Well, I mentioned at the end of last month’s post that the May photo is my favourite of all 13 I put in this year’s calendar…and it’s finally here. I have to say that, although I ordinarily would have a tough time choosing a favourite amongst my captures, this one was surprisingly easy. Or perhaps it’s not that surprising. I mean, it has so many things going for it: a beautiful adult animal; a ridiculously cute baby; a playful pose; an unobstructed view; etc. etc. etc. But it’s not the only shot I took last year that combined these elements; why, then, did this one stand out so strongly for me? The reason must be in the story – or, more correctly, stories – behind it.
When I began training at the Zoo in November of 2012, there were just a few surviving Arctic wolves from the large pack that had lived there since basically the beginning of the millennium. We began to lose them, slowly, over the next couple of years until, finally, the pack had dwindled down to a solitary old wolf. Before that happened, for Christmas of 2012, I received a wonderful gift: a Canon DSLR camera, which I immediately put to use taking shots all over the Zoo. In February, my friend Karen (who was a classmate) offered to lend me her zoom lens, as she had exactly the same camera as I did. I was eager to add a zoom to my own kit, so I gratefully took her up on her offer. The lens had no image stabilization, so I needed to find out if I would be able to control the “shake” with the lens fully extended. I headed out into the cold winter air on a snowy day and went to the wolf enclosure, where I knew I could take unobstructed shots of the beautiful animals, but would need to use full zoom. When I returned home and looked at my shots, they all came out as wonderfully as the one I have included above, so I asked for (and received) the same lens for my birthday that May. While I waited, I frequently borrowed Karen’s lens and found myself quite often heading straight for the wolves to use it. The shots I took there that winter were among my favourite with that camera over the whole time I owned it.
In the meantime, in anticipation of this situation, a young breeding trio had arrived from a couple of different locations. Dora and Vera, sisters and littermates, made quite a long trek from the Amsterdam Royal Zoo where they had been born in 2011. Chinook, born the same year, came a slightly shorter distance: from Parc Safari, outside of Montreal. (I’ve posted about this wonderful facility a few times previously.) They spent some time together in an enclosure in the Canadian Domain, getting to know one another and biding their time until it would be their turn to move to the main exhibit on the Tundra Trek. Late in 2015, they got that chance. They got along swimmingly for a while, but eventually Dora established full dominance as the alpha female and Vera began to be shunned, or even bullied a bit. Then the next spring the makings of a den magically appeared and it looked like Chinook and Dora would be expanding the family in the near future. Alas, it was not to be – nor the next year, 2017 – despite many observations by Staff and Volunteers of them breeding during the winters. And then, suddenly, Chinook was gone, felled by West Nile Virus in the rainy and hot summer of 2017 and the girls were alone for a while.
In November of 2017 another male arrived, also from Parc Safari, with the same lineage as Chinook. A year younger than his brother, he came with an impressive pedigree of already having sired multiple litters – and an unsubstantiated story I have heard is one of the females he impregnated was on birth control at the time. Well, the Zoo clearly needed some of his “super sperm,” so he was acquired with some anticipation. Imiq spent his quarantine month in the Canadian Domain enclosure, but there is no doubt in my mind that the girls were fully aware he was in the park; I would frequently hear them howling and then a faraway answer that could only have come from Imiq. In December he moved up to the main exhibit, spending a couple of days still separated from Vera and Dora, to his great consternation (from the pathetic whining he was doing, at least). When he finally was introduced to them, it didn’t go smoothly immediately; Dora asserted immediate dominance over him and there was a short period of time when it seemed he even came below Vera in the pecking order.
But clearly… that did not last.
When Chinook was alive I often had trouble telling the three wolves apart. Once Imiq arrived, however, it became much easier. He has a black “smudge” at the top of his tail; once he is identified, the girls become a bit easier as Dora, despite being the alpha female, is noticeably smaller than her sister… generally. However, I began having difficulty distinguishing one girl from the other in the very early spring of last year, as they seemed to be similar in size. After a couple of weeks of this, it suddenly dawned on me that there might be a very good reason for Dora being as big as Vera, so I checked with a Keeper in the area and found out that it was extremely likely that Dora was finally pregnant. From then on, every time I went past the wolf exhibit I made sure to count heads. And when Dora disappeared from view in early May – about 10 days after I took the above shot of her, looking quite plump – a great many people waited with bated breath to see when she would reappear – and what might be following her.
The best guess anyone has is that the cubs were born on May 10, judging from when Dora was last seen (May 6) and when she reappeared for some food (May 11). And while everyone headed for the clearly dug-out den at the northwest corner of the enclosure –a fence was set up to keep giddy visitors a little farther from the “den” – my first glimpse of the new Mama (pictured here at right) came in an entirely different area of the domain. On May 14, I was standing on the pathway at the south side of the exhibit when Vera and Imiq raced past me to the east. I followed their flight path and saw what had caught their interest: a couple of Keepers were passing by that end of the exhibit with one of the Outreach raptors in tow, and the wolves really wanted to get a super-close view of the bird. While I was watching this scene play out, I became aware of a low howl that seemed to be coming from behind me; I turned and saw Dora coming down the southside path slowly, probably thinking the other two wolves were excited about a feeding and plaintively insisting that she get some of whatever was on offer. I was thrilled to see her, but a little confused: there was no way she could have come all the way from where we all thought the den was in such a short time. So I hung around the enclosure for a little while – long enough to see Dora walk up the hill a little and slip into an opening under one of the wooden platforms. This is where I assume she either gave birth, or where she moved the cubs to once it became too busy nearer to the original den. I watched that area for several days in vain, hoping to catch a glimpse of a tiny ball of fur. Ultimately, a Keeper shot a video of a lot of movement back at the original location, and word spread like wildfire. And that is where I saw them for the first time with my own eyes, two weeks to the day after I first spotted Dora looking for food on the opposite side.
I stayed there for nearly an hour as cub after cub appeared at the mouth of the den. I couldn’t believe it when I counted six in all! That seemed to be a huge first litter for Dora to have; but then I remembered the story of Imiq’s prowess and it suddenly didn’t seem so odd. Eventually all six of them nursed under the watchful eye of Auntie Vera, then they explored the sunny terrain near their home while Mama Dora went off to roll in the grass and catch a few rays, leaving Vera to mind the roost. And this was the first time I had ever seen Vera with an actual duty to perform in the pack, and she took it like a duck to water. She was an amazing aunt, with seemingly unlimited patience.
And that’s the day I knew my summer had been set out for me, and there was nothing I could do to change it.
I’ve decided this is so long a story that I should split it up into two parts. Part II will be published on May 10, which is the first birthday of the wolf cubs. Please remember to check back then (I’ll post a reminder on Facebook and Twitter) and I’ll talk about the cubs and the pack, and post a lot more photos.
And – fingers tightly crossed – I just might have some very exciting news to share by then. That’s your teaser. See you in 10 days!