Acts of Impact

How 'Wolf Park' Supports the Research, Education, and Conservation of Wolves

November 17, 2022 Nicholas Hill Season 1 Episode 32
How 'Wolf Park' Supports the Research, Education, and Conservation of Wolves
Acts of Impact
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Acts of Impact
How 'Wolf Park' Supports the Research, Education, and Conservation of Wolves
Nov 17, 2022 Season 1 Episode 32
Nicholas Hill

Today we interview Karah Rawlings. Karah is the Executive Director of Wolf Park, a non-profit organization dedicated to the research, education, and conservation of wolves. We’ll learn about the value wolves provide to our environment, discuss a concept called re-wilding, and talk about how you, or even your dog,  could help with conservation efforts.

To support Wolf Park and discover more ways to help, visit:

To learn more about the show, view transcripts, and more visit:

Special thanks to Karah and the Wolf Park team. Music by Alex Grohls.

Show Notes Transcript

Today we interview Karah Rawlings. Karah is the Executive Director of Wolf Park, a non-profit organization dedicated to the research, education, and conservation of wolves. We’ll learn about the value wolves provide to our environment, discuss a concept called re-wilding, and talk about how you, or even your dog,  could help with conservation efforts.

To support Wolf Park and discover more ways to help, visit:

To learn more about the show, view transcripts, and more visit:

Special thanks to Karah and the Wolf Park team. Music by Alex Grohls.

Nicholas Hill  0:00  
You're listening to acts of impact the show where we interview those who are making a positive difference in the world around us. I'm your host, Nicholas Hill. And today's guest is Karah Rawlings. Karah is Executive Director of Wolf Park, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the research, education and conservation of wolves. We'll learn about the value wolves provide to our environment, discuss a concept called rewilding, and talk about how you, or even your dog, could help with conservation efforts. Let's get started.

Karah, welcome to the show. 

Karah Rawlings  0:48  
Hi, thanks for having me. 

Nicholas Hill  0:49  
So great to have you Karah. And I want to dive right in, I have to admit, I am a big, big fan of wolves. I think they're fascinating. I've been to a wolf sanctuary, I had an amazing time learning about them. But I just want to start by talking a little bit about wolf Park. And one thing I know about your organization is how uniquely impactful it's been on the research of wolves. And I was wondering if you could just tell us a little about the history of that research. 

Karah Rawlings  1:21  
So we were founded 50 years ago by a ecologist. So Dr. Erich Klinghammer, he was studying animal behavior from a biological perspective. So basically, how behavior was impacted by various environmental impacts and social structures. So he, at the time, wolves were pretty much extinct in the lower 48 states, they'd been pretty much hunted out of existence. And there was a lot of goodwill at that time of bringing them back into the ecosystem. Because in the 1970s, we were seeing a lot of environmental movements pick up, we were starting to see how climate change was coming about. And so there were groups who were very invested in wanting to reintroduce wolves back into the wild, but not a lot was known about North American populations of wild wolves. And the best way to do that, like what was a good sustainable number? How should the packs be released, that sort of thing. And so Dr. Klinghammer saw this opportunity for us to take this big patch of Indiana farmland and naturalize it, because there was a lot of wooded areas and places where wolves would live in the wild and bring in wolves to this environment. But raise them socialized so that they were used to people so that they could be observed and studied because in the wild, you're not going to see a wolf, they're not going to get closer to you than about half a mile most likely. And so it was very hard to do field research with the wolf populations at the time because of technological reasons. And so doing any sort of research on their social interactions and behaviors was really difficult. And so he basically raised some packs out here, over the years, have brought people in to learn how to work with them, and monitor things like pack dynamics and that sort of thing. And so really, the biggest thing that came out of wolf Park is this tool called an eco gram. So Dr. Klinghammer and his graduate student who still works here 40, some years later, Pat Goodman, she is our head curator Emeritus, the two of them wrote this document called an ethogram. And they basically spent hours and hours and hours just observing the wolves and their behaviors, cataloging them, giving them names, taking photos of them. And those that document is used by Wolf biologists around the world when they're doing observational research. Now we have wild wolves in the United States. And we have really good technology. We have GPS, trackers and good trail cams, and all sorts of ways that wild wolf populations can be monitored in a way they couldn't in the 1970s. So now we have a smaller population of wolves here at Wolf Park, we don't need all the different packs to kind of figure out those things. So we have a smaller group, they're still socialized, so that we can still do observational research on them. And we still do have groups that come in, but the focus tends to be more on cognitive learning with wild animals, you know, How capable are they of learning things like a dog or, you know, a domesticated animal would and also some other we have like a sound study going on right now, where they're kind of monitoring the soundscape. And what what maybe encourages our wolves to howl or not how or that sort of thing. And then sometimes we'll have some biological research that happens where they collect like urine samples or fecal samples or things like that. That's non invasive so that they can study diet so that other places that are working with captive wolf populations can have some information about things that will help them cool with they're doing. 

