[If you haven’t read Part I yet, you can find it here; go ahead and read it and come back – we’ll wait here for you!]
I ended Part I with my first viewing of the cubs, on May 28, 2018 and my summer having been planned out for me. I wish I could say that was hyperbole, but I really did spend more time with the Toronto Zoo wolf pack last summer than I spent on any other activity – and it’s not even close. At the beginning I hung around the northwest corner where barriers had been set up to keep noisy visitors from getting too close to the den; however, it wasn’t long (this photo is from three days after my first sighting) before the cubs began to wander far enough afield that I was able to take up semi-permanent residence in a much more comfortable location: on the bridge at the southwest corner under which the wolves travel to reach their food and the yards by the house. The bridge is covered and open to the air on three sides (both very important features on the hot, muggy days we get around here) and I was able to put my camera lens right up against the fence – which had large squares in the mesh – to eliminate any obstructions from my shots.
I’m so glad I had so much free time to watch them right from the beginning because they grew up incredibly fast. This shot is from June 1; already their ears are standing up, their expressions are more alert; they were allowed to wander off far from the rest of the family. At this point, they are only three weeks old, and it has only been four days since I first saw them stumbling clumsily outside of their den. They looked different every single day and the odd time I had to skip a couple of days I almost didn’t recognize them when I came back. But it wasn’t like I could drop in and see them any time I wished: most visits required a lot of patience and careful scanning of the landscape for sometimes a couple of hours before even one baby would make an appearance. Not that I am complaining in the slightest: the payoff was magnificent and I spent some very Zen-like moments in between sightings. And it got to the point where I was able to fairly accurately predict when I might see the cubs – and where – by observing the actions and listening to the vocalizations of the adults (especially Vera).
On June 7th they turned four weeks old. I took this photo (at left) on that day, along with the shots that appear at the top of each of the parts to this blog post (including, obviously, the May photo for the calendar). By that point, I was already noticing a very clear pattern. Every time Imiq would attempt to settle down somewhere, a single cub would come up to him and sniff around his muzzle. Then the cub would rub up against him and flop down, trying to get him to play with it. Sometimes a second cub would appear, but if ever a third (or fourth or fifth or sixth) cub tried to join in, Imiq would quickly run out of patience and get to his feet with a snarl. But he showed remarkable patience with one cub at a time, and it didn’t take long to figure out that it was the same cub, over and over, making these approaches. The Keepers long suspected that this cub was “Daddy’s Girl;” once they were caught up and sexed later in the summer, it was discovered that “Daddy’s Girl” was the only girl of the six. Thus, when I chose the photo of Imiq and cub that graces this month’s calendar page, it was pretty easy to determine which of the litter was in the shot. I don’t think I would have been that lucky with any other kind of picture.
One of the difficulties I had when trying to take photos of them in their early days was the length of the grass in the exhibit. I think perhaps Dora caught them a bit off-guard when she denned, because the grass hadn’t been cut since the winter and it was too late at that point to do anything about it. Ordinarily, the wolves from the exhibit are brought under the bridge and “caught up” in the back yards while a crew goes into the domain and tends to all of the horticultural needs. Once Dora went underground, nobody was going to be able to enter that exhibit until much later, when the family was all caught up and the cubs sexed. As you can see from the photo here, the cubs were barely as tall as the grass. In fact, in some areas the cubs would completely disappear from view and I would have to just watch the “wake” behind them as they moved through their miniature jungle.
There was another advantage to my “stake-out” position. Because the wolves had to go under the bridge to get to the back areas, the area just before the gate was one of the lowest points in the whole exhibit and, consequently, one of the coolest as the days became hotter. I would often see some of the cubs or adults (or both) just hanging around down there, often lying in the muddy areas or against the rock walls to snooze. These weren’t always great positions for photo access, but sometimes I could use my cell phone to shoot straight down through the mesh, while other times I walked over to the wooden fence to the west of the bridge, held my camera up over the planks, and snagged some excellent shots – including the one I’ve posted here, at left.
