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Trainee Keeper Blog: Having my cake and wolfing it

26/05/2016 in Highland Wildlife Park

I don’t really remember how it started, or where it really came from, but my fascination with wolves has grown into something of an obsession over the years. I had always dreamt I would work with them and my experiences at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust only fanned the flames.

I was thrilled to help Jasper, the Park’s Education Officer, with Wolf Awareness Week when I first started and I jumped at the chance to talk to people about these amazing animals and try to dispel some of the myths. To be honest, I take the chance to talk about them in any situation, much to my friends’ and colleagues’ dismay!

When I first started in the Visitor Services team, I would often wander up to the wolves and spend my break observing their behaviour and trying desperately to tell them apart, as there was a much larger pack back then. When I finally clawed my way into the animal department, I was really excited to be working within the hoofed stock section. As I have spoken about previously, species that I had never taken much notice of quickly became the centre of my attention. However, despite pouring my energy into other species, a part of me always secretly, or perhaps not-so-secretly, hoped I would get the opportunity to work with the wolves at some point in the future.

It was late last year that the idea started to get bounced around; it was thought perhaps that our section had a little more time to offer them, and due to their location next to the reindeer, it would be easier for us to integrate into our routine. The carnivores section were welcoming new species and their workload was becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Our two section heads discussed the prospect of the wolves moving between the sections, and agreed that it was in everyone’s best interest at the time. I couldn’t believe my luck!

It all went ahead towards the end of December and, as cheesy as it sounds, it was the best Christmas present ever. So, let me introduce you to our wolves. We have one male named Jax; he was born at Jarv Zoo in Sweden in 2013. He arrived at the Park last year and was integrated successfully with our female, Ruby, who was born at the Park in 2012. Jax is naturally larger than Ruby, with darker markings, which make them easy to differentiate.

Although people generally expect to see much larger packs of wolves, most wolf packs start out with just a pair. In the wild, lone wolves which have dispersed from their family packs come together and become a bonded pair. The pair will go on to produce pups, which will remain with their parents until maturity and help rear their younger siblings.  Occasionally, another relative, such as a sibling of one of the breeding adults, may linger with the pack, but generally a “pack” is just a family; mum, dad and their kids!

Once the young are mature enough to breed, they will naturally disperse or be chased off, to reduce the chance of inbreeding, and they’ll find mates of their own. There are exceptions to this family pack template, but they are few and far between. These animals do not naturally work their way up a hierarchy, as we once thought, the pups simply respect their elders… just as we should (I hope my Mum isn’t reading this!).

At the Park, we aim to mirror this wild pack structure, as we have done in the past. We hope that our pair will soon rear pups, and the family will remain together until the pups are of age to move on.

Although I was delighted when we took over the wolves, my team and I knew that we were going to have to devote a great deal of time to them. Both Ruby and Jax sometimes displayed a few behaviours which indicated occasional nervousness and we were keen to work on the problem from the start. Relying somewhat on my previous experience working with difficult dogs and the little experience a few of us had with wolves, as well as my excessive wolf-related book collection and the invaluable advice of our colleagues, we sat down as a team and all worked hard to come up with a plan of action.

Our main aims were to work towards the wolves being comfortable and relaxed in our presence, provide them with as natural a diet as possible, make improvements to their environment and offer them plenty of stimulation throughout the day. Since implementing these changes, we have seen vast improvements in their behaviour, particularly Ruby’s, and I am so proud of what we have achieved as a team, but it is still a work in progress.

Although Jax is always on his best behaviour when we are there, occasionally he can get a bit upset during busy or noisy periods, or when members of the public try to get his attention. We have been monitoring him and studying his behaviour to try to reduce any stress he may be feeling. It’s frustrating trying to figure out how to help him at times, especially when we have made so much progress in other areas, but it will all be worth it when we figure out this final piece in the puzzle.

Working so closely with these animals and spending my evenings wondering what else we can do to make their lives as fulfilling as possible has really given me purpose as a new keeper. I feel so privileged that I have been given the opportunity to explore and apply my ideas, particularly as I am a trainee, and it has been so incredibly rewarding each time my team and I have had a breakthrough, no matter how small.

When I think back to all those times I was sat in the viewing platform at their enclosure, eating my sandwiches and wondering how fortunate their keepers must feel, I can’t really believe it’s now me who gets to walk in beside these amazing creatures. Not only did I get to work on the hoofed stock section, which is what I had wanted from the beginning, but I got my unrelated dream species thrown in as well! As we continue working with them, we look forward to the gentle pitter-patter, or should I say the crazy whirlwind, of adorable wolf pups in the near future. That will bring us an interesting array of new and exciting challenges, of that I am sure. 

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