Nicholas Hill  5:00  
So yeah, there's a lot to unpack there. First of all, Dr. Klinghammer is a really cool name. So when we go back to like the 1970s, we think about the lower 48 states, wolves are mostly extinct right there. They're not there. And now we've kind of seen a shift in that where we are we have reintroduced wolves in a lot of areas, and we are seeing better ways to observe them. So it sounds like in that regard, there's been a lot of positive movement. Is that right? 

Karah Rawlings  5:31  
There has so over the years with the reintroduction of wolf populations, you know, probably the most famous and successful is the Yellowstone Wolf Project in the reintroduction of wild wolves to Yellowstone, Doug Smith is the head of that. And he actually came through wolf Park, back in the 70s, and worked under Dr. Clean hammer. So we have a lot of connections out there, there has there was a lot of success in bringing those populations up to some sustainable levels. Unfortunately, in 2009, teen wolves were removed from the Endangered Species Act protections that they had, they had had some federal protections for quite some time. And when that was lifted in the management of wolf populations fell completely to the states, a lot of states have really chosen some poor management techniques, I would say, in a lot of places, and we're not really sure what long term impact that is going to have on whether the populations will continue to be sustainable. But we do have a lot of concerns about the way hunts are being managed. And what that's going to mean for the wild wolf population. 

Nicholas Hill  6:37  
You know, I'm seeing this, I'm seeing this unfortunate trend and all of my interviews where it sounds like when things get left up to the states, we start to see some some trickier, trickier results, I should say. So...

Karah Rawlings  6:52  
I think when you're talking about wildlife conservation, it's really hard to talk about things on it. You know, I'm all for our bicameral system we've got here in the United States, but a wolf doesn't know what state they're in. Yeah.They're gonna stop at the Montana border and be like, Oh, I better not. 

Nicholas Hill  7:09  
Like,I'm not allowed to cross this part. Sorry, gotten around, guys. 

Karah Rawlings  7:14  
So you know, there's things that it just makes sense for there to be federal involvement, because there's no way for states to contain it in a way that makes sense. 

Nicholas Hill  7:14  
And let me ask you, so you touched on a couple of things. One thing that you you mentioned was wolf behavior versus dog behavior. And that actually sparked a question for me. Are there similarities between the modern dog today and the Wolf, I think people put those together in their head. 

