Wolves Home

Meet the Host, Roland Smith

Roland Smith Picture As an author/photographer/zookeeper/research biologist, I have been caring for exotic animals for over 20 years. I've been a zookeeper, curator of mammals and birds, assistant zoo director, and senior research biologist.

For many years, I was the American Zoo Association's species coordinator for the red wolf. As a member of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services Red Wolf Recovery Team, I helped with the red wolf reintroductions in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

I live with my wife, Marie, on a farm near Portland, Oregon. I've written a number of kids' books, includingThunder Cave, Journey of the Red Wolf, Sea Otter Rescue and Inside the Zoo Nursery.

I received some great wolf questions from you, and answered a whole bunch. Be sure to read them to learn more about the wolves!


Interview With Roland Smith

Why do you do wolf research for a living? What is your favorite species of wolf? Why do you like wolves and why do you help them? How long have you been researching wolves?

Right now I'm not working with wolves — instead I write about wolves and other animals.

I don't have a favorite type of wolf. I like and admire all kinds of wolves.

I like wolves because they are beautiful and intelligent animals. I want to help them because I believe they deserve to live in the wild, just as humans deserve to live in their homes and neighborhoods.

I was the red wolf species coordinator for 12 years for the American Zoo Association. Before this I worked with gray wolves in zoos for many years. All together, I've worked with wolves for over 20 years.

How long have wolves been around in our country? How long have you been studying wolves? What are wolves like to people? Why are wolves held by the neck? Who taught you how to communicate with wolves?

You've asked a lot of great questions and here are your answers...

>How long have wolves been around in our country?
Wolves have been here tens of thousands of years. Unfortunately, we killed most of them in less than one hundred years.

>How long have you been studying wolves?
I've been studying and working with wolves for nearly 25 years.

>What are wolves like to people?
Wolves are very shy around people. They would rather run and hide than attack people. As far as we know, no human in the lower 48 states has ever been killed by a wild wolf. When biologists handle wolves, the wolves sometimes try to bite. Biologists have to be careful when they are handling wolves.

>Why are wolves held by the neck?
Wolves are held by the neck so they can't turn around and bite or nip the person handling the wolf.

>Who taught you how to communicate with wolves?
I'm not sure I can communicate with wolves. I learned how to take care and handle wolves from people who have been doing this job for years.

How do wolves know how to work together?

Wolves are very "social" animals. They learn to work together by "trial & error." Wolves are smart! When they find a hunting method that works they repeat it. Wolf pups learn how to hunt by watching the older wolves.

We want to ask you some questions. How do you get your information? Where do you get the wolves? Who helps with the wolves?

I get my information about wolves by doing reading and working with wolves in zoos and in the wild.

The gray wolves in Yellowstone were caught in Canada. The red wolves were born in captivity.

People who care about wolves help wolves. And we need more people who care about wolves! Thanks for writing!

In the October 18 Field Jornal about gray wolves, you told us that you bring in 320 pounds of food twice a week. According to our math that makes 640 pounds a week. In the Field Journal for Oct. 23 you said that the 12 wolves eat 15 pounds of meat a day. Our math tells us that that would be 1,260 pounds of food a week. Our question: Are the wolves getting hungry???

No, the wolves are not getting hungry. The field biologists make the journal entries, but I'll try to answer the question for you here. The wolves in the pens are fed as a group, so no one knows "exactly" how much each wolf eats a day. In the pen, the wolves are less active and don't need as much food as they do when they are running around in the wild. The 15 pounds a day is just an estimate. The wolves actually gain weight when they are in the pens because they are not as active.

1. How did you become interested in studying wolves?
2. How did the New Jersey wolves become extinct?
3. How many different kinds of wolves are there in the United States?
4. How come wolves howl at the moon?

Many years ago when I was a zookeeper I took care of wolves and that's when I got interested in them. I don't know much about the New Jersey wolf. There was a gray wolf in N.J. a long time ago and it was trapped and shot by people because they were afraid of it. Another reason it became extinct was that its habitat (home) was destroyed. To survive, wolves need large wilderness areas with prey animals to eat. There are two types of wolves in the United States — gray wolves and red wolves. Wolves don't really howl at the moon. In fact, no one really knows why wolves howl. When we (biologists) want to make wolves howl we imitate their howls and sometimes they howl back. Wolves will also howl when they hear a siren. I've also seen wolves howl when they hear a jet passing over them!

What is the main type of trap you use to capture the wolves? Also, what do wolves eat and how many gray and red wolves are left in the world?

Biologists use steel leg-hold traps to capture wolves. Sometimes this trap is "padded" (rubber on the jaws of the trap) to lessen the risk of damaging the wolf's paw. When biologists set out traps for wolves they check the trap often to make sure that the wolf isn't in the trap too long.

There are nearly 400 red wolves left in the world. Answering the gray wolf question is a little harder. In the lower 48 states there are less than 500 gray wolves. No one knows for sure how many gray wolves are in the world. My best guess is 50,000 to 100,000.

Mr. Rossi's class is reading "Julie of the Wolves" and we would like to know if red wolves have anything in common with the wolves found in northern Alaska.

