Out in the cold: Hardy St. Louis volunteers record breeding habits of endangered wolves
Volunteer Lisa Houska is hunkered down next to a tall cyclone fence at the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka. She’s peering at a hillside, observing a handsome pair of thick-furred Mexican wolves and their three pups that were born last year.
“We’re watching Sibi and Lazarus. This is their second breeding season,’’ Houska whispers.
For two hours on this unseasonably warm winter morning she’ll sit motionless, trying not to disturb the family. She’s hoping to witness another successful courtship between mom and dad.
As she describes her work, it’s clear that Houska has a passion for these wolves.
“They have a lot of personality,’’ she says. “Earlier, Lazarus was laying down and Sibi was feeling pretty relaxed, and she walked over to him and gave a real low tail wag. And she rubbed up against him. I get goose bumps talking about it and seeing it because it’s their way of showing affection.’’
Houska, 51, is one of several dozen volunteers who take two-hour observation shifts during wolf breeding season, which is in the dead of winter -- from the end of January to mid-March. They aren’t scientists but have been trained by researchers to collect behavioral data used in the center’s breeding program. It’s unique volunteer work that’s helping researchers save Mexican wolves and red wolves from extinction.
For more than 20 years, volunteers have weathered winter's cold, rain and snow to document the courtship of wolves. Their only protection from the elements is a small camouflage tent big enough for a plastic chair or camping stool.
“When it is freezing cold, and you get down to that last 30 minutes, I’m not going to lie. It can be brutal,’’ says Houska. “In that last hour it feels like every minute is an hour, but you have to stay. It’s a solid two-hour commitment – and it’s worth every minute.”
Houska’s been doing this for 13 years. She usually volunteers on Sunday mornings.
“This is my church,’’ she says. “This is my happy place. It’s the best form of therapy. What I love about breeding observations is just being out in nature and getting the opportunity to observe these animals in as natural a state as possible. Every once in a while, you’ll see them go down and take a drink out of the pond. Or Sibi might pick up a stick like she likes to do … she’s doing that right now … I’m being stared at by one of the pups right now.’’
The volunteers try to avoid distracting the wolves. So when Sibi comes down from the ridge to patrol the fence line, Houska "makes like a tree" and doesn't look her way.
“They tolerate us observing,’’ she says. “You don’t make eye contact with them. You don’t talk to them in sweet voices or anything like that because we want them to continue to maintain their fear of humans.”
Houska says that working at the center has given her an appreciation for wolves.
"I try to teach people to replace their fear of wolves with respect,'' she says. "We have to give them their space. It’s when we encroach on their environment, when we take their spaces away -- they’re not left much choice but to push back. What else can they do?''
Observations are significant to researchers
Houska has watched the wolves nap through an entire two-hour shift or enjoy a good, long howl with their pups. Today, she notes just a few behaviors on her log: At 10:28, Sibi urinated, and two minutes later, Laz urinated over the same spot.
Now, that’s romantic.
But the behavior -- called marking -- is significant to biologists who study the sequence of courtship behavior, says researcher Cheryl Asa of the Saint Louis Zoo, who works with the wolf center.
“There’s two stages for most species,’’ says Asa. “In scientific terms, we call it proestrus -- when the female’s hormones are starting to change so that the male notices that something’s up. He’ll start courting, but she’s not ready to mate with him yet. The next stage is around the time she’s ovulating, and she’s going to be fertile. And then if he’s convinced her that he’s the right one, she’ll be willing to mate.’’
Because healthy offspring are vital to preserving the species, breeding pairs are carefully matched by a Species Survival Plan developed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It’s a complex study that takes into account population, genetics and inbreeding.
“It’s a very complicated kind of computer-dating program that generates the compatible genetic pairs,’’ Asa says. “But that’s genetically compatible -- the wolves may have a different idea.’’
Studying behavior observations might help researchers understand why pairings succeed or fail.
“It may be that they didn’t get along with each other, but it might be that one of them is infertile,’’ Asa says.
And if volunteers see a successful mating, it’s a cue to the center’s staff to plan for pups in about two months.
'The truth of these animals'
The Endangered Wolf Center was started in 1971 by zoologist Marlin Perkins to ensure that wolves would survive. Perkins was the director of the St. Louis Zoo and well-known for his TV show “Wild Kingdom.”
One of the reasons I love working here is we've actually helped save two species from extinction. That makes me so proud as a St. Louisan.
The center is set on about 60 acres of pristine woodlands, amid the the 2,000-acre Washington University Tyson Research Center. It's an isolated spot but just a 20-minute drive down Interstate 44 from St. Louis. The expanse allows for large, natural enclosures for the wolves.
Mossotti says the center takes a hands-off approach to the wolves.
“We don’t pet, we don’t talk, we don’t habituate,’’ she says. “We don’t get them used to people at all because we’re trying to release them back into the wild.”
The center participates in managed breeding programs run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Thirty-six animals live at the facility, including 15 Mexican wolves, which are native to central Mexico and the American Southwest. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this subspecies of gray wolves was nearly eradicated in the wild by the 1970s. There are now about 300 Mexican wolves living in captivity; and about 100 have been released into protected conservation areas in Arizona and New Mexico.
The center is home to eight critically-endangered red wolves. They were native to the southeastern U.S., including southern Missouri, until government policy waged war on predatory animals, Mossotti says.
Only about 50 red wolves now remain in the wild -- in North Carolina, where conservationists and landowners are at odds over the wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing its red wolf recovery program in that state.
Man is still the biggest danger to the wolves, says Mossotti, who blames stereotypes of the “big, bad wolf” perpetuated by fairy tales and movies.
“We have this perpetual negative image of wolves now, and when you get that in your mind it’s really hard to change that outlook,’’ she says. “I always joke that if I could have everybody work at the center for a day they would never be scared of wolves again. They’re just big scaredy-cats that want to run away from people.”
She notes that Mexican and red wolves born in St. Louis have been successfully released in the wild through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery programs in the Southwest and North Carolina.
“One of the reasons I love working here is we’ve actually helped save two species from extinction,’’ Mossotti says. “That makes me so proud as a St. Louisan. Most people don’t even know we’re here, let alone that we’ve been able to do that.”
The volunteers range in age from college students to senior citizens who learn how to dress in layers for the cold, along with how to observe the wooing of wolves.
“Our volunteers are so amazing. If it’s negative 10 degrees, they will sit for two hours and watch these guys and record the data,’’ Mossotti says. “Every year, they come back to the punishment of sitting out in the freezing cold.’’
Matt Fox, 28, an intern at the center, is volunteering as a first-year observer.
“Your whole life you get told what to think about wolves,’’ he says. “To be able to sit here alone in a blind and see for yourself the truth of these animals, it’s a great experience.”