Karah Rawlings  7:14  
Yeah, and I should probably give my full disclaimer here that I am not a trained scientist. I am a hobby scientist. But I have learned a lot from the scientists that worked here. There are some similarities between dogs and wolves, but they're very, very different. And having worked here now, I've been here about three years. I think when I first started, I was like, oh, yeah, are wolves, they kind of looks like a husky out there. But now they just seem so different. To me, they're much more muscular the way they carry themselves is a little bit different their gait, I think, if I saw a wild wolf, if I had the luck of seeing that I would be able to tell it was a wild wolf and not a dog. So you kind of pick up on those differences. As far as how we work with them, we use a lot of similar techniques that a dog trainer would use, we use positive reinforcement training, clicker training, you might have heard of, there are some similarities to the things that they can do. But they're still very much wild, a lot of their wild instincts are still there. We don't try to train them out of them. But my understanding is that that would be very difficult to do, even if we wanted to, they're never going to make good pets. There's just too much wild instincts still. But we do have researchers who have come here and done some comparative studies between wolves and dogs as far as like, their development as puppies, whether they are able to pick up on social cues there apparently at some time, there was a lot of feeling that the domestication process kind of created animals like dogs who could understand human cues like pointing or different expressions. And that was thought to be a trait that was specific to domesticated animals. But some research was done here to show that wolves will pick up on that too, after a while. So again, some of that cognition stuff that wasn't thought to be something that wild animal would be able to learn. We've been able to work here to show that they can learn things. 

Nicholas Hill  7:14  
That's cool. And I didn't think about the training aspect of it and how that might be similar, the positive reinforcement, the clicker training, I think that's really cool. And something that you mentioned. You said like if I were to encounter a wolf in the wild, I would be able to tell the difference just because you said the gate, the muscularity, how likely is that I think wolves get a bad rep. And that when you see them in movies, they're always like hunting down a human or something. And I feel like it is, you know, kind of a mis misnomer? Is it likely for a human to encounter a wolf in the wild? I mean, what would happen? Or what should you do if that happens? 

Karah Rawlings  10:25  
Well, it is very unlikely that a human will encounter a wolf in the wild. First of all, there's just very few wolves. And evolutionarily, they don't want to be around humans, they will go out of their way to avoid humans. And so like I said, I think I said earlier about the closest that you probably would get to a wild wolf is like quarter to half a mile, they're gonna stay away from you based on your scent and your smell, but it is possible. So you know, you never know you might see one. But the likelihood of them attacking you and having to deal with that is incredibly rare. That would not be a circumstance that would happen very often. At all. So so 

Nicholas Hill  11:07  
so Liam Neeson it was in a pretty rare position in that movie. Yeah. Fair enough. 

Karah Rawlings  11:13  
Yeah, it's kind of like, you know, when I was a kid, every everything had quicksand in it, you know? 

Nicholas Hill  11:18  
Yes. Yeah. I'm like, I kept expecting to walk around and just sink at any moment. 

Karah Rawlings  11:23  
And nothing has quicksand, Wolf's are not going to attack you. The thing about wolves is that they're neophobic. So that means they're scared of new things. And so anything that they haven't encountered before a smell a sound, a person that they don't recognize, they will be wary of, even our socialized ones there, they have certain humans that they're used to, they kind of get used to our crowds, we train them. So when we have tours and things, they're not intimidated by tours, but if a stranger were to walk into their enclosure, say they would avoid that person, you know, until they felt secure, with them being there. So the best way to deal with if you are to encounter a wild wolf, or even a coyote or another candidate that you don't want in your yard, and you should be encouraging them to stay away. Because they will do better not close to your house is too we call it hazing them. So you make a lot of noise. You move erratically, you you know if you have any kind of noisemaking device on you, like a car alarm thing, or phone or anything like that, anything you can do to make yourself seem different in that environment will likely scare them off. 

Nicholas Hill  12:36  
I like that. And I've never heard the term Neo phobic before that's that was an interesting one. So being scared of basically the unfamiliar. And once or not it My understanding is that wolves are not the only species that you have at the park. Is that right? 

Karah Rawlings  12:51  
That's correct. We have our gray wolves that are sort of the main attraction. But then we also have a herd of bison. And then we have red foxes and grey foxes. And then we recently opened an exhibit of Eastern Box turtles. So we have our girl Clementine is our turtle on site. At the moment, 

Nicholas Hill  13:11  
I was actually just talking to someone a few weeks ago, who makes wheelchairs for animals that need them. And he has made a wheelchair for a box turtle. That's really cool. So some turtles, some foxes, some Bison, and some wolves. And I know that one of the aims of the park is to expand on management techniques between mixed habitats. So we just talked about you have different types of animals at the park, I know that you have these mixed habitats of plants and animals. And your park is making knowledge of how to do that available to other people as well. And you and I have talked about a concept called rewilding. And I was wondering if you could just tell our listeners a little bit about what that is. 

