The first time you see the piercing amber-brown eyes of a wolf only a few feet away, it’s a little intimidating.
Despite an intervening layer of chain link fencing.
As someone who has spent a lifetime mucking around wild lands where large carnivores conduct their daily business, it was still a little daunting when a couple of wolves trotted up to the fence just a few feet away as I walked with Dana Drenzek, manager of Wolf Park near Battleground, Indiana, just north of Lafayette. She greeted the pair with cheerful conversation while the writer in tow took momentary pause to consider if today’s board of fare would include an oversized helping of journalist tartare.
It was an unreasonable but natural fear inspired by a lifetime of fairy tales, blood-curdling outdoor magazine stories and werewolf movies. However, the wolf is no longer officially considered Big and Bad so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance to get the up-close-and-personal scoop on this often-maligned wild canine.
Wolf Park has been a northern Indiana institution for 46 years since it was started by Purdue Ethology Professor Erich Klinghammer. Originally it was a place where Dr. Klinghammer could study wolf behavior in order to develop a better understanding of wolf-to-human interactions. Over the years, the program expanded significantly and now has embraced a three-pronged mission of conservation, education and research.
The self-funded park sits on 75 acres and has 12 wolves in residence along with 10 bison, four gray fox and two coyotes. The wolves live in several smaller pens and also have a larger seven-acre main enclosure where the entire pack can get together. However, that wasn’t happening during our late winter visit because Drenzek pointed out that this is the start of the wolf breeding season and Wolf Park tries to keep a tight control on the number new pups at the facility.
The most unique thing about the facility’s wolves is that they are intentionally human-habituated, something unthinkable when trying to rehabilitate an animal for return to the wild. However, for Klinghammer’s research and the greater Wolf Park mission, the ability to safely interact with the highly-social pack animals opens a whole range of opportunities.
Of course ‘safety’ is a relative term when dealing with a predator that can quickly slip back into eons of unlearned instinct if not dealt with carefully. Drenzek sometimes enters the den with birthing mothers to begin the socialization process but admits there are moments where, “I tell my assistant ‘if you hear screaming, pull me out fast!’”
For school children, families and outdoors enthusiasts, the most popular part of the Wolf Park experience is the “Howl Night” held every Saturday evening. The event, which starts at 7:15 p.m., starts with a talk on foxes and then proceeds to the main event when all the park residents start their serenade with a little vocal encouragement from staff members. Visitors can join along if they feel the need; most of the younger crowd does.
During our daytime visit we got to witness a private, impromptu performance of Howl Night and it was captivating. Having never heard a wolf pack performing in full voice, the sound was fascinating: an eerie, lonesome, untamed, sometimes humorous and wholly intoxicating racket. It also causes a natural primeval fear reaction inside the brainstem, a product of our own developmental history from a time when it was hard to tell who was actually at the top of the food chain.
Logic, science and Drenzek tell us that our angst regarding wolves is unreasonable, a product of social conditioning that paints wolves as villains. When you consider there were no documented wolf fatalities in the 20th century in North America, the risk is obviously minimal. Granted, there have been two recently- in 2005 a jogger died in Alaska and in 2008 a hiker was killed in Canada- but when you consider there are an average of 30-40 fatal dog attacks every year in just the U.S., wolves are pretty low on the threat board.
And, while we’re on the topic, what about the recent central Indiana coy-wolf hullabaloo on social media? Like most social media “things,” it’s a load of bovine excrement.
“In order to have coy-wolves, you’d need wolves and we’ve not had any since 1901,” Drenzek said with a laugh. She does admit Indiana has had a few wolf visitors over the years, young males stretching their legs while looking for love, “but they don’t last; they tend to get hit by a car or shot by hunters.”
Our state has its share of problems, including one markedly pedantic outdoor writer, but bloodthirsty super-wolves lurking near the local Vinyl Village isn’t one of them. We can all relax and take time to enjoy a really wild show at Wolf Park.
Howl Nights are conducted every Saturday at 7:15 pm. There are bleachers at the main enclosure and a building with windows is available during inclement weather. Ticket prices are $8 adult, $6 children 6-13, under 6 are free. There are other programs and open hours throughout the year; check the website for current information.
For more information visit Wolfpark.org
Watch a video of our visit and talk with Dana Drenzek: Wolf Park