Wolf pups add to learning experience at WSC

Peggy Callahan, executive director of the Wildlife Science Center, works with the wolf pups. Photo by Jon Tatting
Peggy Callahan, executive director of the Wildlife Science Center, works with the wolf pups.
Photo by Jon Tatting

The Wildlife Science Center in Columbus welcomed several litters of wolf puppies into the world last spring, and they have become a part of Duke University’s groundbreaking work on viewing dog and wolf intelligence.

The pups are about to become television celebrities, too, as they will star in National Geographic Wild’s program featuring Dr. Brian Hare and his canine cognition studies. The center is happy to help out in its ongoing work to benefit Mexican gray wolves, and its goal is to educate people about all of its resident wild animals.

Peggy Callahan, executive director of the Wildlife Science Center, said Hare and Duke University’s work came from a separate study that led to the birth of the puppies, allowing the center to hand-raise the animals for the cognitive study, she told the Post Review.

“Hare and others found a connection between temperament in dogs and certain levels of certain hormones,” Callahan said. “When you start with puppies, one of the things that breeders or trainers spend all of their energy doing is temperament assessment of dogs in order to place them in the right situation. And that’s especially important with service dogs and military dogs.”

As a result, she continued, Hare jumped on that bandwagon. Yet no one had done this with wolves.

“So what he is very interested in and what we are very interested in is the comparison between how wolves think and process information versus how dogs think and process information,” Callahan said. “How is that manifesting temperament in response to human cues for food? How is this actually mimicked? How do the hormone levels reflect the observations in temperament and behavior?”

In one instance, Hare put the center’s wolf puppies through a series of tests, assessing their motivation to get food and their ability to read human cues for food. He used strangers and familiar faces to see whether or not the stranger impact was more important than the food.

“Our rat terrier did the same tests,” Callahan noted. “She couldn’t have cared less who presented the food, … where for the wolf it was hugely impactful. So you can imagine how different that motivation for food is — if it’s more important for you to be fearful of a stranger than it is to get your food. That’s one of the many aspects of cognition that differ between wolves and dogs.”

Following the exercise, Hare then had Callahan retrieve an adult wolf with whom she had a close bond, since she had bottle fed the animal from the time it was very young.

“He had me hold food in both hands, put the food down and then point to the food to see if she (the wolf) would take a cue,” Callahan said. “It takes one of those for dogs to go, ‘OK, you’re showing me food.’ That meant nothing to (the wolf) at all.”

Another test that illustrated contrast between dog and wolf dealt with eye contact.

“Dogs have pretty much given up the boss position 20,000 years ago,” Callahan said. “Yes, dogs test us; yes, dogs challenge us, but it isn’t a life-threatening situation the way it is with wolves. So eye contact with people is something that dogs do to read you. In fact, I seek out my dogs from across a crowded room, and I can tell them a lot. I can tell them to knock it off; I can tell them to come here … just with eye contact.”

In an eye contact exercise with dogs, Hare had Callahan hold a piece of food next to her face. As many pet owners could probably surmise, the dogs locked eyes with her, then looked at the food and tried to anticipate getting their snack.

Doing the same with the same wolf as before, she observed it look away at the moment when the food reached her face where their eyes would have locked.

“She isn’t going to try and seek what I’m going to do with my eyes,” Callahan explained.

These wolf puppies were born last spring at the Wildlife Science Center as part of the center’s ongoing work to benefit Mexican gray wolves. With them is a resident canine who serves as the pups’ surrogate father. Photo by Jon Tatting
These wolf puppies were born last spring at the Wildlife Science Center as part of the center’s ongoing work to benefit Mexican gray wolves. With them is a resident canine who serves as the pups’ surrogate father.
Photo by Jon Tatting

“To look in my eyes was a challenge, and that’s more important (to the wolf) than trying to talk me out of that piece of food. She’d figure out how to get the food another way. But the challenge is life-threatening with a wolf, and I’m not going to challenge you unless I really think I can win,” she said of the rationale.

“Eye contact is a dominant thing to do. It’s really an amazing thing,” she added.

Wolves are affected by body language, as well, and people who work with them need to pay attention to certain behaviors out of safety.

“Ninety percent of what one wolf says to another is through body language, (which) can be as subtle as whether or not their pupils are dilated,” Callahan pointed out. “And that’s something we are obligated to read if we’re working with wolves safely and they are obligated to read if they are going to survive around one another.”

She said medical management of wolves can be challenging because if they become hurt, they will work hard to pretend to be fine and healthy due to their survival instincts. Dogs, on the other hand, are going to limp and cry when they are hurt because it isn’t life-threatening to them.

“One of the first things that I see when there’s going to be a change in reaction to me or to another wolf, when they’re interacting with me, is their pupils get big,” Callahan said. “Then I know we have an issue. They’re assessing me in a way that’s different. I need to either decide whether I want to continue being in here or if I want to change the subject. I do everything in my power to avoid altercations and let them think that I’m still stronger than them as long as I can. And I can’t prevent it forever. I don’t ever deal with it directly face on, and if I don’t, then it’s like they’re trying to figure out whether or not they can lock eyes with me to challenge me.”

She said she has an animal currently behaving that way at the center. Though she raised him, she will not deal with this wolf alone.

“Animals that aren’t hand raised, they are fearful of humans, end of story,” Callahan stressed. “So only in captivity they overcome that fear just ‘cause they live here. But if you bottle feed, you’re part of that social system, and that makes you far more (accepted). One of the things we do is mimic the role of being the boss right now when they’re little because the mentation that we’re the boss goes through adulthood. At some point, some of these animals figure out we’re not as strong as they are. And then we have to interact with them differently. I have a number over the years that have figured that out.”

Contraceptive study

Hare and Duke University’s cognitive work was made possible by the puppies that were born from a contraceptive study at the center.

This first study began when Dr. Cheri Asa, a reproductive physiologist based at the St. Louis Zoo, requested the Wildlife Science Center’s non-Mexican gray wolf males in an attempt to figure out ways to make it easier to save and freeze Mexican gray wolf sperm.

“We’ve been working with them every year, looking at reproductive research, whether it’s contraceptives or increasing viability,” Callahan said.

She noted Asa travels all over world collecting and banking semen on behalf of endangered species programs. She was the original person asked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to preserve Mexican gray wolf semen, since animals are not physically shipped anymore.

“She tried to bank Mexican gray wolf semen and found out it’s not in good shape, probably because of inbreeding depression,” Callahan said. “And wolves only produce sperm in the winter time, so you can’t bank it any other time.”

The center also was the subject of an Animal Planet special called “Growing Up Wolf,” which was filmed at the center. The program features a wolf that challenges Callahan’s dominance, while she still has to work with the animal medically.

“They film him snarling at me through the fence, but he has this advanced heart illness and we have to get our hands on him and diagnose him,” she said.

For more information, including summer camps at the Wildlife Science Center, 5463 West Broadway Ave., Columbus, call 651-464-3993 or visit www.wildlifesciencecenter.org.

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