We have been witnessing the peak of winter hormones. As you may already know, right around this time of the year, wolves are in the midst of their breeding season. It’s not always universal for wolves to breed in February and March though. Wolves at lower latitudes will breed earlier than those at higher latitudes which corresponds with seasonality and ecological conditions.

Here at IWC, our ambassadors are spayed and neutered but they still experience the surge of hormones that come with the seasonal cycles. For example, overall we see increased activity and behavioral changes within the Pack such as increased tension between adult males, Axel and Grayson. We also have witnessed Rieka and Grayson engaging more and more in pair bonding behaviors, yet Rieka will still occasionally snap at his tail. We cannot know what a wolf is thinking, we can only offer interpretations and we certainly don’t know what Rieka is thinking when she engages in these social behaviors with Grayson that turn into tail grabs.

It doesn’t always end up like that. In this week’s YouTube Pack Update, you will see Rieka and Grayson doing a brief parallel walk. They are definitely engaging socially and this usually brings Caz around, although the main focus usually remains on each other. With continuous soft muzzle bites, Grayson oftentimes maintains a high tail, but with a relatively relaxed wag. If Rieka decides to roll over, that puts her in a vulnerable position. Blackstone usually doesn’t get involved, maybe because he doesn’t want to end up being the focus of Rieka and Caz, but if the opportunity presents itself to stand over Rieka he just might join. When this occurs, you can see in her facial expressions that she is not pleased. But she’ll eventually stand back up and continue engaging with Grayson, pawing at him, rolling over AGAIN and of course bringing over the yearlings.

Rieka can usual hold her own, however, especially when it’s Blackstone getting involved. You can usually tell when she decides that enough is enough: her posture is taller and tail high, portraying a more dominant or confident wolf. Even her vocalizations may shift in intensity, communicating to Blackstone that she will not tolerate his testing behaviors to her.

Many of you ask if Rieka has pair bonded yet. We would say that she has not, she is showing signs of pair bonding with Grayson, but sometimes she shows similar behaviors with Caz, the difference is that Caz does not seem to be ready for that yet.

If you are wondering where is Axel in all of these interactions, he has been spending a lot of time watching from the comforts of the slate den. He has also been behaving a bit subdued recently. It seems to coincide with some gastrointestinal discomfort which we suspect is a side effect of his treatment for his skin condition (sebaceous adenitis). We have lowered his dosage and increased carcass feedings to hopefully lessen that discomfort and keep him with a full stomach.

Finally, we continue to have wildlife visitors but we hate that they sometimes don’t make it out. The wolves encountered the mink and it did not make it. Our wolves are well fed and not really interested in consuming it but they tend to guard it from others and scent roll on it’s unique odor, which very similar to a skunk but not nearly as intense.

Thank you so much for supporting and keeping up with our ambassador wolves. For those of you who are interested in directly supporting our Wolf Care department, consider browsing our AmazonWishlist and put our 2024 Wolf Care Auction (February 26th to March 10th) on your calendar!

We have seen some colder temperatures this past week, with highs below 0°F. To help keep our wolf ambassadors warm during these colder spells, we make sure to have plenty of warm cover hay available for them to rest in, as well as several places of shelter such as dens and enclosed medical pens that they have access to at all times. The wolf care team fluffs their beds twice a day and checks to make sure their covered shelters are dry. We also will increase their feedings on colder weeks such as these, as wolves burn through a lot of energy just to stay warm and the extra calories are well used.

Many of you who view our live cameras may have seen Rieka this past week displaying some unusual swaying from side to side, starting early Sunday morning. We came in right away and gave her a physical exam and did not find any abnormalities or additional causes for concern, apart from some itchiness. She was alert and moving great with no instability, but would close her eyes and sway slightly when relaxed. Our veterinary consultant came by and did another exam on her, again finding nothing out of the ordinary. It is possible she had a response to something she ate, possibly something dropped in the enclosure by a raven, or maybe even a reaction to a mold or fungus within the environment. We’ve removed some of the older hay and replaced it with straw to ensure that anything funky was eliminated.

