Ambassadors For the Species at Bay Mountain


In 1997 Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote a book titled, Women Who Run With the Wolves. But Sue Everett Shanks can top that – she has raised wolves.

In the summer of 1995, Shanks coordinated the raising and integration of three gray wolf puppies into an existing pack of adult gray wolves at Bays Mountain Park in Kingsport, Tenn.

Established in 1971, Bays Mountain Park is a 3,300-acre city-owned nature park located in the midst of urban sprawl. The park features several species of animals, a raptor center, a planetarium and a lake.

All of the animals in the park are historically native to Tennessee: elk, bison, mountain lions, deer and wolves, and others. None of the animals at the park could live in the wild, senior naturalist Dave Taylor said. They have all either been rehabilitated after injury or bred in captivity.

The first three gray wolves – one male and two females — were brought to Bays Mountain in 1992 from Wolf Park in Lafayette, Ind. There the wolves had been bred in captivity and socialized to accept humans as the alpha or dominant members of their pack.

The breeding season is the best time to observe wolf behavior, Shanks said. There is a lot of what she calls silliness: flirting, scuffling and noise. Bays Mountain naturalists wanted to encourage these mating behaviors to educate park visitors. But they also wanted to prevent pregnancies, so Navarro, the male, was vasectomized.

The wolves were then installed in a 1-acre natural habitat and quickly became one of the park’s most popular attractions, Taylor said.

Sue Shanks first came to the park in 1992 to attend a welcome party for the wolves and was instantly drawn to them. A year later, she became a volunteer naturalist. “I’d been sort of looking for something like that, I think,” she said.

Shanks spent nearly a year as a volunteer observer, recording the wolves’ behaviors and habits. During one breeding season, the alpha female, Kashtin, had a false pregnancy, Shanks says. The wolf was so sure she was going to have puppies that she dug a den for them.

“There was a lot of excitement in the pack,” Shanks said. “They seemed thrilled. [Kashtin] seemed disoriented when it didn’t happen.”

Then Dave Taylor offered Shanks a great opportunity: find, train and integrate three new wolves into the existing pack. Shanks had learned a lot from her observations, but she set about reading countless books and even traveled to Wolf Park in Indiana to take courses in wolf behavior.

It was a daunting task, but Shanks eventually found three puppies at Bear Country USA in Rapid City, S.D., which breeds animals for parks and the movie industry. The wolf pups – two males and a female — were about two months old when they arrived at Bays Mountain. According to Shanks, the pups were given names taken from the Cherokee language: the female was named Askina, or spirit, and the two males were named Nayehi, or one who goes about, and Kanati, or lucky hunter.

For four months, volunteers worked around the clock in shifts to hand-raise the puppies, never leaving them alone. “They were wild and very cautious,” Shanks said. But they had to be taught to trust humans so they wouldn’t hide from park visitors. The pups also had to be leash trained so they could be moved easily from place to place.

It was intense work, Shanks said. But the most stressful part of the process was still to come.

The wolves in the existing pack were three years old and ranged in size from 80-110 pounds. Wolves are territorial and the six-month-old pups might be killed if something went wrong.

First Shanks and the staff moved the pups into a pen adjoining the wolf habitat and put up tarps to block the view. They wanted the older wolves to become familiar with the smell of the puppies before seeing them. But Shanks and the staff eventually had to trust the older wolves.

There was some tension between the pups and the omega female. The alpha male gave them a cool reception. But the alpha female, Kashtin, was ecstatic to finally have pups to raise. For the first few days, she would allow only the pups to eat. Everyone else went hungry. The wolves’ diet consists mainly of deer killed in traffic accidents.

Under the right conditions, most wolves and wolf packs are very caring towards puppies, sharing feeding and babysitting duties and indulging in a lot of play. Very soon, the puppies won over Navarro and Djenaun, Shanks said. And they became a pack of six wolves.

“It was a special summer,” Shanks said. “Everybody learned a lot. It was an exciting and spiritual time.” But the realities of life in a wolf pack can be harsh.

One morning, about a year and a half after the integration of the pack, park staff found Navarro, the former alpha wolf, seriously injured. The two new males, Nayehi and Kanati, had staged a coup, Shanks said, and Navarro had been dethroned.

Wolves, especially males, often spar, but it’s mostly posturing and noise, Shanks said. This time was different. The younger males continued to badger Navarro until the staff had to make a tough decision. They removed Navarro from the pack.

Wolves are very social animals and isolation is hard for them. It can be hard on the caretakers, too, because caring for captive wolves presents some ethical dilemmas. “You’re forced to make god-like decisions about their lives,” Shanks said.

Navarro died two months after being separated from the pack. Results of a necropsy, similar to a human autopsy, showed Navarro suffered from a genetic heart condition. Shanks believes the two younger males sensed Navarro’s weakness.

In the wild, wolves will turn on weak and sick members of the pack, often killing them or driving them away. A pack is only as strong as its weakest member, and only the strongest packs thrive. After Navarro’s death, one of the younger female pups also died, but of unknown causes.

The four remaining wolves are still very popular and thousands of people, including about 25,000 school children visit the park each year, Taylor said. Every month, the park staff puts on several wolf programs, both at the park and at remote sites. One of the most popular activities is the nighttime “howling,” where the park staff encourages the wolves to howl for visitors.

“The wolves are, as one naturalist here put it, ambassadors for their species,” Dave Taylor said. “It’s important to de-mystify wolves and teach people about their place as predators in the natural world.”

At the park, people learn the value of wolves to the ecosystem, but both Shanks and Taylor say they doubt wild wolves will ever roam the Southeast again. “Wolves need miles of roadless habitat, and that doesn’t exist here anymore,” Taylor said.

Bays Mountain Park intends to add wolves to the existing pack in 2004, Taylor said. But the pups will be older and the process will not require volunteers.
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