A continuation of my Wolf Handling and Chemical Immobilization class at California Wolf Center:
Day two rolled around.
On my drive up to the center, I saw an adorable coyote perched on a rock. I was riding the happiness from this sighting when I got into Julian and got closer to the center. Then, I watched as a bobcat crossed the road in front of me.
I had never seen a bobcat in the wild before this moment, though I have seen quite a few in captivity. But in the wild!?!
I noticed the ears with their tufts of hair, the bobbed tail, the way it moved. After passing it, I just stared with my mouth open before yelling, “Are you kidding me? No way, no way, no f***ing way!”
As soon as I was able, I called Andy and text my parents to tell them about it.
And when I reached the center, I told everyone within earshot. I was so thrilled!
The class started. More teaching, more info. My brain was loaded with stuff. We learned more about the rancher from Alberta, CA, who had been using non-lethal deterrence methods to keep his cattle safe from wolves for decades. He said he has not had a confirmed wolf kill in 17 years.
He now partners with CWC in Northern California in a program called the Working Circle Proactive Stewardship program. The goal is to prevent and reduce wolf-livestock conflict.
I found it very interesting and beneficial to hear from someone on “the other side.” Ranchers are sometimes depicted as the bad guys when it comes to these matters, and though I know there has been progress with the two groups collaborating, it is one thing to hear about it and another to see it in action and working. It was so exciting!
Hearing insight from someone who is working out in the landscape with both cattle and wolves, hearing the concerns and struggles, and hearing the solutions was very beneficial. And I was lucky enough to have him in my group throughout the labs and captures to be able to learn a bit more.
Day two was a lot of classroom time. We had a brief lab that paired our groups with greyhounds to learn about body condition and where to inject vaccinations, sedatives, and where to draw blood from (don’t worry, we didn’t actually practice with needles on the greyhounds).
Oh man, the blood draws were coming. More needles were on their way.
I tried checking my phone a few times, but time has taught me that I just don’t really get cell service when I’m at the center. I felt bad for our dogs at home because I was pulling long days in the classroom, and Andy was working. Fortunately, a friend of ours was able to come by and let the dogs out for a while (thank you so much Lindsay!). But I had to put my phone in airplane mode to keep the battery from dying, so I couldn’t check in to make sure everything had gone well.
Of course it had, as I found out later.
As we were wrapping up day two and preparing for our big day on the final day, we got the news that a storm was blowing in. Julian actually gets snow, so this was a concern for getting into the center (the road can be difficult, which is why I drive the Jeep up there).
We made a list of everyone who has a 4-wheel drive vehicle (me) and everyone who has experience driving in the snow (also me). Most of my classmates were staying in the town of Julian, but a few of us were driving. Since Ramona is on the way for anyone coming from the coast, I was paired up with two people who would ride up to Julian with me.
We formed a plan to meet at the park at 5 a.m. and leave right away. I wanted a little bit of extra time in case it was snowing, and we’d have to take it slow. After exchanging numbers, we headed home to get some sleep.
And boy, was that storm ever coming in. The fog was so thick, it was more like being in a cloud. I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of me. It was slow going, and I kept the coyote and bobcat sightings in mind as I made my way down the mountain, finally making it home safe and sound.
I was a little nervous about the next day. I hadn’t had to use the 4-wheel drive in the Jeep before, and though Andy had driven it in snow, I hadn’t yet. The previous night, Andy and I had gone over how to switch batteries, how to put it into 4-wheel drive, etc., just making sure I knew what was going on.
That night, I went to sleep, a little apprehensive, a lot excited, and very tired.
4 a.m. rolled around. It was cold in Ramona, and I knew it would be a lot colder in Julian (the Wolf Center is at 5,800 feet compared to Ramona’s 1,400).
I made sure to put on my layers — long underwear and pants, a long-sleeved shirt, t-shirt, fleece, and jacket. I packed a change of clothes in case mine got wet and an extra sweatshirt in case I got cold. Two pairs of gloves, a hat, and a scarf went into the bag. I was ready.
With coffee in hand, I went out to meet my two carmates. They were early, which I was happy about. The roads were wet from rain in Ramona. I had checked the webcam in Julian and did not see snow on the roads on Main Street, so I was hopeful.
We started our drive up. And it all went smoothly. No fog, no ice, the roads were only a little slick from the moisture. When we reached the center, it started hailing a little, but nothing was sticking to the ground.
It was early, and we were all half-asleep. But today was the big day. Today we’d be capturing wolves. Live wolves.
After our initial instructions were given, we split up into our groups to begin the process of capturing our first wolf. While I was in the restroom, my group split up the tasks. When I got back, they asked, “Do you want to do the towel or the anesthesia?”
I hesitated for a moment and surprised myself by saying, “anesthesia.”
They handed me the capped syringe filled with Ketamine and Xylazine. A slight tremor when through my body.
We entered an enclosure with two North American gray wolves, Wintu and Yana. NA gray wolves are also called timber wolves, Alaskan wolves, etc.
