Wolves Home / Meet Dr. Mark Johnson

Interview With Mark R. Johnson

Dr. Mark Johnson is a wildlife veterinarian. He is the consulting veterinarian for the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project.

Mark answered bulletin board questions from October 21 – December 31, 1996, as part of the "Wild Animal Watch — Wolves!" project.

My students have a question about wolves' teeth. Do they get cavities the same way we do? And if they do, how do you treat them? My fifth graders are most anxious to hear your response. Many thanks.

Although wolves can and do get cavities, like we do, cavities are not usually much of a problem for wolves. They have much better eating habits!

Domestic dogs, that live to be much older (because people are taking care of them) get cavities. Sometimes veterinarians will fix a dog's cavities just as a dentist does.

Wolves have bigger concerns, like breaking teeth, because they have to chase, bite, and kill prey to survive. Wolves can break their canine teeth when they prey on large animals such as elk and moose. Their canine teeth are very important — do you know why?

When I handle wolves, for research, I examine their teeth to tell how old they are. Older wolves will have stained teeth with points that are worn down. Sometimes they have broken teeth as well but there is nothing I can do. We revive the wolf as soon as we are finished putting on a radio collar, collecting blood samples, and measuring the animal. We release the wolf back into the wild to let it continue exploring, hunting, and playing.

I was in Yellowstone last year and wish I would have seen one of the gray wolves. How many of the original 15 remain in the park?

You ask a good question but one that's hard to answer. We brought 14 Canadian wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 and 17 Canadian wolves in 1996. Some wolves have died and some have been born. As of October 17, 1996, there is a total of 40 wolves running free in the greater Yellowstone area. Thirty-two of those live almost exclusively inside the park.

But keep in mind that the goal is NOT to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone Park but to reintroduce them into the larger Yellowstone ecosystem. That ecosystem is Yellowstone Park AND the surrounding national forests.

Why do you think it's best not to keep wolves within a political boundary line like the boundaries of Yellowstone Park?

Glad you and your class found the Wolf Project!

What are the diseases that wolves carry? Are most of them fatal? Do wolves carry rabies? Have you ever been injured by any of the animals you have treated?

Wolves carry many of the same diseases that dogs carry. Canine parvovirus and canine distemper are diseases that dogs can die from. These viruses can also kill wolf pups in the wild. In Alaska, wolves can carry rabies, but in the lower 48 states wolves are not carriers of rabies.

I have not yet been significantly injured by the wild animals I have handled. We practice human safety as much we make sure that the animals are safe when we handle them. The biggest risk for me seems to be the risks of hiking, skiing, or driving in the remote parts of the Rocky Mountains. On a mountain lion study, we got caught in a blinding snowstorm that moved in after we had captured and handled a female lion. The tracks we made on the way in were covered by blowing snow and we did not get back to our snowmobiles until about 11:00 P.M. (The sun had set at 5:00 P.M.) My partner and I were both hypothermic (very low body temperature) by the time we got to some hot soup and hot chocolate!

Is it cool or scary working with wolves?

I think it's cool, not scary, to work with the wolves. It is very special touching and handling the sleeping wolves when they have been anesthetized.

It is not scary because wolves are very shy animals. When the wolf wakes up from the anesthesia, we just let it go and it runs away as fast as it can. I have handled about 100 wolves and no wolf has ever tried to attack me.

When wolves regurgitate food for the babies, how do they do it? Is it just like throwing up?

When wolves regurgitate food for the pups it is like throwing up. But it's much easier for wolves and it's something they are SUPPOSED to do.

An adult wolf will fill its belly with meat after the pack has killed an animal. Then it travels to the den, where the pups are. The pups will get excited and start biting on the corners of the adult wolf's mouth. This will get the adult wolf to regurgitate the food for the pups!

How do you catch the wolves?

There are many ways to catch wolves. In Canada, we used a helicopter to fly after wolves that we could see running in the open. Then we would dart them with a drug (anesthetic) that made them sleep.

