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Zoo caretaker doesn't cry wolf

FARGO -- Nicole Lee entered the wolf compound and was immediately set upon by five large canines. They came at her in an excited swirl, some jumping up to place large paws on her chest and shoulders. Lee shoved the 100-pound predators aside, but ...

Nicole Lee and the Red River Zoo wolves
Nicole Lee of the Red River Zoo is greeted by two of the gray wolves Jan. 27. They are discouraged from standing, but sometimes do so in the excitement of her arrival. Photo by Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor.

FARGO -- Nicole Lee entered the wolf compound and was immediately set upon by five large canines.

They came at her in an excited swirl, some jumping up to place large paws on her chest and shoulders.

Lee shoved the 100-pound predators aside, but then showed her friendly intentions by rubbing their heads and ears.

Having raised the wolf pack by hand since the animals arrived at the Red River Zoo in Fargo two years ago, Lee is clearly welcome in wolf territory.

But she is under no illusions about her potential place in the wolf pecking order.


Her brush-offs of jump-happy wolves are intended to send a message: I'm no pushover.

"They're always trying to find a weakness, trying to take advantage," Lee said. "We need to constantly be aware that at any point, they can turn."

When the gray wolves arrived as pups in 2008, Lee and others at the zoo spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week interacting with them.

Even so, the animals' predatory instincts remain strong, and the large canines are constantly testing their two-legged caretakers.

Thankfully, Lee said, there have been no major incidents with the wolves. The animals are a big draw for the zoo, which hosts groups of Scouts and others who sometimes hold sleepovers in what is known as the trapper's cabin.

Intended as a facsimile of a fur trapper's cabin circa the 1800s, several of the cabin's walls are actually windows into the wolf enclosure. The windows work both ways, so the wolves can also watch the watchers.

"They're curious about people. They're intrigued by people," Lee said, adding that because they were raised by hand, the wolves don't have the fear of humans that wild wolves possess.

As a result, she said, people get a better view of the animals than normally would be possible.


"Wolves are very timid of people, and a lot of times, they'll hide in a captive exhibit, or they'll do a lot of nervous pacing-type behaviors," Lee said.

That up-close wolf viewing has proven to be a boon to the zoo.

"Our attendance went up about 20 percent when the pups first arrived," zoo Executive Director Paula Grimestad said.

People liked the wolves so much that many bought memberships so they could return again and again, boosting overall membership by about 30 percent, Grimestad said.

On a recent winter day, the zoo's wolf pack showed no fear or nervousness at the appearance of new visitors, and soon all five -- four males and one female -- hunkered down for a nap.

With coats grown thick for the winter, the wolves are content to spend much of their time outside the wolf den built for them at the center of their enclosure.

Although they look big and grown up, the animals, all of them siblings from the same litter, are only now entering maturity.

As with humans, the passage from one stage of life to another can be fraught with confusion and conflict. On top of that, it's wintertime, when wolf hormones run high.


"All of those factors are kind of throwing them for a loop," Lee said, adding that without adult wolves to model their behavior on, the wolves are trying to work out who is in charge on their own.

Moose is the largest of the brothers and the dominant male right now.

But being big doesn't always make one the boss when it comes to wolves.

"Sometimes, smaller wolves can be dominant. Just because a wolf is small doesn't mean he has a small personality," Lee said.

Ella, the only female, will eventually take on the role of the dominant female of the pack, Lee said.

She said next in line in order of status is Orion, followed by Mozart and Sirius, the only black wolf in the pack.

"Mozart and Orion are kind of in a fuzzy situation," Lee said. "Mozart has kind of shown a bigger, more intimidating personality lately. Orion is a happy-go-lucky wolf."

Sparring between the wolves, which includes baring of teeth and intense posturing, can be disconcerting, according to Lee.


"Wolf behavior can be pretty brutal," she added. "If we're afraid one of the wolves could be killed, we'd have to consider taking that wolf out of the pack and finding another home for him."

Lee may be the primary caretaker of the wolves, but she doesn't forget they are wild creatures, not pets.

She said there's no telling what might prompt one of the wolves to view her as a potential snack.

"You never know when licking will turn into biting and chewing," Lee said.

Before she took on the job of hand-raising a pack of wolves, Lee conducted a lot of research and spent time at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn., "where I received a lot of the training for doing the hand-raising process here," she said.

The way humans interact with the pack is very important for keeping problems to a minimum, according to Lee.

"When they greet each other. they do a lot of face-licking, so we do allow them to greet us in that manner.

"We don't try to really play with them because we're not a part of the pack," she added. "We don't chase them and wrestle with them. Humans are outsiders. They recognize us, they associate with us, but we're not a consistent member of their family."


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