How to catch a wolf

First, get up in the middle of the night and drive through the freezing December cold to a wildlife refuge in New Mexico about an hour down the interstate.

Then, meet a caravan of biologists and volunteers at an abandoned restaurant right off the highway.

When everyone has arrived, follow the line of traffic into the refuge. After you pass through the second gate, abandon your car and climb into the SUV of a refuge manager from Arizona who just happens to be detailed nearby temporarily and was recruited for the day to help catch wolves. Share the SUV with a young mechanical engineer who has never practiced mechanical engineering, but instead works as a hiking guide. And volunteers at wildlife refuges. And is a photographer.

Join the whole crowd of biologists and volunteers at the vet hut at dawn – a couple of trailers that smell like methane where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service apparently stores supplies and treats wolves (and perhaps other wildlife?) for medical care. Use the toilet there – it’s the only one you’ll get all morning. Listen to the head biologist explain to the two dozen people around you what the process will entail. Try to keep warm.

Wonder how a line of people carrying boards and nets supposedly will funnel a wolf in such a way that this biologist and her team can do a health check, crate it, and transfer it to a new facility. Pile into an SUV with the biologist and her colleague so that you can ask more questions because, after all, you’re the reporter for this story and you need to get it right. Ride over the rocks and ruts of what can barely be called an off-road road to get to the wolf enclosure. (You already know that these wolves are part of an intensive captive breeding program and are not roaming free in the refuge).

Arrive at the enclosure. Be a little surprised that it’s only an acre or two in size, and that all four of the wolves (parents and two teenage pups) are together in the same enclosure. Realize that they will be terrified when you all enter the enclosure. Grab what looks like a giant butterfly net and stand in a line next to people holding boards and poles. Try to look big and intimidating. Listen carefully to the biologist to understand what to do so that neither you nor the wolves get hurt. Learn that if a wolf rushes toward you, say “Hey boy, Hey boy” (since three of the four wolves are male). But also learn that if he really wants to break the line, let him go. Wonder to yourself: “How will I know when to let him break the line?”

Start walking forward in a formidable human line of volunteers with boards, and nets. Watch four wolves scramble frantically in the small space, literally bouncing off the high fence trying to escape. Marvel at how high they can jump. Try to keep warm. Wonder if you can possibly take a picture while also maintaining the line and not freezing your fingers off if you take off your gloves. Stay as close as possible to the people next to you so you don’t give a wolf an opportunity to slip through. Listen to the biologist when she yells “let him through” as one of the parents slips through the other end of the line.

Realize suddenly that both pups have sought refuge in the artificial wooden den and both parents have broken the line and are behind you, racing frantically around the other end of the enclosure. Break ranks and cluster around the biologist as she sets out a tarp and medical kit to examine the first wolf. Watch the crowd of six or seven more-experienced volunteers lift the lid of the den and bend into it for an inordinate amount of time. Watch them eventually lift a muzzled and hooded wolf onto the tarp, and feel sorry for the wolf as it huddles in a fetal position with its tail between its legs. Learn that normal wolf body temperature is 101 degrees Fahrenheit, and that wolves quickly overheat from the stress of being captured and poked and prodded. Realize that that is why you had to get up in the middle of the night and freeze yourself at dawn to catch a wolf. Listen as one biologist repeatedly announces the wolf’s rising temperature from the rectal thermometer she has managed to insert, despite the wolf’s best efforts to keep his tail between his legs. “104, 105, 105.9.” Watch another hold the wolf’s head

Wolf pup IMG_3026
USFWS biologists & volunteers check young male Mexican wolf before transfer. Photo by Amy Mathews Amos

down with a forked pole so he can’t move. See the vials fill with blood samples.

When all the blood is drawn and all the data collected, watch as four volunteers hold an animal crate – just like the ones you see in airports transporting large dogs – at just the right angle. Hear the tension in the biologist’s voice as she says “make sure his feet are underneath him at all times!” Wonder how they will get that sideways animal in the crate with his feet underneath him. Watch how easily they manage to do it, and, in an extra feat of wonder, remove the muzzle and hood and lock him in the crate.

Be glad that the second pup takes less time to process. Be glad that the sun has risen and is offering some warmth.

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Adult wolf near wooden den. Photo by Amy Mathews Amos

Grab a board and go back to the other end of the enclosure with all the other volunteers to trap the parents. Get a really good look at them as they are pinned closer and closer to the den. Finally get a few good pictures as one of them resists getting penned in the den and paces and circles while the human wall closes in on her. Admire the surprisingly complex colors of the soft-looking fur and be surprised that the wolf is only about the size of the German shepherd your family had when you were a kid. Finally, when both parents are in the den, break ranks again, and watch them process the father and place him in a crate, then pull out the mother. Be impressed with how she struggles – much more than the other wolves. Hear the concern in the biologist’s voice when she says the wolf’s breathing is too shallow and rapid, and the body temperature rising dangerously. Silently think to yourself “you go girl. Don’t take this shit from anyone.”

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Female wolf is processed by USFWS biologists and volunteers.  Photo by Amy Mathews Amos

And then feel sad, as she is crated and carried away. Knowing that in order to save her subspecies, the Mexican wolf, in a crowded human landscape full of fear, that she needs to be manhandled and kept in captivity to breed more Mexican wolves. Understanding that only seven Mexican wolves remained in the world 30 years ago and that in order to prevent inbreeding depression, this poor wolf was manhandled at least once before – flown from Mexico to New Mexico to breed with a once-wild male who otherwise would have mated with his sister.

Feel ashamed that because of people, it has come to this.

Update 2/8/18:  See my Earth Touch News story about the Mexican wolf:  Lobos in limbo: The halting recovery of the Mexican wolf.

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