The first wolf to join our collection was a timber wolf in 1925, a gift from a man who’s friend had had the animal as a pet, raised from puppyhood. According to a note in our member magazine, ZOONOOZ, January 1926, “It has never been in a cage until now, having occupied a spacious yard next to a school house where it had many a romp with children who climbed the fence.”
In May 1980, a trio of tundra wolves arrived, marking the first time these wolves had ever seen a tree, and this made interesting viewing for the public as the wolves raced around the large, one-acre, tree-studded grassy enclosure, sniffing and scent marking and having a grand time in their new surrounds. Born in 1974 in Barrow, Alaska, they were a gift from the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory.
Six golden, or Chinese, wolves were wild caught in China in 1977 and sent to us in 1981 from the Taiyuan Zoo as part of an animal exchange program. They adjusted to their new home quickly, as one of the females had a litter of pups four months after her arrival here. At that time, they were the only golden wolves in North America.
Our wolves today
Today, we are honored to have four wolves who serve as animal ambassadors at the Zoo. Magnificent and intelligent, our Arctic wolf brothers take your breath away. Born in 2003 at a facility in Quebec, Canada, Kenai and Keeli came to the Zoo when they were just three months old.
Other wolf ambassadors are gray wolves Akela, born in 1999, and Koda, born in 2011, who was donated to the Zoo as a two year old by someone who raised him as a pet and could no longer properly care for him. Like our cheetah ambassadors, Akela and Koda have a dog companion named Kona, a high-energy pound puppy rescued in 2011, who makes outings with the public a lot easier when their buddy is beside them.
Kenai can be seen as part of the Zoo’s Backstage Pass program; Keeli, Akela, and Koda are three of the animal stars of the Zoo’s Camp Critters animal show. All four wolves may also be seen taking their trainers for strolls around the Zoo’s grounds. They seem to enjoy howling if their human audience encourages them by howling, too! The wolves listen to the various vocal offerings of our guests and then respond to these howls with their unique tenor voice.
About six million years ago, a small, foxlike North American carnivore was evolving into a large, 100-pound (45 kilograms) generalized predator that began living in packs. Gray wolves flourished to become the most widely dispersed land mammal on Earth, next to humans. Traveling across the Bering Strait, they fanned out into the Far East, Russia, and Europe, eventually crossing back into North America. Yet as human populations increased, wolves were seen as competitors for food and as a threat to human safety. This led to bounties that eliminated wolves from large areas and caused the steady decline of wolf populations.
Gray wolves now occupy only a small percentage of their former range. Persecution continued in the U.S. until the 1970s, when only 500 to 1,000 wolves remained, gone from 95 percent of their historic range. In Canada, the wolf’s range was reduced by 15 percent, but in Mexico, it was totally depleted. Today, large wolf populations are restricted to the more remote and wild corners of the Earth, such as the Arctic.
In 1995, 14 gray wolf recruits from Canada were introduced to their new home in our oldest national park, Yellowstone, after an absence of more than 60 years. At the end of 2011, almost 100 wolves in 10 packs are thriving there. The California Fish and Game Commission is reviewing a petition to list the gray wolf as an endangered species in the state.
The last natural wild population of red wolves lived in the coastal prairie marshes of Louisiana and Texas. Almost eradicated, red wolves were given a second chance by reintroduction efforts in eastern North Carolina’s wildlife refuges. Their current wild population is less than 150 individuals and dropping, as the wolves often breed with coyotes that recently moved into the area. Red wolves are also in several zoos as part of captive breeding programs in the U.S. and Canada, with the hope that one day there will be new safe areas to reintroduce the species.
Now considered endangered, Ethiopian wolves continue to lose their mountain habitat as the land is turned into farmland or pastures for grazing livestock or commercial sheep farms. Rabies and canine distemper have also reduced the wild populations, and many red wolves interbreed with domestic dogs. But there is hope! The species now has full official protection in Ethiopia, and those found killing a wolf will serve jail time of up to two years. A vaccination campaign for dogs living near wolf territory, sterilization of wolf hybrids, population surveys, and other steps are in place to help this canine predator.