Wolves at the fore

Sanctuary helps visitors understand resurgent coyotes

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By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / January 27, 2011

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IPSWICH — When a 150-pound wolf stands on its hind legs and affectionately licks a man’s face, smiles appear in a crowd of 35 onlookers who have never seen or experienced anything like it.

But visitors to Wolf Hollow, a nonprofit sanctuary with an educational mission, soon learn the four wolves on site aren’t quite as exotic as they might seem. Wildlife experts say interbreeding between wolves and coyotes in recent decades has brought coyotes with wolf genes into North Shore neighborhoods, where residents are learning to coexist with their new neighbors.

Now visitors to Wolf Hollow get a lesson in more than wildlife biology. They gain insights that help them understand and respect the coyotes in their midst, without lapsing into unnecessary fear.

“Before [coyotes were a local presence], we talked about wolves being 1,000 miles away or more,’’ said Wolf Hollow assistant director Z Soffron. “Now, with all the coyotes around, people might have more questions and want to know more about them. So our role has evolved a little bit.’’

For 21 years Wolf Hollow has offered a rare opportunity for people in the Northeast to see and learn about wolves up close. The 2.5-acre sanctuary opened in 1990 as the project of the late Paul Soffron, a local environmentalist. He aimed to dispel wolf-related myths and educate the public during the controversial reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Wolf Hollow’s mission hasn’t changed. Visitors are still encouraged to value wolves and support strong environmental regulations that might allow wolf populations to thrive in other parts of the country.

But these days, visitors are often more familiar with wolf traits than they were a decade ago, in part because they’ve seen them in area coyotes. This makes the education at Wolf Hollow especially poignant.

“If I ever run into [coyotes] now, I know what to do,’’ said Rhea Werner of Rowley. “Just stay calm, let them do what they need to do, and keep a level head.’’

When Paul Soffron died 10 years ago, the future of Wolf Hollow was uncertain. But his widow, Joni, and their son, Z, stepped up to keep the facility going. Supported only by ticket sales and donations, they have no paid staff and rely heavily on volunteers. They steer resources toward basic expenses such as food, insurance, and maintenance of four wolf enclosure areas. And they carry on a tradition of weekend lectures that highlight how much wolves have in common with human families.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, some 35 visitors gathered in Wolf Hollow’s seating area. They watched from behind chain-link fencing as two wolves, Weeble and Nina, played and interacted with Z and trained volunteers. They saw how wolves roll in unfamiliar scents in order to bring the smell back to pack members. They heard how wolves defend their young in much the same way as humans.

Unfazed by the visitors, four wolves and one wolf-dog hybrid relaxed among the trees, comfortable in the snow. They growled happily when lunch arrived: road-kill deer parts, donated by the Ipswich Animal Control office.

For some in the crowd, seeing wolves offered a chance to learn about a species that is less familiar than the coyote.

“I’ve sat at my friend’s house [in North Reading] and watched a coyote walk right by us with a squirrel in its mouth,’’ said Anne Perkins of Wakefield. “She said, ‘He’s just going to the park.’ But you don’t see wolves. If you did, it wouldn’t be a normal thing. That’s why I wanted to come here.’’

On this Sunday, visitors heard an explanation of why the region has abundant deer, ticks, and Lyme disease. New Englanders purged the region of wolves more than 100 years ago, Z said, and sightings in recent years have been extremely rare. Without wolves to serve as top predators, deer populations have grown rapidly, as have the number of deer ticks carrying Lyme disease. Over time, he said, coyotes will help manage deer populations and in turn reduce the number of Lyme-carrying ticks.

About 10,000 coyotes live in Massachusetts, according to Tom French, assistant director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. They’ve adapted especially well to suburban environments, including some on the North Shore, because they have found food available in a wide range of settings, from forests to garbage dumps. Wolf Hollow receives calls daily from area residents who have seen a coyote and don’t know what to do, Joni Soffron said in an e-mail.

On occasion, the Soffrons have shared their knowledge of coyotes more widely with area residents. A 2009 coyote education event in Ipswich, organized by Hamilton-Wenham High School student Christina Capuano, drew about 40 people. At that event, Z Soffron offered tips on how farmers can keep coyotes away from their livestock. By the end of the meeting, several people who had initially wanted to rid the area of coyotes had changed their minds, according to Matt Antczak, Ipswich’s animal control officer.

Some recent visitors to Wolf Hollow said they left with a greater appreciation for the coyotes in their midst.

Frank Simmons of Rockport said he has often seen a coyote walk on his driveway and visit a nearby beach. He said he feels privileged that a coyote would feel at home in his neighborhood.

“It probably makes me even more appreciative that coyotes are here,’’ Simmons said, “and taking that role of the top predator.’’

If you go: Wolf Hollow

Open: Sundays only, December through March; Saturdays-Sundays April through November. Closed on rainy days; best to call ahead to confirm. Opens at 1 p.m., with a one-hour lecture beginning at 1:30. Closing is usually by 3 p.m.

Cost: $7.50 for adults, $5 for children

Location: 114 Essex Road, Ipswich (Route 133, near the Ipswich/Essex line).

Phone: 978-356-0216