For kids: On the road with Atka, the wolf
He's an ambassador on an important mission.
South Salem, N.Y.
I'm sitting in the back seat of a van next to a large, black, wire cage, the kind you might use to take a dog to the vet. The animal inside the cage isn't a dog, though. He's a 90-pound arctic wolf. He's as tall as a German shepherd, with a thick, white coat and bright yellow eyes.Skip to next paragraph
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A moment ago, the wolf looked at me and began licking the bars of the cage. So – even though I knew I shouldn't – I stuck my fingers into the cage.
Fortunately for me, this wolf has manners. He isn't biting my fingers. Instead, he's licking them.
Still, I wouldn't have considered doing this with any ordinary wolf. This wolf is special. His name is Atka and he is an ambassador wolf. Atka is one of four ambassador wolves who live at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, N.Y. These wolves are called ambassadors because their job is to represent their species and to teach people about it. Atka differs from the other three ambassadors in one way: He visits many different places as part of his job. Today, I am going with Atka and two of his human handlers, Maggie Howell and Rebecca Bose, to St. Luke's School in New Canaan, Conn., where he will help teach a sixth-grade class about wolves and the environment.
While we drive and Atka watches the snowy fields roll past the window, Rebecca tells me about how he got such an unusual job.
"When we got him, Atka was 8 days old," she says. "He came from a facility in Minnesota where they breed wolves in captivity for zoos and or nature centers such as ours. From the very beginning, we worked with him with the thought that he might be able to go and do off-site programs. We took him to the post office and the bank and on various errands. We worked with him and the leash, getting into and out of vehicles, that sort of thing. He seemed to embrace this lifestyle – always curious and happy to go and see new things."
I ask Rebecca what other sorts of places Atka visits as part of his ambassadorial duties.
"Atka visits libraries, universities, festivals, scout meetings, museums, hospitals, and retirement homes," she answers. "He is a very unusual, special animal. We are blessed to have him."
When we arrive at the school, Atka waits outside with Rebecca while Maggie gives a presentation to the class, which has gathered in the gymnasium in front of a projector screen. "First, you're going to learn some stuff about wolves, and then you're going to meet our special friend, Atka," says Maggie. "So, how many of you think you might be scared of wolves?"
Several of the kids raise their hands. "That's OK," says Maggie.
All about the arctic wolf
• Arctic wolves are a subspecies of the gray wolf.
• Their prey includes caribou, musk oxen, Arctic hares, lemmings, seals, and birds.
• They can eat up to 20 pounds of food in one sitting.
• Because food is scarce in the Arctic, wolves don't waste any of it. They will eat the skin, fur, and bones of their prey.
• Wolves will travel for long distances by trotting at about 5 miles per hour. To catch prey, they can run at speeds of 36 to 38 m.p.h. for short bursts.
• Arctic wolves live in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. They are the only subspecies of the gray wolf that still can be found over the whole of its original range. This is mostly because in their natural habitat, they rarely encounter humans.
• They communicate through body language, howling, and marking.
• The Arctic wolf's scientific name is Canis lupus arctos. It is also sometimes called the polar wolf or the white wolf.
• Adult arctic wolves have 42 teeth (adult humans have 32).
• Arctic wolves live in groups called packs. The number of wolves in a pack averages between six and 10.
• Arctic wolves are well-adapted to the icy conditions of their habitat. They have long, thick white fur; a short muzzle; and small, rounded ears to help prevent heat loss. They also have fur between their paw pads and shorter legs than most gray wolf subspecies.
Sources: The Wolf Conservation Center, www.cosmosmith.com/arctic_wolves.html, and Wikipedia.