Wolf Encounters - July 2002
In the Summer of 2002, I found myself in America for
the second time in a row (see the photos here),
and in particular, spending a week in Washington DC, doing much the
same sort of stuff that American tourists in London get up to. A
little way north of 'downtown' Washington is the National Zoo, which
makes up part of the Smithsonian Institution - a collection of
galleries and museums, mostly gathered around the National Mall, named
after the original donor
Admission to the zoo, like to all of the other
Smithsonian Museums, is free of charge, and in that respect, with a
collection of 3,700 animals in enclosures a lot more humane than some
zoos, a visit is certainly worthwhile. Most visitors' top
priority are the famous giant pandas - and the merchandising and
advertising that goes on reflects this. However, squirreled away
in a corner, the zoo also has a small 'pack' of three (I think)
Mexican wolves and - for me at least - that puts even the most famous
of pandas into second place.
||According to the National Zoo's website,
the pack consisted of three adults - all three sibling
males. They were all three years old, and, while the zoo
didn't make anything of it, it turns out that I was paying them
a visit on the first anniversary of their introduction into the
zoo's ecosystem. They were born and raised in captivity at
Canid Survival and Research Centre, located in Eureka, Missouri.
Despite not having a female in the pack, there was still clearly
a social structure that the wolves had adopted - two of them
seemed relatively co-dominant (though with such a short viewing
time, this observation may have been false), while there was
quite clearly an omega, holding himself in typical fashion and
keeping out of the way of the other two. Quite often, all
he'd be doing was pacing backwards and forwards along the back
edge of the enclosure.
The other two wolves were somewhat more 'active' for the waiting
public. Their enclosure was large given the number of
animals it was holding, and open - it had been constructed in
such a way that there was no need for anything more than a
low-level wall with a handrail to separate the wolves from the
humans. A relief from all those zoos that distance the two
factions with thick glass or several high wire fences.
What does intrigue me, however, is the behaviour among younger
visitors to zoos when around the wolf enclosures. They can
be impeccably quiet on the most part, yet put them in front of a
pack of wolves and they'll start barking, howling, and you name
it. The children, that is - I think the wolves are
generally too unimpressed to make any reply. Dogs don't
typically howl in the same way, and most parents wouldn't show
Werewolf films to under-10s, so it beats me where that
instinctive response comes from.
The Mexican Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) is said to be the
most genetically distinct subspecies of grey wolf in North
America. At a maximum height of 32 inches, it it is also
one of the smallest, and Mexican wolves tend to be smaller than
their northern counterparts. As is natural for wolves at this
time of the year, they'd have shed their winter coats,
explaining the somewhat scrawny look that a lot of people
As with most animals trying to cope with temperatures reaching
nearly 100°F (38°C), the wolves were far more active in the
evening than during the heat of the afternoon, so it was
thankful that the zoo's ground stayed open until 8 p.m. in the
Summer months. Unfortunately, with brown wolves far away
against a brown background and dimming light, it's not the best
time for photographs.
Still, despite not being able to take away much in photographic
memory, there is a lot to be taken and said about being around
wolves, even if there is a wall between you and them.
They're great animals to watch and admire, and I, at least,
could have spent a lot more time than I was able to that day
sitting and admiring them, and watching happily as they gaze
back at you, wondering.
National Zoo - The official website of the
Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington DC.
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