.

This year at the park, as usual, most females were given oral contraceptives (they put the pills in meatballs). Those females not given pills were separated from the males. But when a request for wolf pups came in from a research facility, Betsy and Sirgei were brought together to do the honors.

The wolf transaction fell through, and the pups remain at Wolf Park. But while Betsy and Sirgei were together, they mated only once. The moment of conception was sure, and Betsy gave birth exactly 63 days later.

By midafternoon, most of the pack is up and about and romping through the pasture that adjoins the enclosure. The most active times for wolves are at dawn and dusk. The docents watch from the wooden grandstand just beyond the fence.

Over by a gnarled tree, about ten feet beyond the fence, is the blanched rib cage of some animal that must have been the wolves' latest meal. One of the black-and-brown yearlings from last year's litter crunches away at the bones. The hard snapping sound his jaw makes as he chews gives some indication of the power of its hinge.

Akili pulls a black, glistening shank of meat out of the tall grass. Kesho comes up for a closer look, but one threatening growl from Akili sends him away. Imbo jumps down from atop the hut and leaps into the trough, a big washtub with a hose emptying into it like a limp and narrow waterfall. The docents crowd around to get close-ups of Imbo's proud face as the stream splashes off his back. His comical pose undermines the alpha superiority he seems to be trying to project as he calmly scans the gushing docents.

"Imbo used to be a beanbag when it came to attention," Sloan says. "He would just melt. But he's got a swelled head since he got to be alpha male."

One of the wolves rolls in the high grass like a jolly dog wallowing. Goodmann points out that this is an example of scent rolling, a form of communication: if a wolf comes across something interesting, it shares the discovery with the rest of the pack by rolling in it and bringing back the scent for the others to sniff. Sometimes, just as a little show for visitors, Klinghammer sprays perfume in several spots in the pasture; the wolves roll like mad.

Goodmann enters the pasture through the gate, and Kesho immediately bounds up to her, puts his paws on her shoulders, and licks her enthusiastically about the face. Then he rolls over on his back. She accommodates him with a good belly scratching, which he revels in.

Imbo jumps out of the trough, and Naima walks up to it for a drink. Kesho, her brother, begins to follow her but stops to chew on something black and stringy and squishy. Maybe intestines. The docents look repulsed.

"Erich," Goodmann says, looking around at all the chunks of prey scattered about. "This stuff is pretty yucky. I think I'll just go and get them a deer."

It's feeding time.

Goodmann rolls the green wheelbarrow up the gravel path to a shack near the mobile unit. When she opens a door on the side of the shack, a puff of cool air comes out. This is a walk-in refrigerator full of dead deer, the chief form of wolf chow around here. These animals fell victim to their most fearsome predator: "big and metal with four wheels," as Klinghammer puts it. He also gets a lot of dead calves from farmers.

Goodmann pulls out the nearest deer. Its head bounces along the ground as she drags it to the wheelbarrow. She tilts the wheelbarrow on its side and scoops up the carcass. Then she rights the wheelbarrow and sticks a knife into the deer's haunch. At the base of the gravel path, she stops, makes a megaphone out of her hands, and howls. It's a loud, alto moan that draws all the wolves back into the enclosure, howling back. Sloan seals the wolves into the enclosure by entering the pasture and dropping down the hatch door.

"Now I can push in the deer without a lot of helpers," Goodmann says. She enters the pasture and tilts the wheelbarrow, dumping the deer. Holding up its back leg, she cuts it off with a few strokes of the knife. She rolls it over and does the same with the other leg. Kunch lugs the legs over to the adjacent pen, Kaleah and Ohtsu's.

"Mmmmm," Klinghammer says as she passes him.

Kaleah looks on, hunger in her eyes. Ohtsu, lying on his side atop the hut, merely lifts his head. He looks hungry, too, but he won't dare even to show interest until Kaleah's had her fill. Kunch stands a few feet back from the pen, grabs one of the hacked-off legs with both hands, and plants her feet. She twists back, uncoils, and flings the deer leg over the fence. It lands in front of Kaleah. When Kunch flings the other leg, it lands in a mud puddle with a splash that scatters the docents.