Rieka has shown improvements daily and has shown no swaying since Monday morning. Thankfully, this has not seemed to affect her ability to engage with the Pack. We’ve seen her continue to interact with the rest of the wolves in both a social manner and within the dominance rank order. One newer behavior we have noted from Rieka is her barking and bark howling at Grayson when he is correcting Caz. For wolves, barking can be an alert or a warning to the rest of the Pack, but it can also be a way to show aggression in defense of the pack. We have seen Rieka be defensive of Caz in the past, often in the form a grab bite to Grayson’s rear. Even with this heightened intensity in vocalizations from Rieka, we continue to see social behaviors increase between her and Grayson. It is no doubt an interesting time of year with breeding season around the corner. We will continue to monitor Rieka’s health closely, but have high hopes that whatever was in her system has left.

Caz and Blackstone mid-chase after a big snowfall.
The Exhibit Pack has finally got a substantial amount of snow. We were hit by a winter storm last week and it snowed for few days; temperatures have dropped below zero now, but the Exhibit looks stunning with a thick blanket of white. With the cold weather, we’ve been observing some increased activity with our ambassador wolves. Social chases are common within the Exhibit Pack, often involving Caz, Blackstone, and Rieka. These chases will sometimes evolve into more of a focused interaction with one of the wolves becoming the target of interest. Blackstone is oftentimes the focus of Pack activity as a lower ranking individual.  The wolf care team monitors their interactions moment by moment, being sure to the read body language, facial expression, ear posture, tail posture, and vocalizations that are used to communicate within the Pack.

Grayson continues to engage in a lot more social activity. We’ve seen Grayson approaching Rieka attempting to initiate social interactions through behaviors such as invite chasing, foreleg stabbing/pawing, whining, and tail wagging. This is a clear difference from last winter, when Grayson was not as active in initiating/seeking social interactions with her. We still see Rieka target his rear/tail at times, often occurring during heightened pack activity. Watch this week’s Pack Update on YouTube to see an example of the social behaviors observed between Rieka and Grayson, including play bows, high tail wagging, and high stepping.

We are once again thankful for the progress we’ve seen in Axel’s hair growth. Without his thick winter coat, this past week would’ve been brutal for him given the -20°F nights. Thankfully he seems to be the least bothered by the cold this winter! He continues to be an active, engaged member of the Exhibit Pack, oftentimes posturing over the younger males, as well as his brother.

As we enter the new year, we look back at 2023 and review some of the highlights and key moments during the year:

January started off with the arrival of our curator-in-training, Giselle Narváez Rivera. She has been a perfect fit here at the International Wolf Center, and we could not be more pleased with the incredible work she has done thus far. She will be taking over as the role of Wolf Curator starting this month, still with the invaluable guidance of Lori Schmidt, Wolf Curator Emeritus.

By February we had seen Rieka growing confidence within the pack, but still displaying some juvenile behaviors with the yearlings, Caz and Blackstone. No doubt having younger individuals in the Exhibit Pack has given her the opportunity to engage in some of the social juvenile interactions that she missed out on being a singleton. The wolf care team also diligently monitored Axel’s coat condition, noticing discoloration and dryness that would eventually be determined as symptoms of a much larger issue.

March brought an abundance of snow. We had seen a lot of young wolf activity around the Exhibit Pack’s secondary fence to this point. Deep snowpacks can be tougher on younger animals compared to the more matured, experienced adults. Our wolf ambassadors had plenty of cover hay to help keep them warm, as well as multiple areas of shelter to utilize in inclement weather.

Caz and Blackstone turned one year of age in April, kicking off the start of our Ambassador Wolf Birthday Fundraiser. This fundraiser allowed us to install two additional surveillance cameras that aid us in monitoring the dynamics and safety of our wolf ambassadors. On cameras like these, we were able to observe Rieka oftentimes displaying dominance over Blackstone with a squash or a stand-over.

