By Sue Tiffin
At the beginning of the month, Luna, the alpha female at Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre began exhibiting denning behaviours – she wasn’t seen much when the rest of the pack was in the observation area, and when she was spotted after being gone for a day or two, she reappeared looking exhausted, covered in dirt, and then leaving again.
A few days after that, on May 10, the team at the Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve posted a ‘pupdate.’ Luna had delivered her seventh litter.
“We found five beautiful pups in this year’s den,” read the pupdate on social media. “Four males, one female. All are black furred with the exception of one brown male.”
As does happen every year around this time, the news – alongside the adorable photos capturing the assessment – was greeted with celebration and excitement online.
The day the pups were found was especially meaningful to Marena Wigmore, who for the first time was part of the team that ventured into the enclosure to look for the newborn wolves.
Every summer as a child, Wigmore would visit the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre from the family cottage on Kennisis Lake.
“It would always be at least once a summer, we’d go with Grandma and Grandpa, we’d get a new wolf t-shirt, we’d go to the Cookhouse for lunch, that was something that we did every summer. I still have a bunch of the wolf t-shirts, I wear them as pajama shirts now.”
Seven years ago, in 2014, Wigmore joined the Haliburton Forest staff – at first seasonally, and then year-round as the Forest’s Group Experiences Coordinator. In May last year, she took on the role of Wolf Centre Coordinator from Paul Brown, who she had known since she was about five years old, and who continues to work at the Forest, as security co-ordinator.
“There’s a lot of little nuances to it, it’s an exciting thing though because it is such a well-known and loved facility,” she said. “Times are always changing, and one of my goals is to bring it into current times and make it attractive for changing audiences. As much as we have our people who have been coming for years and years and love it, we want to offer new experiences for people who have been coming forever, or [make it] even more exciting for people who haven’t been before. The wolves are obviously amazing, too. But that’s an exciting part of the job, being able to kind of help make it even better than what it is.”
Earlier this year, the Wolf Centre experienced devastating loss when three adult males and one eight-month pup died, with one possibly having been trying to take over the alpha position, and three being due to undeterminable cause of death. Typically, the Wolf Centre might lose one or two wolves of the pack a year, but having the deaths come in rapid succession was difficult for staff, and for longtime fans of the Haliburton Forest family.
“It makes it even harder when you didn’t see what happened, don’t know exactly how they died and you just realize they’re no longer part of the pack,” said Wigmore. “And then the harder part is having to tell people who love them as well. You have that conversation every day, sometimes three or four times a day, with people who haven’t been for awhile. They come in and they’re getting up to date. Of course they want to know how the pack’s doing since they’ve last come, and … so you have to have that really sad conversation over and over again.”
The pups being born has created a positive buzz after this year’s grief, and during the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, now in its second year, with the Wolf Centre closed to the public during the province’s third lockdown.
“Having new life brought in – quite literally – to the pack, really eases the heart a little,” said Wigmore. “And of course, puppies are freaking adorable. It gets everybody excited and brings positivity to a time that a lot of people are having a hard time in.”
Luna, the pack’s alpha female, is 10 years old this year. Her first litter came in 2014, the year after the Wolf Centre’s enclosure fence had been cut by vandals, and four of the pack’s nine wolves at that time – including Luna’s parents and two juvenile males – left the enclosure. While two of the wolves were found shot dead, the other two were never located and it is likely they died of starvation within a few weeks. Luna had a litter of four that first year, the year she had reached maturity, with one of the four pups surviving. The next year, her litter had three pups that all survived to adulthood. Her third litter saw six pups – two died, two stayed with the Haliburton Forest pack, and two were transferred to the Wolf Science Centre in Vienna, Austria. In 2017 her fourth litter saw seven pups, three going to other facilities and four – one would survive to adulthood – staying at the local Wolf Centre. In 2018, she miscarried. Two more litters have come since then, and now this year’s litter of five.
As alpha female, Luna’s role in the pack is to reproduce.
“Part of her job, and how she maintains that role, is to stress any other mature females to the point that they don’t even go into heat,” said Wigmore. “And then if they do somehow go into heat, if she didn’t quite do that successfully, then she’s got to stay on top of them during mating season to make sure that they aren’t bred. That can be done by physical attack, it can be done by preventing them from eating or chasing them away from the pack and ostracizing them.”
One such method is for Luna to not allow other females to join in on pack howls, a time of bonding.
“They love howling together. You can see the tails wagging, they’re rubbing on each other and just loving it. But she will intentionally train it into some of the other females that they’re not allowed to participate in it.”
Piper is currently the only mature male in the pack.
“We did see him do his job many times while she was in heat,” said Wigmore. And then, laughing: “He just has to worry about it one week of the year, she’s on it all year-round.”
Mating season usually happens toward the end of February. The Wolf Centre staff keeps a record book of observations about the pack – one that prior to the pandemic is visible to the public and always of interest to the most dedicated Wolf Centre fans – and had noted mating behaviours.
“From the first day that we see mating behaviours to the last day, we write that in our calendar,” said Wigmore. “We’ll kind of go 63 days ahead from that first day, and 63 days ahead from that last day to give us the window of when we would expect to see puppies, and then keep a really close eye leading into that week or so and during that time.”
