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Why Hand Raise Captive Wolves?


Why Hand Raise Captive Wolves? - by Pat Goodmann*

The question in the title is one that concerns a lot of our visitors. Here is a fairly detailed answer. It has to do with studying the biological basis of behavior, how behavior helps animals survive, and the difference between tame animals and domesticated ones.Wolf Pup Pack dining on Deer Picture

Ethologists are biologists who study the biology of behavior from an evolutionary standpoint and not using the animals as a model for man. Their emphasis is how inherited and learned aspects of behaviors twine together in the lifetime of a single animal to give it an advantage in surviving and reproducing in its environment. Dr. Klinghammer is an ethologist in the tradition of Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz, who together with his colleague, Niko Tinbergen, and Karl von Frisch, received a Nobel Prize for his work, studied several species of animals. He is probably best known for his work with a species of wild European goose, the greylag. In order to study these birds closely, from infancy to adulthood, he raised them in such a way that they treated him like a parent. In this way, though he could not become a goose, he could still come very close to having a goose's view of the world. We try to achieve the same thing with our wolves.

Imprinting is a learning process that takes place during a window of opportunity, lasting hours or days after an animal is born. Typically a young animal learns to treat only its own species as social companions, or rivals, or mates. When hand reared in captivity some baby animals learn to treat, not only their own species, but also another additional species as social companions, or rivals, or mates. Dogs are a good example of animals that learn to treat another species (humans) as they would normally treat dogs. Orphan baby animals who are not exposed to their own species until they are older may treat humans as their own kind and not be able to interact normally with their own species.

Given Dr. Klinghammer's academic background, his research using hand raised mourning doves, and the fact that Konrad Lorenz was one of his mentors, he was well aware of the advantages of captive studies of wild animals that have been socialized so that they can treat humans very much like their own kind. He has long been an advocate of socializing captive wild animals when it is both practical and safe. We use a hand-rearing, or socialization, "recipe" that results in wolves who show almost the full range of social behavior to us that they show to each other. This hand-rearing has several benefits for the wolves and for us:

1. The wolves are much less stressed at being kept in close proximity to humans. We are a normal, typically benign, part of their environment. For us, it means that humans, including new interns and students who are strangers to the wolves can immediately start watching the pack, at close range, without their mere presence disrupting or stopping what the wolves are doing among themselves.

2. Delivering medical care is much easier on the wolves, on us, and on our veterinarians. We need not resort so often to potentially disruptive (and sometimes physiologically risky) restraints such as nets, squeeze cages, or drugs. Much routine medical care and examination can be done with the wolf conscious. If an animal must be sedated, that is still an option. In some cases, routine medical care can be an enriching experience for the wolves. We "embed" potentially unpleasant medical treatment in an array of distractions and positive reinforcement, and have used triggering scratch reflexes to momentarily restrain wolves, which does not make them feel as if they are being "held against their will." With such techniques, when follow up care is needed, the wolf is more likely to be cooperative. Our wolves get their vaccinations, for example, as part of elaborate social greeting. It has long been a joke of mine that our goal is to have our wolves run to the fence and bounce excitedly when the veterinarian arrives with a tray full of hypodermic needles. Often this is literally what happens.

3. Hand raised wolves have an additional source of social interaction: their keepers. Wolves are social animals, but there is no guarantee, in the wild or in captivity, that they will always be able to live in a pack, or even have one other wolf as a companion. For animals who cannot live with a social group, or with one other wolf, we humans can be a source of friendly social interaction, including touch. Anyone who has seen a pair of wolves, or a group that has a good relationship, will not be able to deny that friendly, non-threatening touch is an important part of wolves' social fabric. I do not say that a human can adequately replace the companionship of another wolf, but for some wolves, who, due to their age, health problems, or personality conflicts with other wolves, humans may be their only source of friendly social touch. In such a case, or when two wolves tolerate each other but do not seem to experience a strong mutual attachment, human companionship can provide valid enrichment. For wolves who are still in the pack, but who have lost status and have little social freedom, humans may be their main source of friendly social interaction, at least for a while.

