On the prowl

Aaaahhh … just as the long, hot days of summer start to slide into view, how about making a few seasonal home improvements? Maybe a cool mountain stream winding its way over rocks and pebbles in the living room? Or how ’bout a deep blue watering hole, perfect for skinnydipping and daydreaming, tucked just behind the kitchen counter? Well, this summer, you’re in luck — if you’re one of the three gray wolves now residing at the Western North Carolina Nature Center, that is — and if the center can raise enough money at its upcoming benefit dance to fund your new digs.

On Friday, March 17, the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company will host the “Sham-Rock and Roll Dance.” With tickets going for a mere $8 a pop, it’ll take quite a crowd to enable the center to reach its goal of $66,000 — all of it designated for embellishing the center’s Gray Wolf Habitat.

At this point, you’re probably thinking that you could build yourself a pretty cozy retreat for that much money, right? But as it turns out, creating safe and exciting animal habitats is no budget affair: “When you’re making a pen for wolves and cougars and bears, it’s a whole lot different than making a dog run,” explains Animal Curator Weston Utter, who designed the Gray Wolf Habitat. Not only does the pen’s fencing have to go three feet deep into the ground, it then has to run three feet beneath the pen horizontally, to prevent the wolves from digging their way out.

Besides, once those potential emergencies have been suitably forestalled, the place also has to feature nice-looking rocks.

Rocks? How much can they cost? Plenty, actually: Authentic, large rocks are expensive enough (the going price at one local quarry was $400 for a not-even-all-that-big boulder ) to encourage animal curators to fashion their own, using reinforced concrete and a bit of paint. The animals don’t seem to notice the difference, curators claim, and being able to build boulders on-site keeps environmental disturbance to a minimum (i.e., it takes big equipment to bring in big rocks). About $9,000 of the estimated budget for improvements is earmarked for stone alone (besides the synthetic rocks, hand-laid fieldstones will stabilize slopes and prevent erosion).

And then there are the plate-glass windows. Nearly $30,000 will be needed to create three new viewing areas at the habitat (“the better to see you with, my dears”). The main viewing area, which will extend into the habitat to offer closer views, will boast three 6-foot-by-8-foot panels of quarter-inch-thick laminated glass. Identical panels will accommodate the two smaller viewing areas.

But enough about phony boulders and laminated glass, already: Let’s get to the good stuff. Didn’t somebody say something about water? Jacuzzi, diving board, wave pool, anyone? Nay, even better: The plans call for a “tumbling stream” to pour into a refreshing pool about a foot deep and 6 or 8 feet across. The wolves will be able to drink from the stream and frolic in the cool water.

“Our goal with all of the animals at the Nature Center is to make a more friendly environment for [them],” Utter explains. “A lot of these improvements, although they do look better for the public, are also better for the animals, because they allow them to act more natural, and it gives them a chance to exercise more, like they would in the wild.”

A new stream and some hefty rocks won’t give the gray wolves a chance to go chasing after fleeting deer in their updated 50-foot-by-300-foot run, mind you, but the improvements will allow them such luxuries as climbing atop an artificial cave and destroying — or, um, enjoying — an extensive round of landscaping featuring native trees and shrubs. “Wolves are rough on vegetation [in the habitat]. They wreck everything, and chew the bark off the trees,” Utter says, explaining that most of this behavior is probably due to boredom.

Wolf behavior toward humans is usually less vicious. In fact, according to Utter, humans have given wolves a bad rap for thousands of years, concocting fantastic and terrifying tales of the beasts eating little children or derailing caravans of merry travelers and gobbling them to bits amid the bloodstained snow. The reality (as is usually the case with wild animals) is that wolves don’t want to see you any more than you want to see them.

“They are a real shy animal,” insists Utter. “The chances of you seeing one in the wild are very remote.” And, not only are gray wolves not out to hunt down humans for dinner, they also don’t normally bother to attack, even when given the chance.

“There’s no real documented case where a healthy wolf has attacked a human being in the wild [in the United States],” the curator adds.

Of course, the three gray wolves at the Center (one male and two females — all siblings) respond differently toward people than wild wolves would. This trio was raised in Wolf Park, Ind., a scientific research center where wolves are bred for educational purposes. To make it easier for animal curators to handle the wolves — and for park visitors to observe them — the pups leave their mothers when they’re just a few weeks old, to be raised by and with humans (college students, to be exact).

“They slept with them, they ate with them,” Utter reveals. Thus, the gray wolves you’ll see at the habitat are much more friendly and curious about humans than your average wolf, and they’ll most likely approach the glass to get a better look at you. But this is not to say that, if you raise wolf puppies in your bedroom and feed them at your kitchen table, they will make delightful house pets. In fact, Utter strongly discourages people from keeping wolves as pets — even hybrids that have been cross-bred with dogs.

“Part of our mission here is to educate people about the do’s and don’ts of working with the animals,” he notes, adding that keeping wolves as pets falls indisputably into the latter category:

“I definitely feel that they don’t make good pets. They’re not meant to be pets.”

And that’s not because it costs so much to fence them in. Even bred with dogs and raised by humans, wolves have strong wild instincts and could seriously harm children and adults, if forced to do so.

The most recent addition to the center’s growing fold of predatory animals, the gray wolves arrived in July 1993 at the age of four months and are expected to live for 10 or 12 years. This means that, if renovations are completed this fall, as hoped, the wolves could have 35 more golden summers (in dog years) to enjoy their new home. But that’s only if you get yourself out to Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company on St. Patrick’s Day. Oh — and please bring 8,249 of your closest friends.

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