By Kate Crowley
Peggy Callahan is standing in front of a group of 28 men and women on an Elderhostel field trip. They have come to learn about wolves, as part of a weeklong program offered through the Audubon Center of the North Woods. They sit on metal folding chairs in the small log cabin that serves as the classroom of the Wildlife Science Center, six miles west of Forest Lake. Callahan's hands dance as she speaks, occasionally tucking her reddish-brown hair behind her right ear. She has so much information to share about wolves, so much passion for her subject that her words spill out in a stream, punctuated with husky chuckles and outright laughter.
Wolf Research:Peggy Callahan guides college students on a wolf capture at the Wildlife Science Center.
Callahan speaks to groups -- from kindergartners to college students, from Cub Scouts to Eagle Scouts, from preschoolers to grandparents -- and educates them about the behavior, needs, and status of wolves. It is just one of her many jobs as executive director of the center, which operates on seven acres of land leased from the Department of Natural Resources at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area.
The nonprofit Wildlife Science Center provides wildlife education and scientific research with an emphasis on wolves. Wildlife researchers come to the center for three- to four-day sessions to get hands-on experience and training in how to chemically immobilize and physically restrain large carnivores. College students in veterinary/wildlife studies come to get experience observing and handling animals.
Altogether, the center welcomes over 25,000 visitors annually. The center strives to educate about Minnesota's timber, or gray, wolves (Canis lupus), as well as the other animals that reside there. Besides 50 native wolves, the center currently shelters eight black bears, a mountain lion, three bobcats, two lynx, a porcupine, seven red wolves, five Mexican gray wolves, two hybrid dog/wolves, and two New Guinea Highland dogs. Many have ended up here because of problems with people, frequently the result of having been kept as pets until they grew too big and dangerous.
On a cold November day, I followed Callahan and animal-care coordinator Matt Row as they carried buckets of water to wolves kept in enclosures formed with 10-foot-tall chain-link fence. Wolves paced and pranced nearby, as Callahan and Row picked up large chunks of leftover deer hide and bones.
Originally a laboratory for observing captive wolves, the Wildlife Science Center, then known as the Wolf Project, was created in 1976 by Ulysses Seal, a world-renowned pioneer in wildlife biology. A researcher at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, Seal also worked on endangered species conservation. Joining Seal on this project were David Mech -- now one of the leading wolf researchers, then employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- and Jane Packard, a behavioral ecologist and ethologist who was working toward a doctoral degree at the University of Minnesota. Callahan was hired as a wildlife biologist in 1985.
The scientists sought to answer why a wolf pack has only one breeding pair of wolves. Their research mapped out for the first time the annual reproductive cycle of wolves. The scientists also wanted to answer questions related to stress physiology, circadian rhythms, and use of anesthetics on wolves.
Many of the center's first captive wolves were "criminals" caught depredating livestock or pets. From 1976 to 1990, the site was the base for captive research.
In 1990 Seal retired and funding dried up. The center prepared to close. Callahan's last assignment was to euthanize all the wolves. But she and Mark Beckel, then a coworker and now her husband, felt it would be a waste of the remarkable resource for research and education.
"The DNR was nice enough to let us stay," Callahan said. And she and Beckel worked to convert the center to nonprofit status. With support from many individuals and foundations, such as Wallace Dayton and the James Ford Bell Foundation, the center became a nonprofit in 1991.
The Wildlife Science Center staff has trained wildlife biologists from around the world in capture techniques. The Yellowstone Wolf Recovery team participated in training here in 1994, prior to the release of wolves back into Yellowstone National Park.
The center's lessons are based on years of firsthand experience. For instance, when catching wolves for medical purposes, the center's staff uses a large fish net and a padded, Y-shaped pole to hold down the neck (similar to another wolf holding a subordinate down).
"Peggy has physically handled and anesthetized more wolves than anybody," says Dan Stark, DNR wolf specialist and graduate of the center's training program. "Her experience has been instrumental for the safe capture of wolves for research and management."
