We acquired Aidan and Denali from the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake Minnesota as 12 day old pups and began the process of socialization that allowed us to experience one of the most incredible and complex individuals in my 30+ year captive wolf career.   Aidan passed away on Wednesday, August 14th at 11 am.  We are still awaiting the necropsy report and hope to learn more about his condition to help us understand what happened and to evaluate all of his medical history and various medical decisions made on his behalf.  The more we can learn, the better we can manage the remaining ambassador wolves, especially Aidan’s brother Denali.  This photo was of the first night in Ely after returning from the Science Center.  He spent the night on our Assistant Wolf Curator’s carhart coat. 



For years, we have known that Aidan has a sensitive immune system.  After Maya died, he lost all the pigmentation in his nose and a tissue biopsy revealed he had discoid lupus.  As he overcame the loss of Maya and welcomed Luna and Boltz to the social group, his symptoms subsided and he attempted to pair-bond with Luna.  Due to Luna’s circumstances, that was challenging at times, but still provided a socially functioning pack.  After the introduction of the 2016 pups and Luna’s behavioral aggression, Aidan had another pack change.  Luna was retired and Aidan bonded with the pups and led the pack on his own. He did a great job, but without the support of the dominant female, stress was noticeable.  By 2017, mast cell tumors formed on Aidan that required 3 surgeries for removal including one in February 2019.  Based on our vet’s experience with dogs, reformation of these growths can be random.  For some they keep coming back until they become a systemic issue, for other cases, 3 surgeries for removal and they don’t reappear.  We didn’t know how Aidan’s growths would progress, but we had a great spring, until Luna’s issue occurred.  On July 6th, Luna and Aidan’s worlds changed.  Luna’s was identified with a possible abscess, so we moved her into her own enclosure while we treated with antibiotics. After limited success with the antibiotics, we scheduled her for surgery on the 17th of July and discovered the more serious diagnosis of cancer.  The decision to separate coincided with a return of Aidan’s mast cell growth.  Just because there was a correlation doesn’t mean causation, but based on his history with auto immune issues after pack changing events, we are working on treating him medically as well as psychologically. After Luna’s incision heals, we plan to reunite the retired pack and give them the social interactions that can keep them distracted as they try to heal their respective issues. 

Aidan is being closely monitored for any changes or re-growth of mass cell tumors.  He is on medication to help minimize these growths, but so far, he hasn’t shown any sign of irritation such as licking.  Wolf Care Intern, Mandi Bendel created a body profile binder for staff to document the location and any subtle changes that occur with these masses.  Aidan is a willing participant with the staff brushing sessions and shows this tolerance with a nice summer pelage. 

If you have been following our Ambassador Wolf Aidan’s logs, you will see that he has had some auto-immune issues throughout his entire life.  He was diagnosed with Discoid lupus in 2011, had two surgeries to remove mass cell tumors in 2017.  He was deposed as Exhibit Pack leader in 2018 and joined retirement, so we thought some of the stress of being a pack leader may have been reduced, but he had a resurgence of mass cell tumors with an extraction surgery performed on February 5th, 2019.    The assessment of these tumors in 2017 was estimated to be low-grade, with complete tumor extraction.  The prognosis was not as good in February, when complete extraction was not possible as the growth had adhered to the muscle.  Research on these types of growths is limited and in some cases, 3 or 4 removals and the growths stop, in other cases, removal doesn’t impact the outcome.  In Aidan’s case, after the 3rd extraction, the veterinary recommendation is to employ some immune suppressants to slow the growth of these mass cells.  We are waiting for his incision to completely heal before implementing this, as immune suppressants can also alter healing efforts.  There were some notable differences in the 2019 surgery as a retired pack member compared to his immobilization in 2017 when he was a pack leader. As a pack leader, Aidan seemed to resist the drugging and had high anxiety just being separated from the pack to complete the drugging.  This often lead to increased doses and in one case, a failed immobilization.  As a retired wolf, Aidan readily came into the Wolf Care Center at 7 am, was hand injected within 2 minutes, asleep and on his way to the clinic in 15 minutes and calmly recovered with the wolf care staff with no anxiety.  The Retired Pack is less concerned about rank, so Aidan was able to join Luna and Grizzer by 2 pm that afternoon and had a restful evening.  Even though we know exams like these can be done with more ease in retirement, we are also mindful that the older an animal gets, the more risk can occur.  Wolves are not dogs, where a trip to the clinic is as easy as hopping in the car and getting a treat to sit on an exam table.  These exams are done with a heightened level of concern for the wolf’s respiration, heart rate, gastrointestinal response and ability to control body temperature.  A common instruction for a surgical procedure is to hold food after midnight prior to a surgery, as wolf care staff, we diligently look for food caches. but there is never 100% guarantee that they won’t pull something out of a snowbank.   Mass cells are histamine based cells, so they may cause an itching sensation.  This was the most problematic issue for Aidan resulting in constant licking and irritation.  While we are waiting for him to heal for his next medical step, he is taking antihistamines daily to help keep the irritation under control and welcomes wolf care staff daily inspections. 

