Wolves in the backyard

When Joni Soffron sits at her kitchen table in the morning and gazes out the window, she is greeted by a pack of wild wolves.

But she does not scream and spill her cereal, because it's an everyday occurrence here at Wolf Hollow, a privately owned wolf-education center near Ipswich, Mass. Thousands of visitors come here each year to learn about wolves.

"These guys would make horrible pets," says Christina Morss, a Wolf Hollow assistant. She's talking to a group of kids from a visiting summer program sitting outside the wolves' large pen. "You cannot train them to do anything. These guys follow their own sets of rules."

Wolf Hollow started in 1990 with five gray wolf pups. Today, 12 wolves live here.

Wolves are an endangered species. About 3,500 live in the lower 48 states, mostly in the forests of Minnesota. Another 6,000 or so live in Alaska.

Wolf packs have their own strict rules. Everything from a subtle stare to the position of the tail tells other wolves - and humans - how they are feeling. The rules apply to anyone entering the wolves' territory. That includes Mrs. Soffron. "These aren't pets," she says as she slips on a denim jacket.

"Nothing stretchy," she warns - no sweatshirts, in other words. "It initiates a tug of war."

The wolves eye her when she enters their pen. "I have to get down to show respect," she says. Sometimes she has to kneel so she's lower than the wolves. She also has to give a belly scratch to the highest-ranking wolves first.

Wolves who don't follow pack rules are kicked out. B.C., a seven-year-old black male, snoozes in the corner of the pen far away from where cheese treats are being handed to other wolves through the 10-foot-tall chain-link fence.

"B.C. got too bossy," Ms. Morss says. He was picking on his siblings in the pack and was not showing the "alpha" female (meaning the "lead" female, his mother) the proper respect. In other words, he was holding his tail in the wrong position. Once he starts dropping his tail and looking nonthreatening, Morss says, he can rejoin the group.

When Soffron is in the pen, she is careful not to stare into a wolf's eyes or show her teeth. These are both invitations to a confrontation.

Soffron remembers once when two males were playing with her. One was tugging on her hair. The other was pulling her sweatshirt. Then TeeBee, the alpha female, lay down in front of her, demanding a belly scratch. When Soffron didn't respond immediately, the disgruntled TeeBee latched onto her arm. She wouldn't let go, and shredded the sleeve of Soffron's sweatshirt.

TeeBee wasn't trying to hurt Soffron - just teach her a lesson. A wolf's jaws are twice as strong as those of a German Shepherd, and five times as strong as human jaws.

Soffron says she has nothing to fear as long as she follows pack rules. There's no record of a healthy wild wolf ever attacking a human in North America.

But that doesn't mean wolves don't get hungry. They do attack cattle and sheep. The debate continues over the best way for wolves (which are being reintroduced in the wild) and domestic livestock to live together.

Soffron used to feed the wolves mostly dog food - hundreds of pounds a week. Then she started spicing up their meals with spaghetti sauce. (They prefer the Newman's Own brand. "It has a little more garlic in it," Soffron explains.)

The wolves also get cubes of cheese - New York sharp cheddar, to be exact - and lots of lamb and beef jerky.

They've now switched from dog food to five-pound "logs" of frozen horse meat, which are lobbed over the fence to the hungry animals. The wolves get a log every other day. But it's not first-come, first-served for wolf meals: The rules of the pack dictate who eats when.

The "alpha" male (Lyco) eats first, then the alpha female, and so on down the line. It's a lot easier here than in the wild, though. There, a hunt may be successful only 1 out of 10 times. Wolves may have empty bellies for days. But when they do eat, their stomachs can expand. A hungry wolf can eat up to one- third its own weight.

Their stretchy stomachs aren't their only unique feature. A mother wolf will give birth to only as many pups as are appropriate to the pack's situation - the food supply, size of the pack, and general circumstances. If food is in short supply, she may only give birth to one pup.

At Wolf Hollow, Soffron removes the pups from their mother after 10 days for "imprinting." This is so the young animals will accept Soffron as a member of the pack.

Soffron sleeps with the pups in a tiny pen in a sleeping bag. She lets the pups nuzzle her. She burps them at night. She rubs their bellies to help them eliminate their digested food (this is what a mother wolf does by licking them). The pups' meals are a delicious (to wolves) mixture of goats' milk, half- and-half, and powdered gelatin.

After four weeks of "imprinting," the pups are returned to their mother. Something curious happens, though: When they first see their mother, they run and hide! They don't recognize her at first. The mother wolf immediately lies down to nurse her brood.

The tiny wolves will even howl, but not at the moon, Soffron says. It's a myth that wolves howl at the moon, she says. Wolves howl to communicate, to find one another, and just for fun.

"The bottom line," says Soffron, "is they're wild animals."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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