Seeing endangered red wolves in their new home could make for a howling good time, but not out loud, at least by any people peering.
“Please refrain from howling or other loud noises,” a sign states, asking everyone visiting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Sewee Visitor & Environmental Education Center, on U.S. 17 in Awendaw, a few miles north of Mount Pleasant’s long, reconstructed road gateway into Charleston. Passers-by commuting to or from the Holy City might like to stop for a walk outside, or inside through a nature center loaded with neat tidbits about local wildlife.
At one of his three weekly discussions and wolf feedings three weekends ago at Sewee, “Wolfman” Rob Johnson saluted the four, tall, four-legged ambassadors on hand as part of red wolf species recovery efforts begun in the late 1980s.
Sewee’s wolf caretaker praised these creatures – smaller than a gray wolf, but bigger than a coyote – for their survival instincts, intricate living societies and mutual respect for fellow pack members He also sought to refute the unfair, bad raps with which wolves have been saddled through “Hollywood” portrayals and the childhood stories “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs.”
As two 4-year-old sisters walked around the front fenced, wooded enclosure, and two slightly older wolves, a breeding pair, reclined in the rear habitat, Johnson said wolves might live twice as long in captivity, for possibly 14-16 years, as in the wild.
Pointing to a makeshift den that the young siblings use at their will, Johnson said their main value is shelter from heat or cold.
Wolves instinctively “always pull away from people” in general, he said. “They don’t back or scowl at you” like a dog.
Johnson also said no one will ever see overweight wolves, because they won’t overindulge. He said through that “beauty” of judgment, a wolf kills only what it needs to eat and does not go into streaks of killing for sheer pleasure.
Their diet in the wild includes white-tailed deer, raccoons, rabbits, nutria, small rodents, and predators that feast on game birds such as turkey and quail. Full-grown red wolves weigh 45 to 85 pounds, stand about 26 inches at the shoulder, and reach 5 feet in length from nose to tail.
When asking other visitors on hand what comes to mind with the word “alpha,” Johnson said a wolf group contains not one alpha individual, but a breeding pair that’s “revered by the pack.” The mating process happens only once a year, usually in January or February, he said. The female has the lone say in whether to copulate, and if she declines a male, he accepts it, totally, then “they become best friends. ... He respects her voice.”
Another valuable player in a gray wolf pack involves the omega, the lowest ranking wolf as picked by the pack. Johnson said. This “defuser of arguments” resembles “a child in a family who doesn’t like arguments.”
An omega is revered by a pack, befirending other packs’ wolves that are less demonstrative, and the omega helps with other duties within his or her pack, Johnson said, saluting their valuable role. When an omega opts to leave a pack -- maybe to become an alpha elsewhere -- or dies or is killed, often the pack will mourn for a time.
Johnson said wolves in general, through creating and maintaining their packs and co-existing, do a heck “of a better job at life skills than we do.”
Other traits learned about wolves through various studies include olfactory senses 100 times better than humans’; hearing that beats ours 10- to 15-fold; and similar sight, but with better night vision than people’s. They also are great foster parents, always accepting of other pups, even if transplanted from another refuge.
A former USA Swimming coach who played ice hockey in his college years before getting into teaching – and has since heard youngsters coin his nickname – Johnson said he never hunted, but in caring for Sewee’s wolves, and mowing their enclosures’ grassy patches in small parts without intruding on or scaring them, he will claim some treats that Mother Nature might otherwise leave as carrion for vultures to clean up. He said he will pick up some deer road kill reported by authorities and put down a deer hide, simply for the wolves’ enrichment.
Shirley Hawkins and daughter Laura Hopkins, 17, both from Hanahan, a northern Charleston suburb, thanked Johnson for the education before they walked a trail deeper into Sewee’s woods.
The mother said she appreciated learning some history about red wolves, and the comeback under way in the wild in places such as Bulls Island nearby for this former top-of-the-food chain species across the Southeast. Her daughter voiced being taken by how the two sister wolves carried themselves in moving about their pen, “how graceful they are while they move.”
“They look beautiful against the landscape,” Laura Hawkins said.
Johnson said he never gets too confident to say the species is “saved” since their federal declaration in 1980 that none remained in the wild, but with Sewee as one of 42 spots to help repopulate the creature across its former territory, he sees recovery as a promising “process.”
Contact STEVE PALISIN at 444-1764.