It has been a long time since we posted a wolf log.  Our delay is not because we don’t think logs are important, it’s more like this pack has kept our focus on the tasks of day to day operations, medical challenges and planning for the future.  With the loss of 5 wolves from 2019 to 2022 and the addition of 3 pups in two consecutive summers, change to the dynamics of the wolf care department has been intense.

I will first start with the “Gone but not Forgotten” members that we cherish and continue to share the many lessons each have taught us over the years.

Aidan – Died August 14th , 2019 – Mast Cell Tumors

Luna- Died November 26, 2019 – Spindle Cell Sarcoma

Boltz – Died November 12, 2020 – Microscopic lesions on his spine

Denali – Died September 4, 2021 – Liver cancer

Grizzer – Died January 27, 2022 – Congestive heart failure at 17 1/2 years of age

Now for the new life:

Rieka – Born May 23, 2021 – Joined the Exhibit Pack on August 9, 2021

Caz and Blackstone – Born April 6, 2022 – Joined the Exhibit Pack on July 28, 2022

The best way to describe the Exhibit Pack behaviors is to look at alliances within the social group.  The sibling alliance between Caz and Blackstone has a significant amount of jaw sparring, wrestling, food possession and tug of war behavior expected by two juvenile pups.  Axel and Grayson have a history of rank order behaviors that left Grayson subordinate to Axel for at least five of their near seven years of life.  Behaviors vary from chin rests, to T-blocks and slow deliberate stand-offs that are more posturing than physical contact.  Yet, after all that back and forth to determine who carries their tail higher, they can be found resting in the hay beds together.  The genetic bond is strong between littermates.  Which brings us to Rieka, a singleton adopted in 2021.  Rieka is also unique in that she is the only female in the social group, so by default, she is the dominant female.  Even in a non-related pack of spayed and neutered wolves, we have witnessed pair bonding behavior, where the dominant male and the dominant female pair up and provide leadership to the rest of the pack.  Rieka will be two years of age on May 23, 2023. Wolves typically don’t mature until this age, so she is still finding her place interacting with the pups as if she is one herself, then being assertive and guarding of the pups as the leader of the pack.  Time will tell how this social group will form and that is likely to be wolf time on wolf terms, not human time with human emotions.

It has been a long week, but we are happy to report that Rieka had a successful recovery from a recent spay surgery.  She went into the clinic on Saturday April 30th, and has had 24 hour a day contact with staff, either spending time in the building, sleeping on her fleece blankets or chewing on deer hides and other treats in the adjoining kennel.  Due to the extended snow and ice and overall wet conditions, she didn’t get a much time in the Pack Holding Area adjacent to the Exhibit Pack.  After a vet check this morning to determine that her sutures were healing nicely, we let her have some outdoor time with a direct fence to fence greeting with Axel and Grayson.  She will rejoin them on Friday, May 6th by 2 pm.

Here is an observational log completed by our wolf education team:

The wolves were all quite excited this morning. Axel and Grayson were fixated on the fence trying to see Rieka. At around noon Care staff let Rieka into the pack holding area. All three wolves were very excited to interact through the fence. Rieka was very active in pack holding for a while, exploring and digging holes.
Rieka and Grayson spent a fair amount of time sleeping next to the fence line near each other. When Rieka wasn’t napping at the fence, Grayson was napping in the shade provided by the trees near the fence. Axel also stayed fairly close to the pack holding fence for much of the day but did not appear to have the same level of fixation/concern as Grayson.
Grayson engaged in multiple bouts of howling throughout the day. As far as I am aware neither Rieka nor Axel joined in at all.
At 430 Axel was lying in front of the auditorium windows. Grayson was sleeping under the pine tree near the pack holding fence line and Rieka was sleeping on top of the den in pack holding.
Notice Rieka digging and through the fence on the right side, you can see Grayson resting right outside the gate.