In Yellowstone, some wolves are in acclimation pens that are half an acre big. We use large nets to catch those wolves. We net them as they pass us along the fence. Or we use an air pistol and softly dart the wolves with an anesthetic.

If the wolves we need to catch are running free in the summer, we use research foothold traps. These are steel traps, like the ones fur trappers use, but they are modified so they hold the foot without hurting the animal. Because wolves are so smart, sometimes foothold traps are the only way we can catch them. But they are safe for the wolf.

How big is a six-month-old wolf? We read that six-month-old wolves are ready to hunt with the pack, so we wondered how big they were. Do you have names for the wolves? We have read about Jane Goodall, and that she has names for all of the chimps that she studies. Do you have names or just numbers? Do you go into the dens when you check on the wolves in the wild? What is that like? Thank you for answering our questions!

Wolf pups are six months old around September. The pups I have handled in Yellowstone are about 50 pounds by that time. When we have watched packs hunt elk in September here in Yellowstone, the pups are usually running on the outskirts watching the older wolves try to make the kill.

There are a few wolves that we have informal names for, such as "Blue," the alpha male of the Soda Butte pack, because he's bluish-gray in color. But most of the wolves do not have names. They have numbers.

We had long discussions about whether or not to give names to the wolves. We decided that names distract from what we are learning. Wolves and humans probably have a lot of behaviors in common, such as play, but we wish to learn the "wolf" reasons why they are doing what they do. Names could distract us from that.

No, we do not go into the dens when the wolves are using them, because the wolves would get scared and run away. And, after we left, they would move the pups to a newly-made den and that is a lot of work! We do explore the dens when the pups are old enough to be moving outside the den. The den holes are large enough for a skinny person to crawl into, and they often go into the side of a hill. I have never seen the inside of a den, but I am told it can be 6 – 14 feet long underground.

How long is the lifespan of most wolves? How many wolves are usually born at one time? Do wolves hibernate in the winter? How fast can a wolf run?

We do not know how long wolves live. The coyote biologists in Yellowstone National Park say that nine years is old for a coyote. Wolves that are 9 are probably getting pretty old. At that age they may have broken or worn teeth and many healed bones that broke when they got kicked trying to catch their prey.

The alpha female of the pack has three to five pups each spring, usually in late April or early May.

Wolves do not hibernate because they hunt for prey year-round. Winter is probably their favorite time of year because they can stay warm in the winter. Also their prey — such as elk — are usually easier to catch in the winter.

I do not know how fast a wolf can run in miles per hour. They can run as fast as a deer or elk, though, and that's what counts!

How many wolves can you take care of when they are sick? Can they get diseases from humans? How many babies can one wolf have in a year? Do you ever get hurt when you are caring for the wolves?

I usually work with only one sick wolf at a time. Sometimes wolf biologists in Yellowstone Park hold wolves in large pens before releasing them in a new area. If a wolf is injured while in a pen, they call me and I come to help it. I do not care for sick wolves that are roaming free because catching them would stress them too much. It could make their sickness worse.

Wolves usually have three to five pups in the spring. Only the dominant female wolf, the alpha female, will breed and have puppies. In Yellowstone, female wolf #9 had eight pups her first year in the Park. She also had three pups last year.

I have not gotten hurt caring for wolves. Wolves are very timid and do not attack people.

Thank you for learning about wolves!

How can you get so close to the wolves without them harming you?

Wolves are very timid animals who want to run away from me when I am near them. When I have to handle a wolf to radio-collar it or to treat a wound it may have, I first anesthetize it with a drug so it is asleep. To give the drug I either us a blowgun with a dart or a syringe at the end of a pole. When I use a pole syringe the wolf usually tries to hide in a corner of the pen. It does not come at me.

In the human population, we see a rise in the number of different diseases and ones that cannot be cured quickly. Is this the case among wolves as well?