Kaleah pounces--whips the second leg out of the puddle and stacks it beside the other. "Usually she puts them in a pile and guards them both," Kunch says. "I was trying to sail that one farther back, in which case Kaleah would be so busy with one, Ohtsu could grab the other and take off. Kaleah thinks the only one who should eat is Kaleah. He'll get some when she goes to sleep."

Kaleah tears the fur away, exposing the bright red meat beneath. Ohtsu watches longingly. You can tell by his old, tired, kindly face that he is on the bottom rung. It's the face of the ostracized.

In the pasture, flies buzz around the new deer carcass. Goodmann is dropping the last of the four-day-old deer remains into a bucket with a long tongs.

"See what happens when you have a master's degree?" Klinghammer asks the docents, loud enough for Goodmann to hear.

"Or a PhD," she retorts. "Piled higher and deeper."

Everyone leaves the pasture, and Goodmann locks the gate. When Sloan pulls the rope to lift the hatch, the wolves come charging in. Two yearlings are the first to reach the carcass. They tear at the fur. This is a relatively peaceful meal. Sometimes there's a lot of posturing around the carcass, the dominant wolves trying to push the others around. But today there's only one minor challenge, and the inferior wolf goes and jumps on top of the hut after little more than a mild growl.

We're surprised that the wolves don't instantly demolish the carcass. They haven't eaten in four days.

"But they've been snacking all along," Klinghammer says, reminding us of the blackened remains strewn around the pasture.

Sunday afternoon means the weekly bison demonstration. Today Kesho and two of proud papa Sloan's kids, Altaire and Shinook, will perform. Sloan says the younger wolves usually provide more action at the demonstrations because they haven't caught on to the fact that these bison are not weak and vulnerable. "Adults don't test bison very much--they've tested them for years. They know there's nothing vulnerable there, so why bother?"

Klinghammer explains the demonstration by saying, "Essentially, what you see is how wolves test bison for signs of weakness, and how the bison defend themselves." Wolves recognize better than we can the animal that's easiest to catch: "It limps, or maybe it coughs."

The smallest bison, Nemesis (so named for her penchant for charging people) has hidden her weakness from the wolves for many years: she is blind in one eye. "She's so damn belligerent, they never find out," Klinghammer says. "She believes in offense. She read the Israeli war manual."

The pickup truck is always nearby during bison demonstrations: it's a photography station and a kind of ambulance in case of emergency. The worst that's ever happened in the bison-wolf confrontations has been a scratched bison or bruised wolf. But last year there was a terrible, unprecedented mishap involving two wolves. Kaleah and Kuro, a low-ranking male, had been selected to test bison. But Kaleah turned on Kuro instead, pinned him, broke his front leg, and appeared intent on going in for the kill. Klinghammer intervened with a fire extinguisher, and this time it worked. But Kuro couldn't walk, and Klinghammer had the dangerous task of shooing the bison away from the helpless wolf while the volunteers loaded him into the vehicle. A vet got Kuro back on his feet, but his wounds have made him too vulnerable ever to be part of the pack again.

This was the only time Klinghammer has ever seen or heard of a serious dominance fight between wolves of the opposite sex.

The volunteers walk the wolves in on chains, taking them to the far end of the pasture before turning them loose. The huddle of barnacled bison seem bored with it all.

Altaire and Shinook move in, moving casually among the bison as if they're just out for an innocent little stroll. Shinook spots a bison lying in the grass. Maybe it's injured? He gets nose to nose with it and snarls. The bison stands quickly and lunges. Shinook beats a fast retreat.

Altaire comes barreling into the bison huddle. He's spotted a bison with his back to all the action. He slams on the brakes and bites the bison's tail. When the startled bison turns and charges, Altaire gets out of there fast.

"That swishing tail's too much to resist," Klinghammer says.

Kesho stalks around the perimeter, never making a serious move. He's seen it all before. The youngsters become discouraged as their attempts at bravado go essentially ignored by the bison. After about 30 minutes, they appear to have lost their taste for bison.

So the volunteers howl, and the wolves come running.

For travel information on Battle Ground and the Lafayette area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Monty Sloan--Wolf Park.

Add a comment