May is shedding season for wolves. Our ambassadors shed out their undercoats, some of which was saved to be made into products for our 2024 Wolf Care Auction. This auction will take place from February 26th to March 10th. The wolf care team noticed that Axel was not only shedding his undercoat like usual, but was also loosing guard hairs. We conducted a medical exam on both him and his littermate, Grayson. A diagnosis of sebaceous adenitis was determined and his treatment plan was developed.

During June, the bugs had arrived in swarms. This caused a lot of discomfort for our wolves, as many of the biting flies, gnats, and mosquitoes were relentless. We helped to ease this discomfort by opening the Wolf Care Center building for them to use as a place of refuge from the bugs and the heat. We also applied natural insect repellents such as cedar, peppermint, and lemongrass sprays.

To combat the heat of July, many frozen enrichments were provided to our wolf ambassadors. A favorite among the Exhibit Pack were buckets of snow given out during the 4th of July, colored red, white, and blue using sport drinks. The added electrolytes were beneficial in helping the Pack stay hydrated, although they seemed to prefer scent rolling on it rather than eating it.

In August, we began to see an increase of the displays of a maturing female from Rieka, as well as the rise of a lower-ranking pack member in Blackstone. Rieka’s increased dominance over the yearling seemed to mostly fall on Blackstone, with Caz being on the receiving end of more socially-motivated interactions. This really set the tone for Blackstone’s place as the omega of the Exhibit Pack.

September was the last month of heat, and the wolves were becoming pretty indifferent to the daily enrichments. To keep them interested and stimulated, the wolf care team worked hard to come up with unique enrichments for our wolf ambassadors to receive. One of those came in the form of a scarecrow made of frozen hay and a gourd for the head (topped with a bisonhide toupée). While Blackstone may be on the lower end of the rank order, he seemed the most confident approaching the novel item. Grayson, Caz, Axel, and Rieka were a bit more neophobic in their reactions, but eventually engaged in tearing it apart.

We had really started to see the tremendous improvement in Axel’s coat by October. His oral and topical treatments were successful in growing back a thick coat, as well as maintaining adequate moisture of his skin and hair. It was apparent that he would be well equipped to handle the cold and snow of the winter season.

November started out with us looking like we’d have a normal winter; there was a good coating of snow on the ground and the Exhibit Pack was certainly beginning to display the beginnings of winter dynamics. By late November, we had observed Grayson displaying more confidence in his interactions with the rest of the pack. He was more assertive, held his tail higher, and sought out Rieka frequently to engage in social behaviors.

When December came around, it was clear that we were not going to have a normal winter. Temperatures were unseasonably warm, there was no snow, and rain was a common occurrence. At the end of the month, there was finally another snowfall that stuck, providing a blanket of white in the Exhibit.

As we look back at the year behind us, we are so incredibly gratefully for all of the support shown toward IWC and our ambassador wolves. We look forward to what the wolves will teach us in 2024. To watch the video version of this Pack Update, click here.

While the winter solstice may have passed, it doesn’t feel like winter here in Ely, Minnesota. We have had unseasonably warm temperatures with little snow accumulation. While us humans may be enjoying the lack of snow shoveling so far, the local wildlife may be impacted by the minimal snow and warmer temperatures. Deep snowpacks are beneficial to wolves in slowing down prey, aiding in their success while hunting. Ruffed grouse also rely on deep snow to roost in, creating a warm and insulated area of protection. Many species have adaptations for deep snow in northern climates, such as snowshoe hare which have large, snowshoe-like feet for traversing swiftly on top of the snow and escaping predators. Without much snow, we may see an impact on these local wildlife populations.

Here at the International Wolf Center, we are seeing mild temperaments along with the mild temperatures. This is an extremely calm pack, indicating the cohesiveness of its pack members. There are still times of heightened intensity and pack focus, all of which would fall under ritualized dominance. We continue to observe Grayson instigating a lot of social interactions with Rieka, who often responds positively with social behaviors of her own. In this week’s YouTube Update, you can see her displaying some social foreleg stabs to Grayson from atop the slate den. However, we see Caz get in the middle of Rieka and Grayson’s interactions more often than not. It appears to us that Caz, Grayson, and Rieka are the key players in the Exhibit Pack relating to pack leadership. 

