He Won't Eat Your Grandma. We Promise.

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2006
April 21st, 2007
Atka, age three, is an affable Arctic wolf who weighs eighty-seven pounds and sports a thick, shiny white coat. When he's not in South Salem, New York, where he lives with the rest of his pack in a conservation center, Atka is working his second job, as an ambassador. He takes about a hundred road trips each year to give students a firsthand lesson in wolf conservation. On one November afternoon - a day that was bitterly cold for humans, but pleasant for wolves - Atka was the special guest in Ruth Colwill's freshman seminar on animal minds.

While Atka wandered around a Hunter Lab classroom, licking shoes, sniffing the floor, and slurping water from a dish, Barry Braden of the Wolf Conservation Center, along with Josh Lewis '87, a volunteer with the center, presented a lesson in wolf behavior. Braden said that fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, as well as the Bush campaign ad that used the analogy of a pack of wolves as terrorists, paint a picture of wolves as human predators. In fact, he asserted, no healthy wolf in the wild has ever killed a person in North America. "I promise you," he said, "wolves won't eat your grandma."

There are now fewer than 5,000 wolves in the continental United States, Braden said, compared with around 250,000 before European settlers started killing them. The Wolf Conservation Center breeds endangered wolves and also has an ambassadorship program for wolves like Atka, who, while not endangered, are rare in the United States.

Students used camera phones to take snapshots of Atka (he didn't seem to mind) while Braden answered their questions: How does the rest of the pack respond when Atka has to leave? (The other wolves sing him a song.) Are wolves monogamous? (Typically a pack's alpha male and female mate for life.) Who raises the pups? (An entire pack shares the job.) Is there any truth to stories of humans raised by wolves? (Probably not.)

Another student asked about pack hierarchy. Braden explained that in the wild, a pack's alpha male and female are the parents, the pups are their new babies, and the other members are their adult children. The average pack includes six to ten wolves. Between the ages of two and three, he said, adult children leave the pack to start their own families.

This is Atka's second year in Colwill's seminar, which teaches students to think about whether or not the minds of animals are distinguishable from those of humans. Colwill, an associate professor of psychology, began teaching the course last year.

While Atka napped on the cold floor, Braden reminded students to suppress their urges to pet Atka's fluffy coat. He said it's the policy of the center to tame the wolves as little as possible, which means humans and Atka hardly interact at all. Braden said, "It's kind of like having a cat."

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January / February 2006