There does not appear to be a significant rise in diseases in wolves compared with humans. This is because humans travel a lot and get together in crowded places. This makes it easy for diseases to spread and increase. Wolves in the wild are always in fresh air and are not crowded, so they do not spread disease as much.

The reason that human diseases cannot be cured easily is because people are always taking antibiotics, and bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. Wolves rarely get antibiotics and so the bacteria that live in them do not become resistant.

Do wolves get colds? Are there more sicknesses for wolves than humans? Are wolves in captivity more likely to get sick than those in the wild?

Wolves probably do not get colds. Wolves can get the same illnesses as dogs. As a wildlife veterinarian, I study what diseases wolves get in the wild by collecting samples from them when we capture them. We collect blood to learn what infections they can get and we collect fecal samples to learn what parasites they have. Then we radio-collar the wolves, let them wake up and run away. Because we do not catch many wolves, we know very little how diseases affect wolves in the wild.

In the wild, wolves probably do not get as sick because they are not as crowded as in captivity. But in the wild, wolves probably get injured more, because they have to kill their food to eat.

Does the fur on the wolf change color and thickness with the seasons?

The fur on a wolf does not change color with the seasons. It can change with age just like a dog's color can change as it gets older.

What happens to the pack when the alpha male dies? Does the pack ever kill the alpha male?

When an alpha male dies in a pack of wolves, the alpha female will look for another. Sometimes the new alpha male is a subordinate male in the pack that was not related to the alpha female. Often the new alpha male is a male from another pack that is accepted into this important position.

Usually the pack does not kill its own members, although they will kill wolves from other packs. If a wolf is killed in its own pack, it is usually what we call an omego wolf. He or she is lowest in the social order and is always picked on.

How many teeth can adult wolves have? Why do they howl?

Wolves have exactly as many teeth as domestic dogs do.

Wolves also howl exactly as dogs do, but wolves do it more often. Wolves will howl when they want to find a missing pack member. They will also often howl just before they are ready to hunt prey. Sometimes they will howl just because it is fun.

What kind of sicknesses do the wolves get and what kind of medicine do you give them? How do you give them their medicine?

Wolves get the same kind of sicknesses that pet dogs do, because wolves are a lot like dogs. These sicknesses include parvovirus and canine distemper. In zoos, zoo veterinarians give them antibiotics for infections.

I am a wildlife veterinarian, so I study wolves that are running free in the wild. Wolves in the wild have more problems with injuries than infections. When they try to kill their prey, such as deer or elk, the deer or elk kick at the wolves. This can break a wolf's ribs or leg. These animals I do not treat, because they are wild animals. In order to fix their bones, I would have to capture them and that would do even more harm. So the wolves have to heal all by themselves or die.

Remember, animals have not had veterinarians to care for them for many thousands of years and it is still important that wild animals today do the same. This is how Nature selects for the strongest and quickest wolves.

My job as a wildlife veterinarian is not to treat sick or injured wolves. I capture healthy wolves to radio-collar them so we can follow them later to learn where they live and how they survive. I also collect samples from the wolves I capture to learn what diseases they carry.

How long does it take to track a wolf?

Sometimes it takes no time at all to track a wolf and other times it can take days. In the winter, we sometimes follow wolves using their tracks in the snow. We try to be at least one day behind them and learn from their tracks to see what they are doing. We do not want to disturb them, which can change their habits, so that is why we follow day-old tracks.

There are times we are following their tracks and we find where a cow or bull elk has been killed and eaten by the wolf pack. There we also find coyote and fox tracks, and ravens are everywhere because they have gathered to also feed on what the wolves have left.

In the summer there is no snow to track wolves. That is why we have radio collars on many of the wolves. We have special radio receivers that will help us locate where the wolves are. This also tells us where wolves live and what habitats they need.

Have wolves been reinstated into the Adirondack Park?

No, wolves have not been reintroduced into the Adirondacks. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the possibility of bringing wolves to this area. Just last November, Defenders of Wildlife held a conference in Albany, New York, to gather people together to talk about the possibility.

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