We had been given Yana as our patient. We formed a line and started closing in on Wintu, working with another group as a barrier. Because of the placement of our primary y-pole person, we ended up sort of splitting up our groups. Our two y-polers helped with Wintu and the other group helped us with Yana.
Seeing a wolf that close always gets my heart going. I’ve encountered them before while doing animal care at the center, but this was different. Now, we were approaching a wolf, trying to capture it.
When we had Yana, and it came time for me to administer the anesthesia, the vet determined that it would be better if he gave the drug since she was in an odd position, and he wanted to give it in a different spot than we had learned. I was slightly disappointed as I handed over the syringe (to my great surprise), but I understood that this was best for the animal.
After she was fully anesthetized, we put on her head cover and took her temperature, and brought her into the center for her checkup.
We had to monitor her while she was under, taking regular temp readings (I did one for the first time), heart rate and respiratory rate. I administered her rabies vaccine and felt for the first time what it was like to push a needle through the skin. I was proud of myself; my hands only shook a little.
We checked her body condition, gave her another vaccine, applied flea treatment, and took blood samples.
This was the big moment. Andy had told me that I had to do it, I couldn’t let my fear stop me. So, when it came to my turn to take blood, I stepped up and took the syringe in my hand. I understood the mechanics of it and what I was looking for. We ended up using a different leg than what we had trained on because the vein was easier to see. As I slid the needles under the skin and saw the “flash” of blood that meant I was in a vein, I felt a rush of pride for getting it in the first stick.
That rush of pride was soon replaced by another feeling. Though I had done it correctly the first time around, my hands were not steady enough to keep the needle in the vein, and I ended up trying two more times before drawing blood into the syringe. I felt bad for sticking the wolf so many times, but I was proud of myself for doing it. I found out that my mistake, other than the unsteady hands, had been in not moving the plunger in the syringe around first to loosen it up. I would remember not to make that mistake again.
We eventually transferred Yana into a crate, where she would be monitored until she came out of her anesthesia. Our drugs had kept her well-sedated, and we never needed to re-dose her. The most that happened, and the reason we could tell things were changing, is that her breathing got deeper. Her ears twitched a bit, but we learned that this was normal. Since it wasn’t purposeful movement, it did not mean she was waking up.
Lifting a sedated wolf into a crate is an experience in itself, feeling my hands in the thick fur, but it went smoothly.
After a short break, we were sent out to do another capture. This time, we would not be sedating the wolf but simply performing a blood draw and updating the vaccines while it was in the enclosure.
We entered another enclosure with North American gray wolves.
This time, we were going to work on Shasta. But we wouldn’t be moving her from the enclosure, and she would be awake.
I had opted to be the secondary y-poler. Once the primary had her secured, I went in with the second y-pole, which I placed over her hips. After placing a towel over her face, they drew blood and vaccinated her. She got a little wiggly during the process, and she eventually decided she was done with the whole thing. She basically stood up and ran away.
The y-polers have the very important job of keeping consistent pressure on the wolf. They aren’t holding them down — if a wolf decides to get up and go, it’ll get up and go — but the y-pole is partially a psychological restraint, imitating how a dominant wolf might treat a subordinate.
We left the enclosure after helping the other team capture their wolf, and ate a quick lunch.
Our next part of the day would be a long one.
I didn’t realize how cold I’d be out in the enclosures, even though we were fairly active. It was 35 degrees in Julian, and the wind was forceful. I was wearing a lot of layers, but the hat I’d brought was less-than-ideal. It kept popping off my head while we were doing things, and I eventually bought a hat from the center that kept me much warmer. Still, I was amazed at how cold I was.
The time finally came for all of the groups to work together in the back enclosure that holds 14 Mexican gray wolves. This was a unique opportunity for us since Mexican gray wolves are an endangered species, with approximately 400 in existence, the majority of them in captivity.
By helping with their vaccinations and bloodwork, we were active participants in their Species Survival Plan, or SSP.
We worked together as a group, all of my classmates, the teachers, and the many volunteers. The wolves were circling around us, darting between bushes and staring at us from behind trees. We made a sweep through the enclosure to get them into the sub-enclosure. I noticed that these wolves seemed to have the best view on the property — it was beautiful.
The wind was blowing fiercely, and I knew we were all cold. But our focus was on our task, and it made everything else fall away. I learned just how agile wolves are, quick and skilled in their movements and easily able to jump 10 feet straight in the air. It was almost mesmerizing to watch them. I was impressed.
Throughout the process, I was fortunate enough to experience a few different jobs. Aside from acting as a physical barrier, I drew blood on an unsedated wolf (wow!). I acted as the secondary y-pole person, placed a towel over a wolf’s head, and lifted and moved a wolf into a crate.
My three days eventually came to a close. I was beaten up, dirty, tired — and more excited than I could remember being in a long time. The experience had been unreal. I was so happy I had decided to attend, and I knew it was something I would never forget.
I was awarded a certificate of completion from the lead veterinarian, something I knew I would proudly display as a reminder of my amazing experience. I had handled live wolves, examined them, touched them.
Little did I know that this would only be the start of my experience with wolves…
Most photos are courtesy of California Wolf Center.