North America, northern Europe, and Asia


All habitats

The misunderstood wolf

Most of us grew up hearing stories about the "big, bad wolf." But wolves are not really big or bad. They aren’t even harmful to humans! Wolves belong to the same family of animals, Canidae, as the dog you may have as a family pet. They are predators that hunt and eat other animals. In some places they are considered a vulnerable or endangered species. There are many wolf organizations and government agencies working to both save wolves and educate people about them.

The myth of the wild dog

There are many stories of wolves being "wild dogs" that can be tamed. While wolves and dogs do share many biological traits, they are very different from each other. The dogs we have as pets have been bred to be gentle companion animals to humans. Wolves are still wild animals and should be treated as such. Sometimes wolves and dogs interbreed, and the pups are called wolf hybrids. However, these hybrids usually do not make good pets. There is another myth that some dog breeds, like the husky, are part wolf. But huskies are just another domestic dog breed, like a poodle or a golden retriever.

Wolves can travel long distances at a regular trot of about five miles per hour (eight kilometers per hour). They are much quicker when they hunt.
Wolves may travel far from their home pack and their regular territory in search of food—sometimes hundreds of miles (kilometers).
Wolves love to play when they have the chance. They start with a play bow and have been seen tossing "toys" like bones, branches, or animal skins to each other.
Wolves can “wolf down” 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of food in one sitting.
When hunting, wolves can spring up to 38 miles per hour (61 kilometers per hour).
On the Arctic tundra, wolf howls can be heard up to 10 miles away.
The jaw pressure, or biting capacity, of a wolf has been measured at 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms) per square inch (psi), compared to a German shepherd’s at 750 psi or a human’s at 300 psi.
Arctic wolves have hollow guard hairs to better insulate the body so ice does not accumulate on the fur.

Notable wolves
The first wolf to join our collection was a timber wolf in 1925, a gift from a man whose friend 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 an important 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.

Currently, we are honored to have a gray wolf serving as an animal ambassador at the Zoo. Koda, born in 2011, 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, Koda has a dog companion, named Kona. This high-energy pound puppy, rescued in 2011, makes outings with the public a lot easier for Koda when his dog buddy is beside him.

Wolf origins
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
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. By 2013, 95 wolves in 10 packs were counted, thriving there. The California Fish and Game Commission is reviewing a petition to list the gray wolf as an endangered species in the state.

Red wolves
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.

Ethiopian wolves
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.