The center has had a national impact on wolf conservation through research. Since 1991 Callahan and her team have worked with the St. Louis Zoo on the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) reintroduction program. Callahan and the zoo researchers were able to use captive individuals from recovered populations of gray wolves, as they still do today, to test reproductive strategies, including artificial insemination and the use of synthetic hormones to induce ovulation. Today, close to 50 Mexican wolves have been reintroduced in the American Southwest, and 300 are in captive facilities.
Red wolves (Canis rufus) arrived at the center in 1996 for captive breeding efforts as part of an ongoing federal reintroduction project. Declared ecologically extinct in 1979, a small population of red wolves has persisted in captivity. This southeastern U.S. wolf has been losing genetic diversity due to a small population and interbreeding with coyotes. "They're down to 10 breeding lines," Callahan said, "so they have arranged marriages. Sometimes they don't work out. Unlike dogs, wolves exhibit high mate selectivity."
Wolves have fascinated Callahan since the age of 8, when her parents gave her wolf biologist David Mech's seminal book, The Wolf. "I gobbled it," she said, and remembered thinking, "This is an animal that is worthy of understanding." After attending a Mech lecture in 1970 in Rochester, where she lived, she wrote to him.
"I was worried there wouldn't be wolves when I grew up, and I really wanted to study them. He wrote back and assured me that there would be wolves. [He] sent me a little printout of the timber wolf in Minnesota. I still have it." In 1970 wolves were not yet listed as an endangered species. Mech was an early champion of protecting timber wolf populations and drawing attention to their declining numbers.
Nearly 40 years later, Callahan is living her childhood dream.
After finishing the rounds at the Carlos Avery site, we drove a few miles northwest to 165 acres of land the nonprofit purchased and placed in a state conservation easement a couple of years ago. Callahan feels strongly that the center has been a guest of the DNR. It is time for the center to have a place of its own, she said. Plus, the center needs more space for the animals. The new site has a caretaker's house, a log cabin built by volunteers, and some enclosures that already house a few wolves.
The new property also hosts a special youth turkey hunt every spring and a deer bow hunt in the fall, specifically for kids from nonhunting families. Callahan said the special hunts are a way to incorporate a hunting philosophy and ethic into the Wildlife Science Center's programs. "The center is not just about preservation," she said. "It is about conservation and how to inspire a relationship with the outdoors."
As Callahan and I approached the gate of an enclosure, two wolves stood at the back, with ears up, tails out, and yellow eyes intent on us. We opened the gate and slipped inside. Callahan was wearing a partially shredded Carhartt jacket; heavy-duty Arctic Carhartt bib overalls; and sturdy work boots for warmth and protection from sharp toenails and teeth.
She walked forward, calling to the wolves in a high-pitched voice, "Come here, guys." Almost immediately, the wolves lowered their tails and raced forward, as Callahan bent down on one knee. Then they were upon her, pushing their muzzles near her face, spinning around, reveling in her touch. These wolves regarded Callahan as the alpha female of their pack.
Callahan has never regretted her decision to work as a wildlife biologist, even with the long hours and sometimes uncomfortable outdoor conditions. She encourages young people who are seeking a similar career to "go for it." But, Callahan said, wildlife biologists should, "expect to work on many projects, get [your] feet dirty, [and] get in the field. Learn what it's like not to shower for a week, and live out of a tent and eat oatmeal."
With a chuckle she added, "Learn how to drive a manual transmission truck.
"Because most wildlife groups are going to go with the lowest bid vehicle, almost invariably a manual transmission. What happens if your truck stalls on a hill?" she continued, with a smile that said she's been there.
"You need to know your way around machines, knowing what's a clutch or two-cycle engine."
Suddenly, Callahan's words were interrupted as a primeval sound cut through the chilly air. It started low and gradually rose in strength and octave, joined by yips and barks, winding around us. In the enclosures, wisps of breath from open muzzles drifted and dissipated in seconds. The wolves at the Wildlife Science Center, for reasons known only to them, had just voiced an opinion about the day that was ending.
Learn more about the Wildlife Science Center.
Liked this story? Email it to a friend.