I love the book "Julie of the Wolves" (and anything else written from Jean Craighead George). The wolves in the book are gray wolves. Red wolves are a different kind of wolf found only in the southeastern United States, but they do have many things in common because they are both wolves. Red wolves form packs, have the same average number of pups, hunt together, and have the same social structure.

How does a wolf pack decide which alpha male or alpha female becomes the leader?

The alpha male and female wolves are generally the biggest, strongest, and smartest wolves in the pack. They sort of pick themselves and hold their positions in the pack with their strengths.

What is the largest den that you have ever seen? Where and how big?

The only dens I've seen belong to red wolves. The biggest one I saw had about a six-foot-long tunnel (not big enough for a human to crawl through). Wolves generally don't make huge dens. Sometimes they use dens that other animals have made. Or dens made by nature.

How long are wolves pregnant? At what age can a wolf get pregnant? Have you ever seen a wolf give birth?

Wolves give birth after a pregnancy of 63 days. A female can have pups when she is nine months old, but generally they are at least two years old before they give birth. And yes, I've seen a wolf give birth.

Do you know the age of the oldest wolf that is now living? Are older wolves treated differently in their pack?

I'm afraid I don't know the age of the oldest living wolf. In the wild an old wolf is 6 years old. I once worked with a wolf in the zoo that was 14 years old (that's very old for a wolf). I don't think that older wolves are treated any differently in the pack.

Is it possible to have a wolf as a pet? Do you think that having "wild" animals as pets is against the laws of nature?

It's possible to have a wolf as a pet, but it's a VERY bad idea. Wolves belong in the wild. Domestic dogs and cat make very good pets. I know a lot about wolves and I've taken care of hundreds of them, but I wouldn't have one in my home and I'm a wolf expert. Dogs are actually very much like wolves — I have two dogs as pets. A blue heeler and a tea cup poodle.

We would like to help wolves. Is there anything that a class of sixth graders could do to help wolves? We will be adopting a gray wolf, but is there anything else? Our theme for our class this year is wolves.

You can help wolves by raising money and donating it to an organization that is trying to preserves wolves. Aside from this you can read everything you can get your hands on about wolves. Share this information with your friends and family. What will eventually save the wolf is people's understanding of the true nature of the wolf.

Do you know where the largest amount of wolves are?

In the United States, Alaska has the most wolves. The country of Canada also has a lot of wolves.

Do people feel better about wolves since you started this wolf project?

I think people's attitudes about wolves are much more sympathetic these days. But there are still people out there that don't like wolves.

How much cold can a wolf stand? What was the size of the biggest wolf you have seen and / or recorded?

Wolves can withstand very, very cold weather. They have very thick fur (which grows longer in the winter) to protect them from the cold. The biggest wolf I've seen was about 120 pounds.

Have you ever met someone who once hated wolves but then changed their mind after meeting you? Why do wolves act aggressively to others? When wolves fight, does the higher-ranking wolf always win?

I've met a number of people who have changed their attitudes about wolves after I've talked to them. Wolves don't always act aggressively to other wolves. Aggression usually happens among wolves over food, mates, and position within the pack. The high-ranking wolf (or alpha wolf) usually wins.

Why do you think so many people are afraid of wolves? Why are some dogs that are similar to wolves more aggressive than a full-blooded wolf?

First, not all dogs that look like wolves are aggressive. Dogs in general are not afraid of people. Wolves are usually afraid of people and would rather run away from them than approach them. I think people are afraid of wolves because of the "stories" they have heard and read about wolves. Most of these stories are not true.

Why are we told stories that wolves are bloodthirsty killers when they are so cool? How far will a wolf travel to find a mate? How are wolf packs named?

I think people tell bad stories about wolves because it makes the story more "dramatic." That's too bad. I can't tell you in "miles" but wolves will travel a long ways to find a mate. The wolf packs in Yellowstone were named after the area where their acclimation or release took place.

What are the wolves' predators? Do wolves eat other wolves? Are there any other animals that live and travel in packs like the wolves? If wolves eat chocolate do they die or get sick like dogs? Was there a year in which a great number of wolves were killed because people were afraid of them? Where did this happen and how many were killed?

The wolf's main predators are humans. Wolves don't usually eat other wolves. There are a number of animals that travel in groups, but their social structure is different from wolves. I've never fed chocolate to a wolf so I don't know. It wouldn't be good for them. We killed thousands and thousands of wolves in the 1800's through the middle of the 1900's. That's why there are only a few wolves left.

My class would like to know which fiction books you think are best at portraying wolves realistically. We are going to read Call of the Wild and Julie of the Wolves next month. Do you have other suggestions? Thanks for your help.

Dorothy Hinshaw Patent has a very good novel about wolves called Return of the Wolf, which came out in 1995 from Clarion. Another very good books is: Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat. Julie of the Wolves is also great. The problem with Call of the Wild and other books like this is that we've learned a lot about the nature of the wolf since these books were published. Call of the Wild is a classic, but the information about wolves is somewhat dated.

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