While it is possible to socialize a wolf that grew up in captivity but was not handled, this is stressful for the wolf and requires that it be isolated from other wolves while it is being socialized. We have always deemed the technique too stressful and disruptive to pack social order to use at Wolf Park with members of packs. The simplest and safest way to socialize wolves to humans is when they are pups.

Our socialization recipe calls for taking the pups from their mother before they are twenty-one days old, and drastically limiting her access to the pups until they are about sixteen weeks of age. Some of our visitors are distressed that we take the pups from their mother. Doesn't this upset the mother wolves? If we have such a great way of socializing the wolves why can't we leave them with the mother and socialize the pups by visiting them and their mother every day?

The answer to the first question is that yes, the mother wolves are somewhat upset. When we take the pups for hand rearing, some mother wolves show more signs of agitation than others. How much depends on their personality, age, and experience. We call the mother and the other wolves into an adjacent enclosure, where we have provided distractions, and where they cannot easily see us enter the den. We take the pups. When let back into the enclosure where her den is, the mother typically searches for her pups, returning frequently to the den, pacing, and howling. This agitation seems to wane to the point of being unnoticeable by the time her milk dries up, though she will still be extremely interested if she finds the scent of her pups on humans' clothing.

Why put a female wolf through this? Why deprive the pups of contact with their mother, even if only for a few weeks? We learned the hard way that removing the pups for hand rearing repays them, and us, richly, whereas leaving them with the mother means that as they mature, their lives will be more stressful and impoverished in a variety of ways. We are sorry to distress the mother wolves, but we remember that they too were hand raised as pups and it has benefited them greatly, as it will continue to benefit their pups that we take to rear. And besides, the mother wolf can usually visit her pups in the nursery later that summer.

The answer to the question of why we don't leave the pups with their mother and simply handle them daily, lies in the fact that wolves are not domesticated animals.

The first litter of pups was born to our research pack in 1977. This was the first and only time that we did leave the pups with their mother, letting them grow up with her and the pack. Dr. Klinghammer had a very good relationship with that female wolf, Cassie. She allowed him to be in the den with her while she was in labor, and to pick up and examine the pups before she finished licking them dry. She would not let her own mate, Tornado, in the den while she was giving birth, and for the first few days thereafter. We found out that visiting the pups daily, and even giving them bottles, was not enough to thoroughly socialize them to the point that we were accepted companions. It seems that wolf pups have an inborn recognition of what constitutes an adult canine. We don't match that template. Dogs, as well as wolves, both demonstrate this inborn recognition, but with dogs, the preference for that inborn template seems to have been relaxed. Dog pups can stay with their mothers until they are weaned. They can have very nearly twenty-four hour a day access to dogs and still form strong attachments to humans if they are handled daily. In wolves, the preference for forming attachments to adult canines (as opposed to humans) has not been relaxed. We simply could not compete successfully with the adult wolves, even if we visited with the pups, fed them, and handled them for several hours daily. The pups formed strong attachments to the wolves and very little to us humans. The pups from that first litter showed a reduced flight distance from us, but they were wary and aloof as adolescents and adults. Their tolerance for being handled had evaporated before they were six months old. Sometimes they gathered around and threatened us if we were doing something they did not like, such as "committing maintenance" in the enclosure. They could not be handled, or examined, without being drugged, and they could not be taken out for walks.

That inborn recognition of and preference for real adult wolves, as compared with humans, leads up to the difference between "domestication" and "socialization." Many people use these terms as if they were interchangeable. They are not interchangeable. They are distinct processes that often compliment each other. Socialization is something that can be done to a single animal within its own lifetime. Not only do our domestic animals typically receive some amount of socialization, they are genetically predisposed to "make the most" of it.

