The Weekly Wolf

I spent six years living with the wolves of Mission:Wolf.
Each Monday, this page will feature a new photograph and story of these wolves.

February 28, 2011



Fierce little Nyati was born in the spring of 1993. As a pup, she was the smallest and most timid of her pack and is still one of the shyest wolves ever to have lived at the refuge. In the hopes that a strong name would give her courage, Nyati was named after the Swahili word for ‘water buffalo’. Even thought the water buffalo’s power didn’t influence her much when interacting with humans, it did give her the intensity needed to become an extreme-alpha wolf.

When only three years old, little Nyati dominated her mother and kicked her out of the pack. Nyati was so thrilled to be the alpha female of her pack that she decided it would be fun to be the alpha of all the surrounding packs. This tiny wolf bounded over 9 ˝-foot fences to dominate all the packs around her. Soon Nyati was running a three-ring circus. Unfortunately, as she was jumping over the fence one time, she got her left hind leg caught in the top of the fence. She was able to free herself, but we saw she was limping and thought she must have fractured a toe. We had no choice but take her to the vet, but this was easier said than done. Nyati was terrified of people, and ran away whenever anyone came close to her. With so much adrenaline in her body, it took three days with a blow-dart gun and enough tranquilizers to put down a horse, before Nyati was finally sedated. When she finally got to the vet, he said her whole leg had to be amputated. We were devastated, but there was no choice and the operation was done quickly.

Nyati was brought home to recover in the Visitors Center, but as soon as she woke up (4 hours after surgery) she started banging against the glass door, not understanding she could not get through. When we let her into the small pen behind the Visitors Center, the first thing she did (at two o’clock in the morning) was jump the fence right back into her own pack. From the sound of the wolves fighting, we thought that we would never see Nyati again. However, there was nothing we could do because it is unsafe to go into a wolf fight, especially in the dark. When we came out in the morning to pick up the pieces, there was Nyati on top of the hill with her tail in the air, showing her alpha position.

Later in life, Nyati warmed up a little to her caretakers, finally learning that we probably weren’t going to hurt her. With the steadying influence of her two outgoing mates, Lucus and Beorn, Nyati settled down a bit. She still wanted to rule the world, but she didn’t try to jump any more fences. Nyati satisfied herself with being the first to howl when trouble was brewing around the refuge and giving anyone who touched her water tub (even if it was just to give her more water or remove the ice) a very hard time. At nearly 15 years old Nyati passed away on January 25, 2008, doing what wolves most love to do – gobbling down meat as fast as they can. The trials and tribulations this little wolf faced throughout her life would have humbled any of us. I will always admire Nyati for overcoming any obstacle that stood in her way and proclaiming herself the alpha of the world.

February 21, 2011



Lucus was a magnificent black male wolf born May 2, 1987, on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. The breeder thought it was a great idea to breed wolves with rottweilers to create “wolf-a-weilers.” Part of the breeder’s wolf stock, Lucus’ litter was raised by a neighbor, and actually suckled from the udder of a cow. The neighbor understood the difficulty of finding permanent homes for wolves, and so when a visiting friend of Mission:Wolf offered to bring some of the puppies back to the refuge she took him up on the offer.

At barely three months old, Lucus and his sisters, Jordan and Raven, came to live at Mission: Wolf. Lucus traveled as a yearling on the Ambassador Wolf Program, making frequent visits to schools and businesses, and even appearing on live television in 1987 with Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Society. As time went on it became obvious that Lucus was growing shyer of people. By fifteen months of age he was too shy to travel. Retiring to home life, he quickly became the alpha male of his pack and maintained that position his whole life.

Leadership is a varied quality in wolves, as it is in humans. Every so often an extraordinary individual comes along, and Lucus was one of those. For ten years he led his pack with grace and strength. He exhibited a fond tolerance for the young wolves in his pack, earning respect and affection from the other wolves. Yet, when the need arose, he commanded the utmost respect from his pack. His strong and confident posture often enabled him to prevent dominance challenges and resolve conflict peacefully.

As Lucus aged, he remained as spry as ever. Even at the elderly age of 16, despite weakened hips and back, he could run from one end of his enclosure to the other just as fast as his younger companions when food arrived. Then, on a cold Sunday morning in February of 2004, the staff awoke to find that Lucus had passed away during the night due to a hemorrhaged tumor. As one of the first wolves ever taken in by Mission:Wolf, his passing was the ending of an era. With only two months left until his 17th birthday, Lucus left this world the same as he came into it – a patient and gentle spirit who was wise beyond his years.