And then, finally, the cubs began to be allowed access to the back areas themselves, where they had to learn what to do with some strange new things, such as water bowls:
Dora was an amazing first-time Mom. Six is quite a large litter for an Arctic wolf and there were times when she looked so impossibly thin I didn’t know how she was going to survive until the cubs weaned. But survive she did, and a good portion of that credit goes to her sister, Auntie Vera. I have watched some recent births at the Zoo create some really special aunts – Lemon with the lion cubs, Sabi with Theo – and Vera was no exception. Apart from the obvious thrill of watching these six tiny floof-balls grow into majestic wolves, one of my favourite things about spending so many hours observing this family last summer was watching the dynamics develop and strengthen. Vera was almost a complete outsider before the cubs were born, as Dora (despite being smaller) is the Alpha female; however, she took to her new role as smoothly as if she’d been doing it for years. She made sure the cubs were fed regularly in the early days; she would babysit them while her sister went out into the fields and rested; she was the only adult who could – and did – tolerate all six of the wriggling furballs at one time, other than when Dora would nurse them. And the babies clearly loved her attention, and would flock to her whenever she walked out into the open and summoned them with a soft whining call. She was pretty much perfect, and watching her take on such a huge role made my heart swell.
But sometimes they didn’t need any adults and just played until they simply couldn’t play any more:
The day after the cubs turned two months old, their Keepers and the Vet staff wanted to gather them all up to give them their shots and find out how many boys and girls there were. It didn’t go particularly smoothly, however. I dropped by first thing in the morning on my way to work, unaware that any of this was taking place. I could hear the pack howling as I approached the enclosure, which made me very excited as I had been trying to capture that on video with no success to that point. However, when I reached the bridge I encountered a very agitated Vera on the exhibit side, with all the other eight wolves either in the back yard or in the house. They had been trying to bring her in for a couple of hours at that point but she simply wasn’t buying what they were selling. I don’t recall exactly what happened with Vera in the end; all I know is they shut down access to that bridge at that time and I eventually saw the groundspeople in the exhibit, finally chopping down all that grass. I returned that afternoon and took some shots of the cubs that were much less obstructed, and that made me happy. That happiness was short-lived, however, as I soon found out that Imiq had somehow been hurt in the whole procedure of the morning. It took the staffers a couple of days to realize how badly hurt he had been: a spiral fracture of the femur is what the diagnosis was. As invasive surgery was not the first choice of the vet staff – especially at such an important time in the solidification of the pack – Imiq was left for a few days to see if the leg would begin to heal by itself. When it became obvious this simply wasn’t going to happen, he was brought in to the Health Centre to have surgery and a plate was inserted into his leg.
Nobody was sure how Imiq would be received upon his return after convalescing for a while. In the meantime, this put a little extra pressure on Dora and Vera as they were now the sole adults responsible for the entertainment, sustenance, and general well-being of six not-so-small-any-more wolf cubs. They both took on the extra duties with ease and the rest of the summer passed pretty much without any further major incident. Imiq was away from the pack for nearly seven weeks, all told, including some time just before his reintroduction that he spent in the wolf house, where Dora, Vera, and all of the cubs were aware of his presence, to be sure. Meanwhile, the cubs just kept right on growing at a ridiculous speed. In late August, before they were even 16 weeks old, this is what they had grown into:
Labour Day came and went, fall was nearly upon us. It had gotten to the point – take a look at this photo at left – where it was difficult to tell from a distance whether one was looking at an adult or a juvenile. The cubs were still quite brown underneath their burgeoning white fur, but often Dora and Vera would roll around in the mud or dirt to satisfy an itch or just for the fun of it, and they would get quite brown themselves. Imiq’s imminent return was weighing on my mind. It seemed to me that he had had plenty of time to establish himself among the cubs before he “disappeared,” but there was no way of knowing how they would treat him when he was back among them.
