Critter love: It’s not easy being the alpha

Earlier this year, the Western North Carolina Nature Center learned that two gray wolf pups were up for adoption from a facility in Kalispell, Montana. In August, Animal Curator Henry Bulluck was sent to fetch them.

Xpress spent a while with Bulluck on a recent afternoon as he walked the wolves, first Cody, a male, and then Shalimar, a female, on a lead-chain around the center grounds. At six and five months old respectively, the wolves are a little more than half-grown. Cody has salt and pepper markings and Shalimar, a coat of white and pale gray.

There’s something exhilarating about walking just a few feet ahead of a top predator and it’s hard not to imagine how tender the back of one’s legs must look to a young wolf. But outside of a little pulling at their leads, both wolves behaved well on their strolls, in good measure because of Bulluck’s vigilance. “It’s not being rude to you, but I’m always reading his behavior to avoid any possible complications,” he explained as Cody trotted beside him. The goal is to get both animals acclimated to the great number of visitors who will pass by them every day.

When Bulluck and Cody reached the far side of the walking path, a herd of small, white goats from the center’s farm animal display pressed against a fence as if they were receiving a treasured guest. Cody lowered himself to the ground and gave them an unmistakably wolfish sizing-up. “There’s a wonderful predatory stare for you,” Bulluck remarked.

We’re happy to report that the goats survived despite their obliviousness (the fence helped). On the way back, we asked Bulluck a few questions about what it’s like running with the wolves, animals that used to live in this part of the state until they were extirpated in the early 1800s.

Mountain Xpress: What prepared you for working with animals like this?
Henry Bulluck: Absolutely nothing. My biology degree didn’t help. It’s experience, experience, experience. You work at couple different facilities and with a couple different species — that’s the only thing that’s going to help you out. Honestly, this is the first time I’ve trained wolves. Fortunately, the rules of operant conditioning are pretty straightforward no matter what animal you apply them to. But I’ve called a few people around the world and gotten suggestions from them. So I feel comfortable saying that it’s working out fairly well right now. I do need to start the behavior training. But it’s a matter of getting the time. It takes a lot of time.

Are these two descended from a particular line of wolves?
These guys came from what would normally be called the tundra wolves. His parents’ parents came from Alaska originally.

What do you feed them?
We feed them a combination of a dry food and a processed zoo carnivore diet. We don’t get any whole prey in here — it’s just too difficult. They also get bones once a week, and they’re fasted once a week to mimic their experience in the wild.

What’s the hardest part about working with them?
Since we didn’t raise these guys here originally, we’re taking a little bit of a risk bonding with them at such a late age. They were two and three months old when we got them. Normally if you’re going to work with them in this manner you need to get them when they’re really small. That wasn’t an option. But so far they seem to have bonded with myself and my wife. We were the ones who drove to Montana to pick them up.

How big will Cody get?
When he’s full grown he’ll probably be 90 pounds. He won’t be really, really big. It looks like he’ll be pretty small for a male. He’s pretty excited today. Jumping up on me — that’s not something he usually does.

He doesn’t seem to be marking very much. Is that more of a dog thing?
He’ll start marking a little bit, but because of the neutering, it’ll be greatly reduced. And also, marking is something you see with dominant individuals. The more he marks, the more it tells me that I could be losing status. And I can’t lose status. I’ve got to think like a wolf when I’m with him. I’ve got to think like the alpha wolf in the pack.

— Kent Priestley, staff writer; photo by Amy Rowling

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