Karah Rawlings  14:04  
Yeah. So um, the idea is, you know, the wolves and the bison that we have here are historically native to Indiana, so they could live in any Indiana ecosystem they have in the past, they were hunted out of existence hundreds of years ago. And so we kind of have them here as a way, you know, for people to see animals that they're not likely to see in the wild, especially not in Indiana, they're not going to see them in the wild. But to remind people of what effects it had on our ecosystem to remove them from being wild animals in our area. And then we have the foxes and the turtles. And we're hoping to add some other Indiana species in the future to show these are animals you might see in your backyard, in your neighborhood when you're out driving. And we want to make sure we protect them because they play a valuable role to the ecosystem, too. And we don't want to remove them. And I think, you know, we've been really inspired over the past year, creating wildlife habitats anywhere. So reminding people that wildlife lives everywhere we have invaded their space, not the other way around. How can you support them in a way where everybody can be comfortable. So we push a lot of, we have a lot of conversations about coexistence with wild animals. Because there is that fear base, not just with wolves with a lot of animals, there's a fear base, and it has led, unfortunately, to our ecosystem, sort of, on the verge of collapse, really, we have over 100 acres of land out here. And so we have, and we're surrounded by farmland. And so we have a lot of space where we can plant trees and plant flowers and attract birds and pollinators and all sorts of animals to the area. So we try to point those out to our visitors, while they're here and show you know how we're attracting different things in why it's important to have them here. And then give them some tips about things they can do. Even if they live in an apartment complex or a place where they don't necessarily think that they can support wildlife, we try to give them tips on things they can do. That would provide like a small safe habitat for an animal or a water source or a food source. Because that's really what's going to help these ecosystems in the long term is that we're not segregating. This is where wildlife goes, this is where people go, and they shouldn't mix for us to really be able to redevelop some of these ecosystems that are on the verge of collapse, we're gonna have to re wild what we have previously considered to be human space. 

Nicholas Hill  16:47  
You know, it's funny, I so actually, right behind me, I live on a nature preserve, and we live right, our apartments are right up against the edge of a nature preserve. And it surprises me how often I see on our community Facebook group, people that are surprised to see animals, like, oh, I can't believe I just I just saw, I just heard a coyote or I just saw a snake or, and I always just and I tried to stop myself, but I'm like we live on a nature preserve, like, of course, 

Karah Rawlings  17:17  
it's like the states, they don't know where the line is, you're in their home. 

Nicholas Hill  17:22  
And I've heard about more movements of people trying to petition their homeowners associations to allow them to have more of a wild lawn and allow, you know, their front yard backyard to be more amenable to different plants and animals and things like that, you and I have also talked about the importance of coexistence and how that also applies to cities. People assume that the city ecosystem is not affected by wildlife. And I feel like you and I have talked about how that's not true. 

Karah Rawlings  18:00  
I think people tend to forget, they're part of the ecosystem, every city still has species across, you know, they're still mammals and insects and birds and everything that are still existing in cities. And you know, I live in more of a suburban area, but I have a homeowner's association, so to speak, that I'm a part of and have to follow some rules of, but there's ways to find little pockets, you know, you could have a balcony and a highrise. And you could put a water source out for birds and pollinator insects, you can work with your pocket park or a neighborhood space two, instead of putting grass putting some native seed bearing plants that would be feeder plants, that sort of thing. Setting up composting programs, or anything like that, that would help with water quality is going to have an impact on the ecosystem. So it's harder, I think, in a city to rewild. But like coexistence can definitely happen. There are urban, it's not just rats, there are raccoons and coyotes and cities. They're finding a way to live. And I'm not necessarily advocating that coyotes take over a city. But coyotes are figuring out a way to live and there's a way that peaceful coexistence can happen. 