As also demonstrated in this week’s YouTube, Caz remains very submissive to Grayson. We often see appeasement behaviors from Caz and Blackstone to both arctics (oftentimes more well-received by Grayson); these behaviors are in part a social greeting, but appear to also pay homage to a respected packmate. The wolf care team has not seen any indication of the Caz or Blackstone testing either arctic at this point. We’ve had two-year-olds who have tested more dominant wolves in the past, but the key here is that Axel and Grayson are still relatively young. At seven and a half years of age, they continue to show the vigor and and strength of dominant pack members. This is another reason why we try to maintain a four-year rotation for wolf pups. This management strategy has been successful for IWC in the past and will likely continue into the future management of the Exhibit Pack.

We at the International Wolf Center want to wish everyone a happy holiday season and new year! While we are closed to the public this weekend, IWC staff and the wolf care team are scheduled to be onsite to oversee the Exhibit Pack and provide some extra feedings. If you are interested in directly supporting the wolf care department this season, consider checking out our Amazon Wishlist.
For this week’s Pack Update, we wanted to focus on wolf communication. Here at the International Wolf Center, we see examples of wolf communication every single day. Wolves may communicate through vocalizations, behaviors, scent, body posture (including ear and tail position), and facial expression. This week’s YouTube Update features some examples of canid communication. While watching you will hear a dog barking. For dogs, a bark is usually nothing too serious; it may be used to express excitement, to get a human’s attention, or as a territorial display. A bark in wolf pack is quite a bit more serious; wolves may bark as an alarm signal or as a threat display. This is an excellent example of how wolves and dogs can differ in communication.

We continue to see increased social behavior between Rieka and Grayson, both wolves communicating with invite chases, high tail wags, and muzzle licks. We also often hear quite a bit of vocal communication between yearling littermates, Caz and Blackstone. While this may sound noisy at times, it’s important to remember that vocalizations such as growling do not inherently signify aggression or violence. Canids may growl as a sign for another wolf to back off and is often used to set boundaries between individuals. It is a useful tool in canid communication (especially during ritualized dominance) and may even prevent larger conflict in the long run.

A common theme we try to emphasize is that there are no bad or good behaviors; they are simply wolves being wolves.

We have also had some recent enclosure additions and updates for the Exhibit Pack. Two additional cameras have been added to our surveillance system, allowing for us to better monitor our wolf ambassadors and the facility grounds. Our cameras on Explore.org have also been serviced; the North Cam now has sound again and the South Cam has been replaced with a newer camera. Some rock work was done to the back den to prevent flooding next spring. Rock steps were added by the Boltz Byway medical pen to provide an easier way for wolves to enter and exit the kennel space.

Winter is right around the corner and that means that there are some more intense testing of boundaries, posturing, but also some heightened social bonding interactions. We have noticed a change in Grayson the past few weeks; he appears to be initiating more social interaction with Rieka, who is receptive to these social advances more often than not. In this week’s Pack Update on YouTube, a video is included that exemplifies this: “[Grayson] has a T2 tail posture while Rieka is doing some soft muzzle bites and to that Caz also responds with some muzzle licks to Grayson in a submissive manner. Rieka continues seeking Grayson, doing soft muzzle bites and we see them briefly parallel gaiting.”During another instance of Rieka and Grayson social greeting that was captured on video also acts as a reminder of the opportunistic nature of pack rank order: “… we see Grayson seeking some of that social bonding behavior with Rieka, holding a T2 tail while she does a series of soft muzzle bites. And we can’t ignore what the other wolves are doing too. Caz is also trying to participate in this interaction between Rieka and Grayson, but he also is taking advantage of the opportunity to stand over Blackstone who is laying down at the pumphouse. So we know wolves can be very opportunistic to vulnerabilities and take advantage of that moment to test boundaries and assert dominance over some of their packmates.”