If you have been following the Exhibit Pack dynamics over the last few years, you know that Aidan had some history with mass cell tumors on his left leg.  He had two previous surgeries to remove a low grade tumor and seemed to be managing well on a treatment of anti-histamines to control its’ return.  Unfortunately, the tumor came back and a second growth a bit higher on shoulder developed quite quickly prompting the Center’s wolf care team to develop and implement a surgical plan.  The photo in this log was taken on January 22nd, and you see only a slight discoloration at the site of the growth.  Approximately one week, later, the growths tripled in size and caused such aggravation that Aidan began obsessively licking them.   Increasing anti-histamines didn’t have an impact, so surgery was scheduled and executed on February 5th.  Aidan did extremely well under immobilization and after a 5-hour recovery time and despite the fact that he had options to access the heated building. he chose to rejoin his Retired Pack outdoors,     The report from the clinic is that the both masses had attached to the muscle meaning complete extraction wasn’t possible and regrowth may occur, although mass cell’s have been known to have a wide array of traits making it difficult to predict.  After Aidan’s sutures heal,  he has been prescribed some immune suppressants to possibly reduce cell growth.  Since stress can impact the immune system, staff are reviewing the signals of canine stress and making every effort possible to reduce any anxiety for Aidan.  We plan to produce a Youtube in the next few days showing some behavioral video that staff interpret when making management decisions.   

It has been such a remarkable experience helping Aidan through the transition of being a deposed pack leader to finding a place in the pack dynamics of retirement.  We witnessed an incredible strength in leadership of the Exhibit Pack, and as he lost confidence in that role, we were concerned that he would lose his willingness to socially interact with the pack.  We soon found out that our concerns were unwarranted.  Not only did Aidan reunite with Grizzer and reestablish the social bond they had as Exhibit Pack mates (2008-2011), but Aidan seems to enjoy (well, tolerate) Luna’s chases, foreleg stabs and preemptive screeches as they run throughout the enclosures.  Visitors to the Retired Enclosure and many viewers of our webinar series have commented on how Aidan has regained a youthful appearance, even noting that his coat coloration seems to be more vibrant.  I guess there is truth in the adage that “one is only as old as they feel” and watching Aidan prance around retirement, he must feel like a yearling. 

Aidan spent the first few months in retirement resting in the many dens and shaded spots throughout the retirement areas.  He earned this rest time after leading the Exhibit Pack for 7 of his 10 years of life.  But, as fall progresses into winter, his days of rest may be short-lived.  Fall is the season for wolves activity levels to increase.  Even though Aidan lives in retirement, his packmates still enjoy a good chase around the enclosures.  Luna has been the most likely to stimulate chases, displaying a “play bow” behavior where she springs down on her front legs and lunges away inviting the other wolves to chase.  If Aidan and Grizzer don’t follow through, she stabs at them with her foreleg and even grabs the scruff of their neck encouraging more interaction.  It’s still social interaction, but with a bit of a colder weather intensity.  Aidan wags his tail and joins in the chase, while Grizzer may watch from a safe distance. 

Aidan’s transition to retirement is much smoother than we anticipated.  This may be the best indication that he was ready for the change and ready to accept a lower ranking status.  The first wolf to welcome him into retirement was Grizzer.  The last time Grizzer and Aidan had been together was in 2011, when Aidan was experiencing a lot of dominance from Grizzer’s sister Maya. Based on the interaction we witnessed, Aidan appears to be responding in a subordinate behavior towards Grizzer.  This relationship may change when Aidan gets more acclimated to retirement, but for now, Aidan seems to defer to Grizzer showing no competition for food or space.  The next step in Aidan’s transition is to establish protocol for staff to interact with each individual wolf.  Aidan is still very needy seeking staff attention which can be a challenge for Grizzer to interact.  The design of our retirement facility allows staff to move wolves throughout the 3 specific areas we call retirement and make sure each wolf gets social interaction and a physical assessment on a daily basis. 