Domestication is NOT achieved by feeding animals and getting to the point where you can pet them. We could no more domesticate wolves by how we hand rear them here at Wolf Park, than I could take a Pekinese puppy and rear it in such a way that it grew up to be a Greyhound instead of a Pekinese. Domestication involves a population of animals going through a period of selection pressure. This selection pressure must continue for generations. In the case of our dogs, we have a population of animals that has been exposed to this selection pressure for many, many generations. You cannot replicate the effect of these generations of selection pressure in the life of, say a wolf puppy, by how you socialize it, feed it, and handle it. People who look at our wolves and say "Gee, they look and act like dogs." are getting it backwards. Dogs look (some a lot more so than others) rather like wolves and they act a lot like them too. That's where dogs got their basic behavior.

If you could go far enough back in time, you would find that when humans started settling down in villages and towns they created a new niche, or job, for some adaptable animals. Openings as scavengers suddenly became available when humans settled down and created and reliably maintained garbage dumps. The humans weren't planning to create a new niche; it was a by-product of their change in life style, becoming village dwellers instead of nomads. Some wolves, or wolf-like canids, started checking out the humans' refuse dumps and, of those who did, some became increasingly dependent on such scavenging. These individuals spent more time hanging out around humans, watching humans, figuring out what humans had that was edible, and whether or not humans would defend it.

The animals who were relatively harmless, and who did not take humans' stuff to the point of being a serious danger to the humans' food resources, were tolerated. Those who were aggressive toward humans, or who took too much, were often killed by humans, and converted into food and fiber. As the generations passed, the canines that depended primarily on humans' refuse changed in appearance and in behavior. We know this because of a breeding experiment done by a Russian geneticist named Dimitri Belyaev. This scenario is the most likely way our population of domestic dogs appeared. It took generations of canines and humans. In the beginning it was not anything that the humans planned. Later on, humans started taking a more deliberate role in helping the animals they found the most desirable to survive and breed. If you would like to read more, the best and most readily available treatment of this explanation for the domestication of the dog is in Dogs: a startling new understanding of canine origin, behavior, and evolution, by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger, published by Scribner, 2001. This fascinating book contains a detailed description of Belyaev's genetic study on the effects on the physical changes in foxes who had been stringently selected for tractability over 20 generations. It also contains detailed information about critical periods in the development of young animals and how the beginnings and ends of critical periods can have a power effect in shaping both the behavior of an animal and its physical appearance.

In wolves and dogs we have two different populations of animals. They are adapted for different life styles, even though there is some overlap in skills and abilities. Hand raising wolves and keeping them well socialized is labor intensive, compared with socializing dogs. Given the smaller window of time in which to start socializing the puppies and the smaller degree of tractability, wolves have less margin for human errors in handling, human inattentiveness, or just the human need to concentrate intensely on human concerns from time to time. Dogs have the potential to be safer and easier for us to live with than wolves do. " Tame" or "socialized" does not equal "always safe and friendly." With our wolves we not only have to work at maintaining acceptable social behavior, we still have to take precautions we would find necessary with dogs that we had put the same amount of effort into hand raising. We never go in with the wolves alone. It takes a minimum of two people both of whom are seen as equal, or preferably higher, in rank than any of the wolves. These two people can back each other up and back other humans up as necessary. We don't go in if we are injured or feeling sick, unless the symptoms are so mild that we could successfully mask them even if every wolf in the enclosure piled on us in a prolonged, rowdy greeting. We don't play with them by engaging in wrestling or roughhousing. This can too easily turn into testing behavior, allowing the wolf to collect information that may indicate whether it could become dominant at our expense.

Even with this added labor, a captive pack of wolves is objectively better off when its members are socialized to their human caretakers. Such animals can have a better quality of rest even during the day when humans are active in the area; they can usually have better medical care; and environmental enrichment is easier and has more possibilities. It is truly a win-win situation for wolves that are going to spend their lives in captivity.

*Pat Goodmann is the head of Wolf Research at Wolf Park, in Battleground, Indiana.  Pat received her B.A. in zoology from Stephens College and a M.S. degree in ethology at Purdue. She has been working with the Wolves of Wolf Park since 1974.  Ms. Goodmann is a talented, humorous and knowledgeable public speaker as well as author and co-author of literature for the North American Wildlife Park Foundation.  Pat's experience with Wolves and her extensive research have escalated Wolf Education to a new level.

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