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'The Alaskan gray wolves here eat beef, chicken, goat, horses [when donated], deer, and some fish, on occasion, that is donated by the Navy," says Melinda Booth, development manager of the California Wolf Center. "Deer would be a more natural food for them, but the other meat is very nutritious. The Mexican gray wolves are only fed non-livestock food, like deer and bison." Because most Mexican wolves are released back to a natural habitat as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Mexican wolf-recovery program, participating organizations like the California Wolf Center work to keep the animals from developing a taste for cows and chickens.

For national Wolf Awareness Week (October 15 to October 21), the center is focusing its attention on the endangered Mexican gray, of which only 300 exist, most in captivity. "Mexican wolves are the most distinct, genetically. They are around 20 pounds less than the average grays, and most have similar coloration -- a brownish, rust-ish color with a white splash across the face," says the center's executive director, Patrick Valentino.

"Prior to the Endangered Species Act, there were government programs to kill wolves. We had this archaic, nonscientific foundation of a country that was anti-predator, generally, and anti-wolf specifically. The Little Red Riding Hood myth created a hatred for the wolves."

Valentino learned in historical accounts that the wolves were often killed inhumanely. Among such methods of killing employed by government agents were poison; digging pits into which wolves might fall and eventually die; and capturing wolves, wiring their jaws shut, and then releasing them back to the wild.

A 1996 Environmental Impact Statement determined that the Apache and Gila national forests (located in Arizona and New Mexico) would be ideal habitats for Mexican wolves. When the first wolves were released as part of the recovery program in 1998, however, challenges arose.

"When you're releasing captive-born animals, you're going to lose a lot and have to bring some back in," says Valentino. "Some just die. What usually happens is they might start feeding on or harassing livestock or start hanging around areas where people are. When they're brought back and permanently retired to captivity, it usually has to do with their inability to stay away from livestock and people."

According to Valentino (and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), wolves play a crucial role in the health of the ecosystems to which they belong. "Wolves are not random, but [rather] selective, hunters," Valentino explains. "When they're hunting, they're looking for weak, sick, diseased, or young. It's almost impossible to take down a healthy animal." Primary prey include elk, moose, deer, caribou, and bison. "Healthy [prey] are nearly 100 percent successful defending themselves, so Bambi has the upper hand. When [wolves] are successful, they cull out the weaker animals; when they're not successful, they help keep animals alert and moving, which allows plant life to return."

By scaring their prey into movement, wolves help to keep the land from being overgrazed. "Like when you farm, you don't just use up this one area, you keep moving it around. The plant life benefits by the mere presence of wolves." Scavengers like coyotes and bears also benefit. Because the animals killed by wolves are typically large, there tend to be plenty of leftovers. "Wolves are considered the engineers of biodiversity, or keystone predators," says Valentino.

In an average pack of seven wolves, only two or three will participate in a kill, "but several others may be involved in getting [the prey] separate from the herd -- they decide [which] one is weakest, then focus in, pick up speed, and chase the animal. The kill happens very fast; they want to kill quickly, because if they don't, they can get hurt -- elk can kill wolves."

Valentino compares packs of wolves to human families, with a "mom and dad," or the alpha male and alpha female. "A lot of people say [wolves] mate for life, but they mate for life unless they don't. It's the same with people -- sometimes they split up, sometimes one dies, sometimes one cheats. But [the wolves] are still going to focus on a family unit, because it makes the most sense." -- Barbarella

An Interactive Presentation: Celebrating the Mexican Wolf Saturday, October 21 California Wolf Center Highway 79 (Japatul Road exit, on the K.Q. Ranch Campground) Julian 619-234-9653 or www.californiawolfcenter.org Reservations required

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