Friday, December 21, 2018

Mexican Wolf Round-Up Conservation Trip

Hello Everyone! My name is Sarah Murphy and I am an Education Specialist at the El Paso Zoo. During my two years at the zoo and in the past, I have always been fascinated by the Mexican wolf, the history of the species and its recovery from extinction in the wild. For those of you who do not know, the Mexican wolf has not always been a popular predator to have around in the United States. As people moved into the southwest to set up their farms, ranches and homes, animals that lived in this area began to lose their habitat. With less space to hunt and find resources necessary for survival, conflict grew between wolves and humans. Stories about werewolves and the big bad wolf created an image of wolves being vicious hunters, thus instilling fear in people. Based on this fear and the thought that wolves were hunting livestock, people hunted the wolf to extinction in the wild. Luckily, before the Mexican wolf went extinct, seven wolves were pulled from the wild to start a recovery program to save the species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service manages this recovery program, with many zoos and wildlife organizations being a part of the effort to save the Mexican wolf. This brings me to the reason for this blog.
The El Paso Zoo, under management by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is a part of the Mexican wolf recovery effort and supports wolf conservation projects. One of which included a trip to Ladder Ranch in New Mexico on November 15th, 2018, and I was lucky to be chosen to participate in this project.
I woke up early enough to arrive at the Zoo by 3:30 am to make the two and a half hour trip to Ladder Ranch Wolf Management Facility.  Along with four other zoo employees (Dr. Milne, Nikki, Lili, and Jon), we were going to be helping a larger group to capture wolves for health exams and transport to other facilities. We arrived at Ladder Ranch HQ just before 6:00 am to meet with the group, have a brief safety meeting, and head out to the wolf pens. The goal was to catch 14 wolves over the course of the day to give them vaccinations, get blood samples and give an overall health exam before they were crated for transport.
Not knowing what exactly to expect, even after the safety brief, I headed out into the first pen in line with about 30 people. This pen only had two wolves in it, one that would be crated for transport and one that only needed a health check. The pens in which these wolves are kept are natural spaces full of native plants, cacti and rocks that we had to navigate, while keeping a tight line to guide the wolf to a smaller holding pen. The first capture was over in the blink of an eye. The wolves went into the holding pen, where there are den boxes to secure them. At this time, we all filed out of the pen to give space for the veterinarians and team to complete the health exams.   
The next captures took much more time and effort, as there were ten wolves in the next pen and we could only catch up 2-3 at a time. For each capture, all 30 volunteers lined up, filed down into the pen, and slowly started walking towards the top. We acted like a human wall (holding tools like Y-poles and boards) to move the wolves towards the holding pens, with each capture sending a few wolves into the den boxes. Again, once the wolves were secure in the den boxes, the veterinarians stepped in to do their exams: temperature check, listen to their heart rate, get a blood sample, administer vaccinations, and for the younger wolves, put on an ID collar. When we started in the morning, it was quite cold, but as we continued to work and the day progressed, the temperature rose. Many of the volunteers, including myself, began to shed layers of coats, jackets and sweatshirts. As it became warmer and with the stress of being caught for exams and transport, the wolves’ temperatures rose as well. With this in mind, though, the veterinarians and the volunteers working directly with the wolves were prepared with ice packs, alcohol (poured on the wolves feet to cool them), and cool IV fluids. They quickly assessed each wolf, gave them the medications and vaccinations necessary, and loaded them into crates for transport. The entire operation ran so efficiently that we were able to capture nine out of ten wolves in the second pen (the only reason we did not get all ten was that the last wolf had hidden inside a natural den where we were unable to reach her or coax her out)!

With that, it was already early afternoon and there were only two wolves left to examine and transport (like the first pen, only one wolf would be transported to another facility, while the other wolf would just be moving to a new pen). I thought, based on how the earlier captures had gone that this final capture would go like clockwork. I was wrong. We did get the first wolf into the holding pen and den box quite easily, but the second wolf definitely tested our line/human wall to see where she could break through. While we made our way up the pen in our formation, quickly moving around the trees and shrubs, climbing over rocks, and trying to avoid cacti, the final wolf made a break for a hole in our line and made it through to the back of the pen. She was not going to give in easily to the capture. In a second attempt, we reformed our line along the edge of the pen and made our way to the back to move the wolf forward. She began to make her way toward the holding pen, but again, looked for an opening in our line. The wolf challenged us, coming close at several points to see if she could slip through the human wall that was inching her towards the top. Finally, she gave up and ran to the den box in the holding pen. There, just as before, the veterinarians and team quickly and efficiently completed their exams and moved the wolves into crates for transport.

Every day, here at the Zoo, I walk through our El Paso Water Discovery Center where we play a video about Mexican wolves. In that video, it goes through exactly how these captures happen. It shows the “human wall” moving wolves towards a smaller holding pen, it shows veterinarians examining wolves to evaluate health concerns or give medications and vaccines. Having just watched short clips as I would pass through the building, I never put two and two together as to how it all actually worked. Now that I have had the opportunity to help with wolf captures and seen these animals up close, it gives me an immense appreciation for the species and all of the people who have worked to save them. These animals are not vicious creatures out to get people or their livestock—they are timid and nervous around humans, yet an important predator in keeping the balance of their ecosystem. I am so grateful to have had the chance to work with these animals in the wild, and look forward to continuing to help save this native and critically endangered species!




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