Once the staff is confident birthing is complete, a very small team enters the enclosure to check in on what has happened – they want to assess how many have been born and survived, what sex they are, what colour, as well as deworm the pups.
“This is the first year I felt comfortable going in and doing it myself as well,” said Wigmore. “I will admit I had a small tear in my eye. They’re so sweet, they’re so, so sweet.”
It isn’t the first time Wigmore has had the opportunity to get close to a wolf pup – a few years ago, one pup was being sent to another facility but had to stay at the Wolf Centre until the facility was ready to take her.
“So we had this little teeny wolf puppy that one of our staff was diligently taking care of, that we had to socialize,” said Wigmore. “She would be hanging out in the office with us, at two and three weeks of age, so I got to interact with her quite a bit before she went to her home, so that was really cool. I have a little bit of experience with the little ones but to see them at like maybe two days old, that fresh, is really incredible.”
She’s been a spotter before during the pup check, but never someone inside the enclosure.
“It’s always exciting for us,” said Wigmore. “We choose our team kind of selectively based on who’s comfortable, who’s cautious, is going to follow the safety rules, and who knows what they’re doing. Those are all really important. And we need somebody who’s ready to crawl in a den. This year we had Ted [Ruttan] do that – he’s perfect for it because he’s a tall, thin dude. He’s long, so if the den is deep he can go pretty far in, and he’s got narrower shoulders so he can fit into a smaller hole. He was perfect for that job.”
When humans enter the enclosure at the Wolf Centre, they don’t often get a good look at the enclosure’s inhabitants.
“Typically when we are in the enclosure, they’re completely afraid of us, and we don’t really see them other than quickly running by in the distance,” said Wigmore. “Certainly if we see mom’s kind of hanging out in the trees, a little bit closer, then we’re definitely going to go a little bit quicker, make sure we get out of her hair and let her get back to her puppies as quick as she can.”
While one person locates the pups within the den, two people do the deworming and examination, and two act as spotters to keep an eye on the wolves and their behaviour while the team is inside the enclosure.
“Are they getting uncomfortable? Do we need to speed up and get out of here quicker, because we don’t want to bother them if we don’t have to,” said Wigmore.
First, it’s noted where Luna is – she has to be seen to know she’s not in the den before the team begins looking for it.
“She’ll hear us and smell us coming,” said Wigmore. “She’ll feel the vibration of our footsteps coming toward the den. So usually she’s cleared out quite before we get there. If we see her hanging around a little bit, that might give us a clue that we’re close.”
One commenter on the pupdate social media post asks how the humans get close to the pups, without their parents becoming aggressive or upset.
“Because our pack are unsocialized, they are very much afraid of humans,” reads the response from the Wolf Centre. “When we enter the enclosure we typically only see them at a distance, their fear of humans overrides the instinct to protect the pups.”
Once the humans are out of the way, a wolf will check on her pups, but their own survival comes first.
“Everything with wolves is about survival,” said Wigmore. “Everything they do. Every movement they make, they’re thinking about how it affects their survival. They can have more puppies but they can’t replace themselves, so it’s always more important for them to look after themselves, first. If they can take care of the puppies, awesome, but they’ve got to look after themselves first and the overall well-being of the pack.”
The team of five first began checking out past known dens within the enclosure.
“Especially because Luna’s old, that’s a lot easier for her than digging a new den, so she did reuse a previous den, this year as well, so it was fairly quick to find,” said Wigmore. “The other thing we look for is typically they’re going to [choose] into a side of a hill. They’re going to stay away from low ground so that way the den’s not flooding, or getting too wet or too cold and it’s easier to kind of dig kind of sideways and down versus straight down. It’s easier for them to get in and out, easier for the pups to get in and out when they’re at that point. So that kind of gives us a clue of where to start. And then we’ll listen. Sometimes you’ll hear the pups making little whimpery, squeaky noises from inside the hole, so that’s usually a pretty good clue.”
Finding the den leads to further excitement – and perhaps a bit of acrobatic spectacle.
“So you’ve got Ted in the den, we’re holding a little flashlight for him so he could see what he’s doing,” said Wigmore. “And so, you can’t really crawl backwards or turn around, it’s quite a tight hole. Tegan’s got his legs, and he says, ‘OK, pull me back.’ She pulls him back a little bit, just enough so he can hold up his arm with a little puppy in his hand.”
Wigmore took the pup to a warm blanket for the check-up while Ted went back to look for more, until the team was confident they had an accurate count.
“It’s pretty quick, from the time we find the den until the time we get out, I would say, no more than 10 minutes,” she said. “We try to go as quickly as we can.”
The survival rate for pups is about 50 per cent.
