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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 the Wild 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 comment on.

As with most animals trying to cope with temperatures reaching nearly 100F (38C), 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.


  • The National Zoo - The official website of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington DC.

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