Wolf conservation is one of those abstract issues for a city dweller like me. I don’t own livestock, nor do I have deer traipsing through my yard, treating my garden like a smorgasbord. I have no real connection to this stealthy carnivore, save for my own dog, a perfectly watered down mix of wild canine and lovable pet. But I’m always interested in animals and my oldest sister is crazy for wolves—and she recently humored me by visiting reptiles at the Ecovivarium, so on my recent trip to visit family in southern California, we three sisters learned about wolf conservation. Wander along and learn about wolf conservation at the California Wolf Center.

California Wolf Center

You know you’ve arrived at the California Wolf Center when you see this door knocker. Photo by Teresa Bergen.

The California Wolf Center is located just outside the mountain town of Julian, more famous for apples than wolves. We met our guide Madeline Becker at a locked gate on a dusty, gravel road. Once our group of 20 people assembled, Madeline led us up a bumpy, rutted road. We’d borrowed Mom’s car, and crossed our fingers that we could return it with tires intact. The isolation and locked gates make sense—wolves don’t want to live in town, and not everybody is as gung-ho about their captive breeding as the wolf center staff.

Wolves 101 at the California Wolf Center

Our wolf education starts in the education building/gift shop at the California Wolf Center. As we sit in rows, Madeline shows us a variety of animal skulls. She emphasizes the wolf’s sagittal crest, a bone ridge running lengthwise along the skull that supports powerful muscles—all the better to chew you with, my dear.

California Wolf Center

Animal skulls at the California Wolf Center. Photo by Teresa Bergen

Wolves used to live in 98 percent of the country, Madeline tells us. That is, every state except for Hawaii. Now that figure has dwindled down to fewer than 6,000 wolves in the lower 48. North America has two species: the gray and the red. North Carolina is now the only state with red wolves—a measly 35 or so of them. The California Wolf Center focuses its efforts on gray wolves, especially the Mexican gray wolf, a critically endangered subspecies.

But in the 1800s, wolves were everywhere. They vied with humans for tasty elk and bison. When ranchers set up shop, wolves developed a fancy for livestock. And stories about werewolves and Little Red Riding Hood gave wolves a bad rap.

So the US government started a war on wolves, offering a bounty per kill. “Not only was it easy to hunt and kill wolves, you got a paycheck from it,” Madeline says. By the 1930s, wolves were considered critically endangered.

The 1970s ushered in widespread conservation movements. In 1973, wolves received federal protection via the Endangered Species Act. In 1977, the California Wolf Center was founded to help the country recover its wild wolf population.

Why should people care? “Humans, we tipped the scales a bit by removing those wolves,” Madeline says. “Without wolves, there are herbivores everywhere.” Wolves maintain the health of the population by eating the sick, injured, and old, thus removing weakened genetics from the population. In short, wildlife eugenics.

Wolf Romance at the California Wolf Center

After our wolf orientation, program coordinator John Murtaugh takes us out to see the wolves. It’s July, a month when Julian slithers with rattlesnakes. We mind the big red and yellow warning signs and stay on the rocky path.

California Wolf Center

We are stepping very, very carefully. Photo by Teresa Bergen.

First we meet Zeke and Terry, a pair of Mexican gray wolves. John explains that the pair are important for educational purposes, being the face of this critically endangered species.  “We make a much stronger connection with animals we get to see than just talking about them.”

Zeke is lying down, ignoring us. Terry skulks around, doing what John calls drive-bys, walking on the other side of the bushes, peeking at us while trying to remain unseen.

The California Wolf Center works with 54 other facilities in North America to conserve Mexican gray wolves. Some are chosen for education, some for wild release, others for mating. About 1,600 Mexican gray wolves have been born since the conservation program started. The current living population is about 400.

The 55 facilities use software programs to cross-check wolf genes, determining who should mate for the most valuable gene diversity. Chosen wolves are sent in an airplane to meet their intended. “I’ll admit that’s a weird day for a wolf,” John says. “It’s like an alien abduction.” And the meetings aren’t always fruitful. “Just because it works on paper doesn’t mean they’ll like each other. But during breeding season, they’re usually not too picky.”

California Wolf Center

One of the wolf center’s gorgeous wolves. Photo courtesy of California Wolf Center.

Male wolves’ testes only descend during breeding season, which runs from Valentine’s Day through late April. Wolf center staff periodically check sperm motility—unfortunately, John doesn’t detail the collection process. Originally Zeke’s siblings were chosen to mate, but with no luck. Now they’re getting on in years. “Zeke is not very fertile,” John says. “But why not let him try?”

Lifestyle at the California Wolf Center

John takes us over to a large enclosure to see a pack of North American gray wolves. At first, we see nothing. It’s a huge enclosure, and the wolves only reveal themselves if they want to.

While we wait for wolves to appear, John talks diet. The wolves here eat exotic kibble, supplemented by their favorite: roadkill deer. No livestock, especially if they’ll be released into the wild, as they’ll already have enough problems with ranchers. They also eat fish, donated by the US Navy and Sea World. According to John, a wolf pack in British Columbia subsists almost entirely on fish they catch in the ocean.

California Wolf Center

Young wolves. Photo courtesy of California Wolf Center.

“We do not need to teach them how to hunt,” he says. The center doesn’t provide live prey, but some wander into the enclosure. “Anything that goes in, goes in at its own risk.” The chatty ravens that perch in the trees above the wolves are a favorite snack.

Wolf predation is a crucial part of the ecosystem. In Yellowstone, when the wolves were gone, the bears didn’t eat much. “The bear is like nature’s bully,” John says. “They show up and say, ‘This is mine now.’ The wolf takes the measure of the bear and says, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’”

California Wolf Center

A winter wolf. Photo courtesy of California Wolf Center.

Eventually a wolf slinks into view—skinny, long torso, big feet. Built like a marathon runner. Our group has the urge to call the wolves by name, or bark, or otherwise interact like they’re dogs. That’s the mystery of wolves—they’re so much like our beloved companions. But then again, they’re not. Somebody says she wants to pet a wolf. John explains wolves don’t understand what petting is. “We customized dogs to want to be part of our families. If you want a wolf to bring home, get a husky or a malamute.”

Tours at the California Wolf Center

Guided wolf pack tours, limited to 15 guests, take place at 10 am every Monday and 2 pm each Friday. Wolf Recovery tours take place Saturdays and Sundays at 10 am and 2 pm. Private tours are offered weekdays by appointment only. Visit online to arrange your tour.

On a Mission at the California Wolf Center

The California Wolf Center has been fulfilling its mission of wolf conservation, education and research for 40 years now. Dedicated volunteers, interns and a lean staff keep the wolves fed and healthy as they scheme how to regrow the wild population. If they had a romantic picture of working with wolves when they signed on, they quickly get over it. “Everybody wants to work with animals until they do,” John says. “They think it’s cuddling puppies. But it’s hard work. A lot of it is gross.”

Before I leave the center, I skim a book in the gift shop that sets an old story straight. It’s a retelling of The Three Little Pigs from the wolf’s side. Turns out, he was really just visiting his porcine neighbors to borrow a cup of sugar when everything went horribly wrong.

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Wander along and learn about wolf conservation at the California Wolf Center, located just outside the southern California mountain town of Julian.