February 14, 2011



Ballazar was an eastern gray wolf, born in a Minnesota zoo in 1989. For two years he was part of an educational exhibit at the International Wolf Center in Ely, MN. Then, film producers Jim and Jamie Dutcher arranged to have Ballazar transferred to Idaho where he was placed with an adult female wolf and several unrelated pups for a wolf documentary. They hoped to film the behavior of the newly formed "pack" and the mating and birthing of wolf pups. Ballazar was featured as the alpha male (a.k.a. Akai) in the resulting film “Wolf: Return of a Legend.” Then, while filming a second documentary with the same wolves, Ballazar challenged Jim and forced him out of the enclosure. This was the end of Ballazar's short-lived acting career

Despite their differences, Jim wanted to make sure Ballazar found a safe home, so he contacted Mission:Wolf. When we picked him up at the airport, Ballazar was delirious and heavily sedated from his flight. His recovery from the tranquilizers was slow and for months afterward Ballazar was stressed over the sudden move and losing his old wolf family. In hopes of breaking him out of his depression we introduced him to a female wolf named Mera. From the beginning he was extremely aggressive toward her, so we were forced to keep them separated. After four months at the refuge Ballazar was a pacing basket case, afraid of everything and aggressive if anyone came too close. He started to chew himself in fits of anxiety, resulting in a hole the size of a baseball in his leg. The veterinarian recommended we euthanize him.

When February finally rolled around and mating season started, Ballazar seemed to change his mind about Mera. He spent hours standing next to the fence, wagging his tail happily at her. They quickly became the flirts of the refuge, with Ballazar so distracted by showing off for Mera that he forgot to chew on his legs and the wounds healed. When the day came to open the gate between them, the happiness he expressed as he bounded up the hill with her by his side reassured us all that the stress, pain and sadness everyone had endured was worth it. For the rest of their lives Ballazar and Mera could always be found close together.

Then, after nine years spent living happily with Mera, we found Ballazar lying on the ice and unable to stand. We rushed him to the veterinarian in Colorado Springs where he passed away on the operating table of heart failure at the age of twelve. Mera lived for five more months and reached the ripe old age of 15. After the death of her beloved mate, she slowly went downhill until she passed away quietly on the evening of August 26, 2001. Of all the pairs we have had at Mission:Wolf over the years, these two will always be remembered for their incredibly tight bond and the affection they always shared with each other.

February 7, 2011



Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are a medium sized deer that live across the Arctic tundra and sub-Arctic taiga of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Svalbard, Norway, Finland and Siberia. They were once found across most of the northern hemisphere, but climate change and habitat destruction has driven the decline of many subspecies and resulted in the disappearance of the southern subspecies from most of their range.

Subspecies of caribou vary greatly in color and size depending on their range. Typically, the northern tundra animals are smaller and lighter in color, where the southern woodland caribou are larger and darker to blend in with the shadows. Most caribou stand 33-59 inches at the shoulder; females weigh 170-260 lbs., and males weigh 200-460 lbs. Unlike other deer species both males and females grow antlers each year. Caribou have the largest antlers in relation to their body size of any deer.

Also known as reindeer, these resilient animals have adapted to the harsh conditions of their habitat. Their unusually large noses have specialized bones that dramatically increase the surface area of the nostrils so that incoming air can be warmed by the animal’s body heat before entering the lungs. These same bones allow any residual moisture to be condensed out of the breath before being exhaled. Amazingly, caribou hooves change shape and texture throughout the year to help the animals adapt to their extreme environment. During the summer, when the ground is soft and wet, the caribou’s footpads swell and become spongy to keep them from sinking too deep into the tundra. Then, in the winter, their footpads shrink to expose the hard rim of the hoof which is used to cut into the ice for traction while walking and to dig in the snow for food.

In order to deal with the cold winters and scarcity of food in the Arctic, many caribou populations migrate thought the year. Some of the North American populations claim the longest migration of any terrestrial mammal – up to 3,100 miles in a year, covering 390,000 square miles. Migratory caribou can normally cover 12-34 miles per day and can easily swim for long distances. A caribou’s legs are adapted specifically for these long treks, with spring-like tendons doing most of the work to propel them forward. During the spring migration to calving grounds smaller groups will join to form huge herds, sometimes numbering 50,000-500,000 animals.

I took this picture of a wild caribou bull along the northern coast of the Beaufort Sea in Alaska during the spring migration. He is shedding his heavy, lighter-colored winter coat, so you can see the darker, shorter summer coat coming through in some places. I was there a little early to catch the full migration but was lucky enough to see this bull and his harem of females on their way to the calving grounds. The whole group was relaxed because the summer hordes of mosquitoes hadn’t yet arrived and there were no wolves, grizzly bears or polar bears (their main predators) around. If an arctic wolf had shown up the whole herd probably would have set off running at up to 50 miles per hour.