We are sorry for the lengthy delay in posting an update.   The winter of 2021-2022 had some great successes with the maturation of Rieka and her integration into the Exhibit Pack.  But, we also had some intense emotions with the loss of Grizzer and the reality of life without a Retired Pack.   As I write this, “Mother Nature” is in charge of our plans.  The wolf care team has a list of spring projects, a “Working for Wolves” program scheduled for April 30th and no sign that we will even have frost out of the ground by the Center’s May 16th summer season.  After that date, we will be open 7 days-a-week and have little time for extra projects like getting the pond running.  In addition to the snow, we only need to look at Rieka’s full winter coat to remember the season.  Rieka’s development this winter was not only physical in size, but striking in coloration of her pelage.  Pelage is the term for the two-coat system that protect wolves from the elements.  The color patterns of wolves outer coat or “Guard Hair” pelage are critical for communication within the pack.  When looking at a wolf image, notice the black lips that contrast the white muzzle.  If wolves are displaying a lip curl or threat display, certainly the contrasting lips and muzzle make that behavior more prominent.  Masking around the face and eyes (as is apparent in Rieka’s photo) helps draw focus when a direct eye stare is used by a dominant wolf.  The pale chest and belly are believed to help flag submission for the lower ranking pack member. The darker bands of courser hair on the shoulders, and rump are located in the areas where hackles can be raised, making them more apparent.  Over the last month, we have really noticed the development of Rieka’s pre-caudal tail gland. This is a passive scent gland, meaning that the individual animal does not express it, the gland merely exists and has an odor. This oily/waxy sebaceous gland mix is more likely used within the pack structure, emphasizing a wolves status when tails are held high.  You may also notice a dark tip on Rieka’s tail, which will also be more prominent when held in a high status.  As Rieka matures to a yearling, we know she will be testing limits and using her features to aid in communication and we expect to start seeing some T-1 tail postures, so far only dispayed by her arctic packmates, Axel and Grayson.

The dark spot of a pre-caudal tail gland



Rieka’s introduction occurred on August 9th and as previously reported, we had a behavioral observation team that recorded data.  We had the opportunity to work with a recent Wildlife Biology graduate, Kyle Kinkade, who donated a few days at the Center helping with projects.   The first order of business was to help sort Rieka’s behavioral team’s data.  Here is a summary of his  analysis:

  • ~50 participants gathering data
  • Both in-person and virtual (via wolf cams) observation
  • Behavioral data collected via web-based form (JotForm) (follow this link to access the form)
  • IWC Ethogram contains 141 documented wolf behaviors (follow the IWC Ethogram link to see this dictionary)
  • Behavioral data was collected from August 4th to August 22nd, 2021
  • 1,500+ events captured

His findings included:

  • Rieka was involved in 80% of events documented (Rieka mentioned in 1,200 of 1,507 events documented).
  • Rieka was the most frequently documented instigator of behavioral events.
  • Rieka was also the most frequently documented recipient of behavioral events.Approach was the most frequently observed behavior of events in which Rieka was involved.“To move closer to another wolf at a walk or trot.”
    Climb was the second most frequently observed action oriented behavior of events in which Rieka was involved.“To move toward the top of something or to a higher elevation.”

In addition to wolf care team members working morning and evening shifts of wolf care to help Rieka integrate into the pack, the Center’s educators make daily observations and report activity that they witness from the auditorium while interacting with visitors.  The Center remains open 7 days a week, from 9 am – 5 pm, so there are plenty of observations.  Here is portions of a report from 9/25/21.

At about 9:45 Rieka came back down and was splashing the water in the pond with her feet. Grayson came down from the woods to investigate. When Rieka saw Grayson, she began chasing after him. Axel saw her and Grayson playing and came running over with his tail in a T2 position. Rieka stopped chasing Grayson, greeted Axel and the two licked each other’s muzzles a few times and then all three wolves began chasing each other. They ran up into the woods shortly after this.
A few minutes later Grayson came trotting down out of the woods, followed shortly after by Axel with Rieka chasing him with her tail in a T2 position. During all of the chase sequences today Rieka had her tail in a T2 position unless Axel was chasing her. When Axel would turn around to chase her, she would run with her tail slightly tucked.
When Axel and Grayson took a quick break from playing with Rieka she continued playing by herself–running around in front of the windows and chasing her tail. Grayson got on top of the pumphouse and Rieka came and did a play-bow but he ignored her and turned away. She then grabbed his tail and started tugging on it–Grayson quickly turned around with his lips curled and snarled at her. When Grayson did this, Axel came trotting over and Rieka’s attention diverted to him and they began playing together. After a short time of playing, Axel walked over to the pond to drink. Rieka followed him and laid down next to him. She jabbed at his foreleg a couple times and then tried to roll over but she was too close to the edge of the pond and ended up falling in. She quickly got out and all three wolves began chasing each other again.


