The word “wolf” elicits powerful images. For some, the image is that of a fierce and cunning predator. For others, the image is that of a gentle, social member of a pack. Both images are powerful and often conflicting. Regardless of the image, all would agree that the word “wolf” symbolizes the untamed northern wilderness.
Man and wolf have competed for the same space and resources for thousands of years. Wolves play a prominent role in our folklore. Because of this history, wolves have acquired a greater significance than other, less competitive species. The truth is that mankind has been keenly interested in wolves throughout our development and remains so even today.
For at least ten years, Len Cross, Owner and Director of The Fort Rickey Children’s Discovery Zoo in Rome, has been carefully researching and planning for the addition of a wolf exhibit. “We try to be very thorough and deliberate in the selection of new exhibit animals at Fort Rickey,” says Cross. “In the past, some zoos would exhibit whatever animals they could acquire. However, at Fort Rickey, we made a commitment to only maintain species that we could display well. Additionally, as we consider new exhibits, we always begin with the question…How will this exhibit enrich the experience for our visitors? It is one thing to house animals well, it is something quite different to create an exhibit that brings about a change in visitors’ attitudes.”
“Although for most visitors, we appear to be in the “family entertainment” business, underlying all that we do is a mission to gently cultivate peoples’ attitudes about the importance of wildlife in our lives.”
So, after years of consideration and planning, two male Gray Wolf pups, Ahanu and Ohanzee, were acquired in the spring of 2004. At the close of the 2004 season, construction began on the new “Wolf Woods” exhibit. “Because of the space needs of these large predators, we knew at the outset that this would be our largest exhibit so far,” says Cross. “After much consideration, it was decided to enclose approximately 1/2 of a previous exhibit area called The Nature Trail. We had other large spaces available but really wanted this display to be a wooded exhibit rather than an open meadow type of exhibit. Wolves certainly are found in all types of terrain but, with our hot summers, we felt that lots of shade was a priority.”
“More than any other consideration, Fort Rickey is defined by its focus on interaction between visitors and animals. Learning is best and strongest when the learner is engaged,” says Cross, a former Biology teacher. Passive observation of animals in displays often does not create lasting memories. However, any time a person is allowed to interact in some way with an animal, the chance that a connection will be made is greatly increased.”
Consequently, as new exhibits are planned at Fort Rickey, there is always consideration of how the visitors can be engaged. At some facilities, adult “ambassador” wolves are used for public presentations outside of their exhibit. That will not be the case at Fort Rickey. “The challenge for us will be to create an environment where visitors can experience a more “personal” connection with Ahanu and Ohanzee while, at the same time, respecting the power and wild nature of wolves.”
To meet this challenge, Cross and his staff will present daily “wolf talks” where one or more staff will enter the exhibit and work with the wolves. The focus of the presentation will be on wolf biology and behavior as well as on wolf/human relations.
“Since acquiring the pups last spring, we have been preparing for these wolf talks,” says Cross. The wolves have been engaged daily to develop a strong, social bond and to establish an environment of trust and respect.” Specially trained staff who have established this relationship, are basically perceived as fellow pack members by Ohanzee and Ahanu. Consequently, they can work and play with them without worrying about potential aggression.
During these presentations, the public will be given the opportunity to see the wolves up close and to participate in the presentation both by answering and asking questions. “We will make the wolf talks fun for both the wolves and the visitors,” says Cross. In doing so, we will encourage a greater understanding of wolves and a greater sense of connection between humans and these often misunderstood symbols of the northern wilderness.”
Fort Rickey is located on Rt. 49, three miles west of Rome. It is open daily throughout the summer, weather permitting. For more information, call 315-336-1930