While we have witnessed Grayson and Rieka engaging in some social behaviors, we also still see Rieka circling and targeting Grayson’s rear as she did last winter. At this time, we are certainly seeing less frequency and intensity of this type of focus. However, we still have much of the winter season left to go. Caz and Rieka still have a strong relationship; she oftentimes aligns with Caz in times of yearling dominance or when Axel or Grayson display corrective behaviors to him. The wolf care team continues to monitor these social relationships, which provides insight into overall pack dynamics. Proximity while resting, for example, is a good indicator of stronger relationships and alliances. We see a lot of that with Blackstone and Grayson, but the whole pack is pretty cohesive and calm so we do see a lot of resting together between all wolves at some point. One of the main questions we get is if Rieka has pair bonded with one of the males yet. We are seeing some behaviors that relate to pair bonding but we do not see anything definitive yet. What we can say is that we are watching very closely because whatever she decides will have implications for the dynamics of the pack.

We had a visitor that surprised all of us. A skunk came into the enclosure, probably under the gates, on Tuesday, October 17 around 2 am. The skunk was kind of just wandering around possibly looking for food resources. As you can imagine, the wolves found out pretty quickly. In the image you can see the eyes of Caz preparing to ambush the skunk. Luckily, we were able to capture the whole encounter in our security cameras and track down what happened and who was involved for health purposes. 

The skunk did not notice Caz was coming behind him, but once he found out and was able to, the skunk sprayed Caz in the face. Caz started face wiping to try and clear his eyes, he shook his head and proceeded to sneeze repeatedly. The commotion of Caz going after this skunk led the rest of the pack to investigate and they did a lot of scent rolling and stalked the animal for about three hours while it hid in the rocks by the exhibit windows. Around 5 am, the skunk left his hiding place and was attacked by the wolves. 

We monitored wolf health for any unusual symptoms that could be a side effect of being sprayed by a skunk. Another important task for the wolf care team was to send the skunk to be tested for rabies and distemper. Even though our ambassadors are vaccinated, we would rather air on the side of caution and make sure that this animal wasn’t sick and causing it to act a little bit abnormal coming into an enclosure full of wolves.  

We have not had any snow yet, but we’ve had temperatures down in the 20 degrees Fahrenheit. While it’s been a very calm pack this year, we did have a little bit of noise up in the woods around 10:30 this morning and it turned out that Caz had a bite wound on his left wrist. It’s not a complete puncture wound, but it is located near a joint and we need to keep a close eye for signs of infection. So, he’s on anti-inflammatory medication and was later put on antibiotics so we’re hoping the afternoon of hanging out under the eaves with Rieka will give him a little bit of relief. 

You may watch the YouTube version of the update here.

About us - Ambassador Wolves

Blackstone identified a small rodent that had made its way out of the woods and was kind of moving around the exhibit. He was acting playful towards it, not really showing any predatory behavior by biting it. Blackstone was displaying investigative behaviors by batting it around with his paw and sniffing it. He even does a play bow to it.  Wolves are large generalist carnivores, and they need a large amount of meat to sustain themselves. Thus, these small rodents while they may be entertaining, wolves do not tend to utilize them as food resource like a fox or a coyote would. Further, our ambassador wolves receive plenty of opportunities to feed from large carcasses a couple of times per week and we also offer smaller food items on a daily basis. For Blackstone, just a yearling being a yearling, utilizing an opportunity. The rodent was unscathed by this little interaction even though a Blackstone did pick him up and carry him around a little bit. 

With the seasonal changes the wolves are getting a little bit more animated. Caz and Rieka are still showing some pair bonding behavior. We see Caz rubbing under her chin and Rieka is very tolerant of him. Grayson is still in the middle though, especially with Caz being subordinate to Grayson, but also every once in a while, Rieka gives Grayson that affectionate inhibited muzzle bite.

Follow this link to watch this interaction.