Rieka was brought into the Exhibit Pack space on August 9th, 2021.  She weighed approximately 23 pounds and was 79 days old.  The introduction started in the Pack Holding Area with Axel and Grayson coming into the smaller space to meet Rieka.  The initial greetings went well despite Axel and Grayson being nervous in the smaller space.  As the wolves were moved back into the larger exhibit space,  Rieka was intimidated by the excitement and activity of the adults which resulted in her seeking comfort in the medical pen, a space that she utilized as a young pup.  Within a few hours, Rieka found some food scraps and bones to occupy her time and sought comfort with the wolf care staff when needed.  She has a bold personality, exploring and approaching the adults, especially when staff are providing food resources.  The Center had two behavioral teams monitoring Rieka’s progress over the days following the introduction. The first team was on-site, rotating 6-hour shifts to provide coverage 24 hours a day for the first week of the introduction.  The second team was a virtual team that observed the two cameras and the Center’s Exhibit Pac.  Both teams entered data on the Center’s Ethogram platform and captured images and video to document the behaviors.  We currently processing the excel spreadsheet with over 1500 observations.   Over 30%of the observations listed Rieka as the “Instigator” of behaviors that included climbing, exploring, approaching and nose to nose greetings, primarily with Grayson.  She is more intimidated by Axel, so wolf care staff are spending time in the enclosure each night from 5 pm to 9 pm to encourage her to interact with Axel and Grayson and to ensure that she eats after the temperatures cool off for the night.

With white coats, the arctic wolves may not absorb as much heat, but they still have the behavioral pattern of seeking shade and becoming more nocturnal in activity.   In this photo, Axel finds a cool spot on the main greeting rock that is well protected by the adjacent tree cover.

So sorry for the extended delay in posting;  Since our last post, we have transitioned out of winter and right past spring into some hot, humid weather.  By the seasonal calendar, May is still considered spring, but with temperatures in the 80 degree range, the wolves can have challenges keeping cool.  We are fortunate to have a pond and a pump system that circulates water through a UV filter system to help keep the pond relatively algae free during the heat.  In this week’s image, Axel and Grayson investigate the flow of the upper pond.  This photo clearly shows the oversized foot per leg ratio that is classic wolf.

Each week, I try to pick one of the many photos on the Gallery pages.  This week I have selected an image from Tina Warne.  The photo shows Axel on the right with a slight food defensive face towards Grayson on the left. While it often appears that Grayson has to wait for dinner, we do monitor scats and see that he gets his fair share of food (even if it has to be a post feeding chicken breakfast).  On Thursday night, staff fed 2 beaver to the Exhibit Pack.  The Vermilion Community College Wolf Ethology class was on site learning the data collection techniques and software to begin their spring assessment of the dynamics between Axel and Grayson.  This is a trial period for a new data collection app that we hope to adopt for the pup introduction.  We will post data results from the students research during their final exam period in May.

For each log, I try to select a photo from the Gallery that represents the weekly behavior of the Exhibit Pack.  Thanks to “jdy4wildlife” for posting this image of Grayson resting near his deer carcass.  Notice the outstretched paw that signals to the scavengers that he still has possession even though he is trying to nap.   This past week has been our first real blast of winter weather, with a polar vortex delivering some 25-30 below zero air temperatures.  Wolf Specialist Abby Keller provided some good details on wolf adaptations to cold climates.

Our wolves are all subspecies that are equipped to handle subzero temps in the wild! Gray wolves have an insulating undercoat with guard hairs to keep them warm in extreme temps. In the winter, they also develop a thick layer of body fat to keep them insulated. The paws of gray wolves are covered with fur that insulates their paw pads and increases traction on slippery surfaces. Their paws are also a kept at a lower temperature than their core body heat, minimizing the amount of heat loss in extremities. Blood that flows into the paws naturally heats up the blood returning to the heart; this phenomenon is referred to as countercurrent heat exchange. This saves metabolic energy and prevents the core from cooling down due to heat loss at the extremities. This mechanism is also found in penguins!

That being said, we do our best to offer as much comfort to them as possible. All of our wolves have 24/7 access to enclosed areas that block the wind and keep out snow. They also have several dens that the can use to rest in if they so choose. We provide multiple beds of hay for them to rest on off of the cold ground, as well as increased meals to keep their metabolism up, thus increasing their core body temp.

With the Center being closed throughout the early winter due to COVID restrictions, Axel and Grayson seemed very interested in the return of visitors to the Center by late January.  They positioned themselves at the windows, watching the activity as visitors made some face-to-face connections, especially those exuberant younger visitors.  As the Center went back to the “What’s for Dinner” program, we switched from smaller, more frequent feedings to the larger deer torso feedings.  This created some interesting rank-order behaviors between Axel and Grayson who have been posturing for some rank since Denali retired.   Grayson seems to be increasing his confidence without Denali’s intimidating presence.  With Grayson’s tendency for bonding, we are very interested to see how he interacts with the pups next summer.