“In general whether it’s in captivity or in the wild, wolves do have that really high mortality rate, up to the first year-and-a-half,” said Wigmore. “The biggest cause is starvation, if its mom isn’t producing milk very well, or she has a large litter and doesn’t have enough, or you might have a really dominant pup or two that’s actually pushing the others away to be able to nurse. The hierarchy and dominance and figuring out who goes where starts in the den, right away. So sometimes that does happen, or if mom’s just not very healthy. Birth defects can happen. Predators [happen] more in the wild – we don’t have too much issue with that in a closed environment. Just general illness, things like this, if they’re born as a runt or something. And sometimes it comes out of nowhere. They might make it to a year and then they just die. In general if they’re not tough enough to cut it, they just don’t even make it to adulthood if they’re not going to be able to survive.”
This year of the pups, the Wolf Centre is keeping four, and sending the fifth – a male – to another facility.
The four pups that will be kept will replace those lost in the pack last year.
“Basically exactly the ones that passed is how much we’re getting in, so it’s interesting how balanced it comes out,” said Wigmore. “It’s just like, an unspoken thing that Luna knows exactly what to do.”
The transfer of the fifth pup will happen soon – prior to his senses being fully developed to make his transition easier.
“We’ll pull them out when they’re about 10 to 12 days old if they’re going to be departing,” said Wigmore. “Before their eyes and ears are developed, because they’re all born deaf and blind. So the best situation for them is that when those senses do develop, they are with who their caregivers are going to be, or at the facility they’re going to spend their life at. That way there’s less shock, less confusion, it’s just a smooth start to their life.”
From the Wolf Centre team assessing the newborn pups, there’s only about a 10-day window to coordinate an alternate facility for pups, which is generally based on sex, and availability of room in a pack.
“We really base it on what our current pack looks like,” said Wigmore. “Generally we don’t like to keep more than 12 just to ensure they have enough space to feel comfortable. And that we’re not overextending ourselves in terms of food, because so much of it comes from roadkill deer, or from beaver from local trappers. We never have a set guarantee of how much food is going to be coming in, and we don’t want to be in a situation where we can’t provide them a good proper diet.”
By the time the wolf pups are three weeks old, they’re already beginning to explore their surroundings and poke their noses out of the den.
“As soon as their eyes open and they have hearing, they start exploring and it just takes them a little while to expand their radius to the point where they’ll come where we can see them,” said Wigmore.
Usually the first sighting of the pups in the observation area is when they’re about six to eight weeks of age, in mid-to-late June.
Around Thanksgiving, when staff has a better idea of whether the pups will continue to survive, the public is invited to enter a contest to name them. This year, the names chosen must start with the letter V.
“It makes it easy for us to keep track of age and who’s from what litter,” said Wigmore, of the names by alphabetical order. “We actually have it in-sync with our dog kennel as well with the huskies, that way if we have staff crossing over from one place to another it’s a very quick [understanding] of how old they are, if someone’s asking.”
And people do ask – the “hardcore fans” can identify wolves in photos, but even those visiting the facility for the first time have plenty of questions to ask about the animals, so rarely seen by humans.
“Wolves are one of those animals that people have a lot of misconceptions about, or they hear one little fact about them that sticks in their brain,” said Wigmore. “So much of it is wrong. So it’s quite a joy to be able to talk with people and be able to explain to people, hey, that little bit you heard is kind of right, but here’s the full story, and here’s a bit more information to understand this fact that you have been told.”
Her passion for the wolves and the Wolf Centre leads her to wanting to nurture that understanding and enjoyment of the animals in others.
“It’s really exciting to have people have that a-ha moment,” she said. “Whenever people ask me, what’s my favourite part of the job, I always say it’s that moment when people walk into the observation area and I hear them say, ‘oh wow.’ For me, because I see it all the time, I don’t have that moment of ‘oh wow,’ very often unless they’re doing something really cool. But getting to see and hear people have that on a daily basis, is really fulfilling.”
The pupdate post on Facebook has hundreds of comments and has been shared hundreds of times.
“It makes me so happy to see all the comments and all the love that people are feeling from these puppies and because of these puppies, how much happiness it’s bringing people,” said Wigmore. And how much happiness, too, they bring to their mom.
An average lifespan for a wolf in the wild is about four to five years, and at the Wolf Centre’s facility, about five or six.
“It’s a little bit higher, but similar because of how similar we try to keep their life for them,” said Wigmore. “She’s done very, very well. It’s not uncommon to see higher ranking wolves exceed the average. So seven or eight [years] for an alpha in the wild is kind of normal.”
Right now, Luna looks good physically. She’s very grey at this point in her life, and has the odd stiffness in her hips on a cool morning or if she’s been laying down a lot.
“I’m sure she’s exhausted right now with the puppies and is going to take some time to recover,” said Wigmore. “Last summer she took five months to kind of spring back to her Luna self after puppies. She may take a little longer this year, maybe until the fall, to kind of spring back. But we’ll see – she’s already defied the odds, she’s the oldest living female we’ve ever had, and is very close to being the oldest wolf that we’ve ever had, which almost made it to 12. So she’s doing really, really well.”
Wigmore’s pride and love for Luna is evident in her voice, and in her enthusiasm for sharing her story.
“Luna is a shining example for women everywhere of just endless resilience,” she said.
To learn more about the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre, follow the progress of the 2021 pups or vote on their names, visit https://www.haliburtonforest.com/things-to-do/wolf-centre/.