2016-12-15 / Local

Nonprofit looks to establish captive wolf education center

By TORY JONES

Wolfgard Northeast board president Adam Katrick speaks to about 30 visitors at a wolf education center forum on Saturday, Dec. 10 at the Rockingham Public Library. — TORY JONESWolfgard Northeast board president Adam Katrick speaks to about 30 visitors at a wolf education center forum on Saturday, Dec. 10 at the Rockingham Public Library. — TORY JONESBELLOWS FALLS — A Vermont-based organization is seeking support and funding to bring an interactive wolf education center to southern Vermont.

“You can’t teach anything like a wolf can teach somebody,” said Wolfgard Northeast board president Adam Katrick on Saturday, Dec. 10 at the Rockingham Public Library.

Katrick is a resident of Marlboro, Vermont, where the not-for-profit organization is headquartered. He has been studying wolves since he was very young, and in recent years has studied wolf centers in New England, he said. Wolfgard Northeast has been in existence for about two years. The name comes from the old Saxon word, “gard,” meaning “enclosure.”

Katrick spoke to about 30 Bellows Falls-area residents about the proposed wolf center project.

“We need different ways of learning,” other than through videos and stories of wolves, he said. “Because live wolves show us a lot more than just saying, ‘Wolves are good because …’”

The planned wolf center would give guests the opportunity to watch and listen to live wolves. The organization sees wolves as teachers that can deliver a learning experience that no single program can duplicate, he said.

The  “experiential education” center could also help teach wilderness survival and about the ecosystem, along with helping visitors learn the difference between a coyote, a wolf, a dog, and hybrids.

At this time, the closest wolf education centers with wolves living in captivity are about a three-hour drive from southern Vermont, he said. The center’s purpose is not to reintroduce wolves directly into the environment, but to offer a local, hands-on learning center where all people can learn about wolves from spending time with them.

Southern Vermont would be ideal for a center, being a “prime territory for a wolf habitat,” he said.

The organization, overseen by six board members, is hoping to raise from $500,000 to $600,000 to cover all costs associated with the project, but would be able to begin with about $300,000, according to local board member Kim O’Connor, who is overseeing fundraising efforts.

O’Connor, who has a background in environmental education, said she is always surprised that people don’t understand the relationship between predators.

“We are going to teach that wolves are not good or bad,” she said.

The mission at this time is to give a group of about 3-5 wolves the best home and food, “while still having fences,” he said. It would not be a breeding center, and all the wolves would be vaccinated against rabies.

They may also look at offering wildlife rehabilitation services in the future, but the immediate goal is the education center.

The group has been looking at several locations and has not yet decided on one, but is hoping for an expansive parcel of land, where it could create a small-scale education pavilion or center, a residence for the wolves’ caretaker, space for feeding them, and a spacious living enclosure of 50 to 300 acres, depending on the needs of the wolves. The group aims to double or triple the space requirements for animals in captivity, he said.

Wolves in captivity may form pairings or small family groups, depending on individual personalities.

A donation of land, such as an inherited estate, would help the group put other raised funds toward infrastructure, O’Connor said. They could even name wolves in memory of the donors, she said.

“That would be my dream, to get that phone call,” O’Connor said.

The aim is to provide the captive wolves with enough room that they can come out and interact with human visitors when they want to, and the ability to go away and seek privacy.

“So it’s not a forced display,” he said.

One visitor asked how the center would deal with escaped wolves. Katrick said that would be unlikely, due to having regulated enclosures. However, if an escape ever would take place, “usually they want to come back home,” he said.

The wolves in education centers are often raised from pups or rescued, but have nearly always been raised in captivity, which helps with the outreach visiting-education programs the group would also provide, he explained.

Another visitor said she had recently visited a captive wolf education center. Looking directly into the eyes of a wolf, and watching them interact, was a life-changing experience, she said.

The Saturday event was the launch of Wolfgard Northeast’s “friend-raising” efforts, which will broaden in upcoming months to more fundraising and forums, O’Connor said. The group will post upcoming events for January through March soon on its website.  

Wolves are a “keystone species,” with a significant impact on their ecosystems and numerous species such as deer and moose, Katrick said. Without these predators, the ecosystems of the Northeast have drastically changed, affecting other species in a ripple effect, he said.  

Eventually — though he does not expect it to happen in his lifetime — helping the wolf return to the northeast would be a “challenging, but invaluable mission,” that would require widespread, high-impact environmental education, he said. He added that without that education, it would be difficult to welcome the wolf back to the forests they once inhabited, since fear and a lack of understanding of how to live with the predators can lead to an instinct of “let’s shoot them.”

“If wolves are restored to New England, we’ll have no reason to have wolves in cages,” he said. “So education is the first and most important step.”

Wolves and humans have interacted for 14,000 years, becoming pets even then, he said. They were native to the northeast and the rest of North America until decades of hunting and trapping left all but a handful of wolves in the lower 48 states.  With the help of the Endangered Species Act, wolves have been recovered to about 10 percent of their historic range, he said.

The densities of deer populations in many parts of New England, however, are “huge,” he said.

At this time, while there are large populations of coyote that include wolf genetics, no wolf populations exist in New England, despite habitat in which they can thrive, he said.

At this time, Wolfgard Northeast offers diverse programs supporting the concept that wolves are complex creatures, part of a web of ecological, mythological, and cultural history. It also offers advice to owners of dog-wolf hybrids, which are legal in Vermont, Katrick said.

Programs include canine behavior, wolf folklore, and storytelling about wildlife for science programs and schools.

For more information about the organization, or to make tax-deductible donations toward the center, visit www.wolfgardNE.org.

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