WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG GRAY WOLF?
10/16/2013 9:17:00 AM
WILLIAMSBURG (October 16, 2013) – Friday, the full moon rises setting the perfect scene for Howl-O-Scream® at Busch Gardens®. The only thing missing from this spooky tableau is the silhouette of a howling wolf against the backdrop of a full moon.
Busch Gardens is home to three gray wolf packs. Guests often hear them howling during the day as they stroll through Jack Hanna’s Wild Reserve. Their howl can travel for miles, but it has nothing to do with the moon. Yet that is what many people believe. Many wolf behaviors are misinterpreted and embellished by people whose fascination for the animal is based more on myth than reality.
Busch Gardens’ Animal Training Supervisor Megan Glosson specializes in gray wolf behavior. She regularly separates myth from reality during the park’s The Secret Life of Predators show performed throughout the year on the park’s Wolf Haven stage.
Glosson and her team of trainers delve deeper into the mind of the wolf on the team’s Wolf Training Up-Close Tour. The tour explores the nature of wolf behavior and how trainers use their natural behaviors for enrichment and educational opportunities.
Glosson has heard her share of wolf myths over the years. Below she debunks some of her favorites.
Gray Wolf at a Glance
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) encompasses several subspecies including the arctic wolf. Sizes vary between subspecies, but the average gray wolf stands about 26 – 38 inches high at the shoulder. Female wolves weigh between 60 and 90 pounds, while males usually weigh between 80 and 110 pounds.
On the hunt, wolves can eat up to 20 percent of their body weight in one sitting, which can sustain them for a week or two if needed.
In the wild, wolf pups often don’t make it past their first birthday and a wolf who reaches age five or eight years old is considered extremely old. Under human care, wolves can often double that lifespan. Lakota, one of the gray wolves at Busch Gardens is 13 years old.
Myth #1: The Big Bad Wolf
The image of the mammoth beast, while impressive, is mostly an illusion. Gray wolves are built less like a German shepherd or mastiff and more like a greyhound. They are slim and fit, but sometimes their coats can make them appear larger.
Come to Busch Gardens in the summer and again in the fall and you will think you’re seeing two different wolf packs. Like many North American mammals, wolves grow a thick coat during the winter.
All that fur in the winter coat gives them an appearance of an extra 20-30 pounds.
Guard hairs are another aspect to a wolf’s coat that can make the animal appear larger and more intimidating. A wolf’s coat consists of a soft, downy undercoat that sheds out in spring, and the longer coarser “guard hairs” that are present all year.
When the wolf is excited and the hackles stand up, these guard hairs give the wolf the appearance of having a mane.
Myth #2: The Blood Thirsty Beast
Wolves actually do like a little bit of blood, as a wolf’s diet consists primarily of raw meat.
Wolves can eat raw meat because they have bacteria in their stomach to help digest it. Glosson said the wolves enjoy the meat raw and a little bloody. However, Glosson is also quick to point out that this doesn’t make wolves more of a predator.
It has absolutely nothing to do with behavior, it’s just part of their diet. It resembles what they would eat if they killed one of their natural prey items.
Myth #3: The Man-Eater
Humans are decidedly not on the menu for a wolf.
Although wolves are predators, they do not view humans as a source of food. Wolves have a flight distance from humans of about one mile, which means that they will pick up on human presence up to a mile away and will go in the other direction.
The animal trainers have a unique relationship with Busch Gardens’ wolf packs. The wolves have grown up around humans. They have forged a bond with their trainers and have lost much of their natural fear of people.
They also do not see us as a threat to their territory, because we are not other canines. So if they don’t eat humans, what do wolves eat? Typical prey items for gray wolves include deer, elk, caribou, moose and bison. Wolves also are opportunists and will eat smaller prey like rabbits and birds when available.
Myth #4: The Snarling Monster
The image of a snarling wolf, jaws slavering with saliva at anything it encounters, goes against a wolf’s natural tendencies. That’s how wolves act with each other, not how they act towards humans or even with prey. They’re not going to want to scare their prey so it would be counterproductive for them to approach prey snarling or growling.
Wolves growl or snarl at each other for a variety of reasons: to establish pack hierarchy, possession over food or toys, reprimanding a too-playful pup, a warning to wolves from another pack or even a simple misunderstanding such as bumping into one another.
Misunderstandings fizzle out and it often sounds and looks very intense, but it is rare that the pack mates injure each other. They need the pack to survive so they’re not going to seriously hurt each other.
The snarling monster myth is likely to have started because of diseases like rabies. Rabies affects neurological tissue and can cause animals to act contrary to how they would normally behave.
So a wolf growling at humans would not be acting normally, which indicates it’s not a healthy wild wolf.
Myth #5: The Werewolf
Theories on the origins of werewolves abound, ranging from medical conditions, to hallucinogenic bread, to possessed wolves. Even though it is difficult to pin down where the myth that the bite of a wolf will turn a person into a werewolf began, it is perhaps the easiest to debunk because simply put, werewolves do not exist.
Myth #6: Howling at the Moon
While the image of a wolf howling at the full moon might seem like a spooky image fit for Halloween, it’s not very accurate.
Wolves do tilt their head back for projection, but howling is a social behavior and has nothing to do with the lunar cycle. It’s more likely that it’s just easier to see wolves howling by the light of a full moon.
Wolves howl throughout the day, but are most active at dawn and dusk. Certain wild populations of wolves have adapted to nocturnal lifestyles to better avoid humans.
Wolves howl for a variety of reasons, like to locate their pack, to intimidate rival packs, to gather the pack together during a hunt or to alert the pack to a sudden threat.
The normal wolf howl is calm.
Usually, a calm howl is a sign of social contentment. Each wolf has its own distinctive voice and wolves can tell the difference between each voice.
Sometimes they perform a chorus howl when other packs are present.
The wolves will often pick different discordant pitches from one another to make it sound like there are more wolves present and to let other packs know, “there are a lot of us here so stay out of our space.”
Want to add your voice to the chorus howl? Watch the howl-to video where Animal Training Supervisor Megan Glosson demonstrates what it takes to sound like a wolf. Then, on Friday, record and share a video of your own gray wolf impression on the park’s official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram channels. Busch Gardens will be re-tweeting and sharing fan’s howling submissions.
Howl-O-Scream is now open weekends through October 27. With the Fall Fun Card enjoy howling-good fun all fall for the price of a single day admission. At the stroke of 6 p.m., the ghouls and haunts come out to play and Busch Gardens becomes a seriously scary place. Guests are advised to consider the park’s elevated scare factor when deciding to visit Busch Gardens with young children during Howl-O-Scream. For more information, visit www.howloscream.com/va.