It turned out I needn’t have worried at all. This heart-melting series of photos was taken on the day he was re-introduced to the pack.
As winter approached and the cubs began to get their first white coats, it became harder and harder to tell them from the adults. Fortunately they maintained just a little bit of brown under the white right up until the last time I saw them. It was great fun watching the nine wolves romp around in the snow over the winter, and Imiq often led the charge on his three “good” legs while the six offspring fanned out behind him like a long tail. I went to see them less and less often, but I never was disappointed when I did show up. They grew to be magnificent wolves and seeing so many of them in the domain together for the first time in several years was quite a thrill.
This is the last time I saw all nine of them together on the exhibit, in late February of this year:
There had been some talk that perhaps all nine could stay together, providing that none of the five male cubs tried to challenge Imiq’s alpha status too much. I don’t know if that happened, or if there were other reasons for the final decision, but sometime late in the week of March 18th, the six cubs left the Toronto Zoo and headed for a new life – together – at Zoo Sauvage in Saint-Félicien, Québec. It’s a lovely facility and I know they will thrive there, but the news came to me suddenly and just a smidge too late. I was at the Zoo for a training session in the Wildlife Health Centre on March 17; on my way out I passed the wolf domain and noticed that the whole pack was out together in the sunshine. I hesitated for a few moments and debated going back to take a photo, but I finally decided I just wanted to get home and I could take the shot when I returned later that week. The very next day the Zoo announced on Facebook that the cubs were leaving and that they would be off the exhibit until then. I headed over as soon as I learned the news, and managed to see them all one last time in their yards by the house, but it was pretty much just bittersweet. By the way, I had known for a long time what the Keepers intended to name the cubs (all after Outlander characters) and that’s why I was able to label this month’s photo “Imiq and Claire” way back in November (when I made the calendars), but that post was the first time the names had been made public, or at least “officially.” Claire, Jamie, Murtagh, Dougal, Angus, and Rupert are the six.
Here is probably my favourite video of the few I managed to take of the cubs:
Now, here comes the exciting bit, the reason I wanted to hold off on posting the second part of this post until today, May 10 (the birthday of last year’s cubs). From the Zoo’s Facebook post of May 2nd:
“#WolfWatch Update! Our Arctic wolves Vera and Dora have gone down into their den and two pups have since been observed! Keepers observed that Vera went down into the den on Wednesday, April 24. Two days later on the afternoon of Friday, April 26, Dora proceeded to also go down to the den. After observing both females breed with Imiq in mid-February, this could indicate that either one or both females have given birth to pups. Vera was observed breeding with Imiq 3-4 days before Dora, which could also explain why she denned up before Dora. However, Keepers cannot confirm if both wolves have had litters of pups, as they are in the same den versus different dens. Wolfs are also very elusive, and there isn’t much known what goes on in the den as we respect their privacy during this time.
“Both females have emerged from the den and have been seen eating, so we remain on the lookout to determine how many pups emerge in the next few weeks. The curious wolf pups will likely be eager to explore soon…”
I was really hoping to spot a cub or two and share the photos with you today, but I’ve not been that lucky yet – despite camping out at the den for several hours over the last week or so (I knew they were denning before the Zoo posted about it). So far, this is all I have to offer you – a photo of Dora’s tail as she returns to the den following a brief foray into the domain:
Rest assured that as soon as I have any shots to share, I will post them on my Grumpy Penguin page on Facebook. Please check that page out; if you have a Facebook account then you should be able to view anything on there without having to “Friend” me.
Well! That two-part post broke all kinds of records for me. Hope you made it all the way through, and hope you enjoyed the time you spent! As for me, my summer’s free time just became significantly smaller in the past few days. If you need me, you will probably find me camped out at my favourite spot on the bridge, falling in love all over again with a whole new set of wobbly balls of fluff. Come by and say hi!
Next month: a couple of “non-inventory” Zoo animals that are almost obscenely cute. See you in June!