While it can be done, it’s a complicated and slow process that requires a lot of patience. Here at the Zoo we have three extremely handsome Mexican gray wolves: Diego, Durango and Chico. Technically, the wolves belong to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, as Mexican gray wolves are critically endangered and need to be strictly managed. For more information about this program, click here.
Due to their status, our wolves are always potentially releasable animals, in order to father future generations. We want them to retain their apprehension of humans as to keep them safe if they are released into their natural ranges.
When it comes to caring for the wolves, we use a free contact management system. This means that two keepers go into the exhibit with the wolves at a time. One keeps an eye on the wolves, typically carrying a shovel or rake to appear bigger and more intimidating, while the other cleans the exhibit. Over time though, the wolves (Durango in particular) have become used to the keepers’ presence. This could be problematic, given the intent is to keep them wary of human interaction.
Once we realized that they started to lose their hesitation, we needed to find a solution. Our first thought was to move the wolves into a separate, off-exhibit area. However, moving the wolves is easier said than done. For our other animals, we use positive reinforcement training techniques, which involve using food as rewards, and building trust. However, for the wolves this would involve too much interaction, which could further decrease their flight distance from people. We decided to implement a habituation technique. This technique does involve food rewards. However, the food is placed in the desired switch area, instead of the keeper giving the food directly. The end goal is to move all three wolves into the switch area and close the door for an extended period of time. This allows the keeper to service the exhibit without the wolves being in the yard. In this way, all are safe and the wolves are as wild as possible, in case they are called upon to supplement the wild population.
- Abigail Carr, zoo keeper