It’s hard to forget about the leader of the pack, especially when you meet the Gray Wolf puppies being acclimatized to human interaction at Bays Mountain Park in Kingsport.
Four puppies, with males Unalii and Ahuli, and females Ela and Takota, are each looking for that alpha distinction against their unofficial brothers and sisters. Each born between April 8-17 in Minnesota, the puppies will go through training with “puppy mothers,” or volunteers willing to give great portions of their time to help the four new members of Bays Mountain Park’s collection of wolves get used to having people stare at them and slowly help them adjust to joining the existing pack of wolves.
Rhonda Goins, park naturalist at Bays Mountain Park, is overseeing the acclimatization, says there is a solid core of volunteers willing to go through the necessary process, which includes not changing clothes from the offset through the end of the process in late August.
“All the volunteers call it life-changing,” Goins said.
And she agrees. She and her husband, with the other volunteers, will live with the puppies, trading shifts 24 hours a day so they are always being monitored and taken care of in their caged in area dubbed the Puppy Palace. The ultimate goal is to keep the wolf pack at a healthy size of 7-10 wolves, giving them a chance to hold onto their natural instincts and order while being able to handle being viewed by the average 175,000 people who come to the park each year.
Whitney Calhoun, a four-year volunteer with the wolves and employee of the adventure course at the park said they get so many groups of children that they need to be careful with how the kids react around the wolves and how the wolves respond to the people.
“What we want is them to ignore everyone on the outside and only follow our commands,” Calhoun said.
She said there’s not a place on the planet she’d rather be than working with the puppies.
Calhoun, Goins and the other puppy mothers, including Larry Davenport, are sure to keep their clothes smelling the same for the duration because the animals thrive on routine and not incorporat new, harsh smells to their noses. It might get stinky for the volunteers, but it’s exactly what the puppies and adult wolves need.
“We’ve never had a bad situation because we work with them so much,” Goins said.
One thing Goins and the others are helping instill is the natural order which wolves follow. Though they’re in the cage with the animals, they let them wrestle and determine the strongest of pack themselves. The males have had vasectomies and they don’t breed there anyway, Goins said, but the idea is to have the strongest, or alpha, females in charge of the female wolves and alpha male in charge of the males.
This isn’t necessarily a size thing, she said, because Ahuli, smaller than Unalii, has developed the dominant personality over his counterpart. It can be measured by spunk and drive, not necessarily raw power.
It’s slightly problematic that they’re near the apex of their cuteness right now as puppies, but Goins instructs the others not to lose sight that they’re ultimately dealing with undomesticated animals, and for that, she treats them all, even the puppies, as the 120-pound wolves they’ll eventually be.
“I’m not scared of them, but I respect them,” Goins said.
She’s earned the wolves’ trust from day one and is allowed access to them that others have not because of the relationship she has with them. As is the norm with the species, Goins said they allow multiple females in their lives to act like mothers and she and the others who’ve earned that trust can get closer with the wolves.
Davenport is proud to a male puppy mother and said his time with the wolves, though he’s the newest to the work, has been rewarding to him for a variety of reasons.
“I’m from Kingsport and have been coming here for years,” Davenport said. “I’m just giving back to a park that’s given me so much.”
Living in the same unwashed clothes for the whole summer, Davenport and the volunteers had to pick items worthy of that much wearing.
Davenport made an appropriate choice with a T-shirt with Zach Galifianakis’ face on it and a line from his hit movie, “The Hangover.” “We Made A Pact,” it read. “Wolf Pack Only.”
He hopes after his first year of doing this that he’ll officially be in the wolf pack at Bays Mountain Park, as do the puppies he’s watching.
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