Day 2 Update

Aidan had a restful first night of retirement, but by dawn, as the Exhibit Pack started some social interactions, he started to show some anxiety, pawing at the gate towards the activity.  Grayson is coming to the fence line whining and that gets Aidan anxious.  Staff are able to calm Aidan down with distractions, but the challenge with social animals is they want to be social, regardless of the moments of tension that affected their confidence.  Aidan likes a thick layer of wood chips, so I placed a full bag on the den and for now, he is comfortable there. He has been swimming several times in the wading pool in the Pack Holding Area.  When in the Exhibit, he didn’t get much pond time because the stability of getting in and out of the pond made him vulnerable.  He also had a full meal of chicken with his morning meds, we know wolves like to rest after sleeping.  He will be going on a diet similar to Luna, but we won’t start that until he is comfortably settled with the new arrangements.  I am switching the webcams between the East Side Retirement of Luna and Grizzer and the pack holding area (we don’t have enough bandwidth in the lab to do 3 cameras).  If you watch the camera this morning, you may see him as he investigates the area, rests on the wood chips or focuses on the pack.  You may notice some shaved areas on Aidan; he had his belly shaved to get a clear view for the ultrasound, and the vets checked out some other residual growths and skin issues.  His hair will grow back before winter.  The next step in the transition plan is to share a fence line with Luna and Grizzer.  We need to do this carefully, if Aidan has too much anxiety, it can be viewed as a weakness and both Luna and Grizzer can take advantage of him.  The first initial try yesterday resulted in Aidan showing a tucked tail and running from Luna.  We will take this slow; forcing a situation could cause a negative circumstance that could affect a long-term relationship.

The rest of the pack is not focused on Aidan other than some limited activity at the fence line, but it is short-lived.  Denali has had no displays of interest in Aidan, but has been spending his time doing appeasement behavior (licking the sides of Axel’s face) and stimulating play bows and chase behaviors.  Boltz has had the most noticeable change in behaviors, without the tension between he and Aidan, he is socially interacting with the pack, feeding at will and thanks to a cold front, enjoying some cooler weather.  

For those of you who have followed the pack dynamics of the Exhibit Pack at the International Wolf Center, we have reached a milestone today.  Aidan our pack leader for the last 7 years, was brought to the vet clinic for a complete health assessment this morning and will be transitioned into retirement when he recovers from the anesthesia.  He is currently recuperating in the wolf care kennel adjacent to the pack holding area and will be moved to the Pack Holding area later today as the anesthesia wears off.  Aidan became the pack leader in February 2011, when Maya, the dominant female at the time, chose Aidan over Denali and Grizzer to be the successor of our former pack leader, Shadow who was retired at 10 years of age due to health reasons.  This decision to retire Aidan was months in the making, there was no event today that made this change happen.  It was a series of interactions that affected his confidence and ultimately resulted in a pack that started to form around him.  The first sign of testing for status started with the maturation of the Axel and Grayson who began testing for rank last September and continued as they reached maturity between 18-24 months.  You may have watched the media coverage this spring about the change in dynamics or you may have witnessed dominance issues with Aidan while visiting the Center’s facility in Ely.  Many people had contacted me to ask why I didn’t pull him out  of the pack last winter when the tensions increased.  It is important to understand that Aidan needed time to accept a lower ranking position.  We want his transition to retirement to be comfortable and less stressful, if he thinks he still leads the pack, it’s been our experience that they will do what they can to get back to the pack.  Aidan needed to be ready to let go of leadership and in the last few weeks, we believe that time is right.  For those of you watching the cameras, YouTube and the Wolf Care Webinars, he still had social interactions with the pack, especially Grayson, but when it came to Boltz and Axel, the tension was there.  He let the others do the leading and he did the following, so in essence, the pack was starting to form a new leader.  Which wolf will take the lead is the next stage of this transition.  Aidan’s brother Denali is going to stay with the pack, at this time, he is an important member of the social group.  We will definitely watch this closely, Denali is 10 years old even though he acts like a 2-year old on occasion.    Staff will be on site 24-hours a day during this transition time and we will be testing some shared fence lines to see if Aidan wants to join Grizzer and Luna.