Nicholas Hill  19:16  
Let me ask you, Wolf Park is celebrating 50 years of saving wolves and other animals and species. I'm curious just in your own kind of personal experience, if there's a success story, or maybe just a story that stands out to you in your work that that you're proud of that wolf Park has has been a part of, 

Karah Rawlings  19:40  
well, I'm a newer person to the park, although I've been coming here. Since I moved to the area over 20 years ago, I was a biology student at Purdue, and everyone knew Dr. Klinghammer in the biology department and would send us out here to do stuff so I mean, I've been a fan of the park for a long time and just always thought it wasis really cool, it was just right up the road, I'm just really proud that we are such a part of the conservation of wolves. You know, in the early days, we were really an important place for study. And just everything that's come out of here, I think is just really sort of amazing that we're still 50 years later, able to inspire people to want to help wolves. I don't have any like specific moments, every time there's a kid here who just is no has come here knows the name of every wolf can tell you, their lineage can tell you all these fat like is interrupting you on the tour because they know all these facts about wolves. So you know, that's really exciting to me, I worked before I came here, I actually worked in juvenile justice for many years, there's definitely a trend of kids not feeling like they can impact, you know, some of the effects of climate change and the sixth extinction and kind of feeling like defeatist about it. And so I do feel like this place gives them some things, some tools that they can use, and some hope for the future of ways to combat some of these things. And that makes me really happy. I have a daughter, who has kind of grown up here the past few years, and a niece that comes to work with me a lot. And just to be able to see them out, getting dirty, getting rained on being a part of it, it's just really cool. There's not a lot of opportunities for that anymore. I love zoos, I love any place where I can go and look at animals. And that's great. But here, it's a little, you feel just a little bit more like you're part of the animals natural environment. I grew up hanging out on farms a lot when I was a kid. And that's where I encountered a lot of wildlife when I was young. And so that it kind of reminds me of that when I'm here just being outside out in the elements. 

Nicholas Hill  21:46  
What are some of the things that I can do? If I'm interacting with Wolf Park? Are there tours that I can take? Can I do photography there? Like what are some of the things that you offer? 

Karah Rawlings  21:57  
So we have, we're open seven days a week, we have lots of ways that the public can come in, you can just drop in and have access to part of the park to just spend the day it's a great place to come have a picnic and just kind of hang out outside and maybe see a wolf or two. And then you can actually sign up for tours that we have through the week where you go out through the whole park and get to see the all the enclosures with and hopefully all the animals if they're cooperating. And then we have every Saturday we have what's called Hell night. So you come in, you get to see part of the park that's open. And then we do a demonstration with our main pack where we talk about wolf behavior. We talk about why they how would they how all of that, and then we How long with them and try to get a chorus how going with our wolves. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. It's really fun. It's at night. So we do it after sunset, usually. And it's just kind of fun to be outside at night with these wolves and watching them. And then we do all sorts of other seminars, workshops, we have guest speakers come in and talk about different things related to either animal behavior, or conservation. We do things that aren't directly related. This is a really gorgeous piece of Indiana right now we've got an oil painting workshop going on where the participants have been here all week creating masterpieces. It's kind of fun. We do photography programs, we do all kinds of things. We also have a membership and sponsorship program, where you can sponsor one of your animals and you can upgrade to a visiting sponsorship where you would actually come in and get to meet them up close. That's an important part of the socialization process with our wolves, we don't just open the gates and let have big groups go in with the wolves. But we do do these smaller visits. And that helps them you know, if for some reason our vet would change in the middle of their raising. They know that if they're if unknown human is coming in with people that they do know that they can be a little they can have their guard down a little bit. So the sponsor visits kind of help us with that. But that's a fun thing. I didn't know until I started working here that we did that. I was like I could have been a wolf this whole time. So yeah, if you've ever wanted to, you know, spend time in the proximity of a wolf. That is one way you can do it. We also do that with our foxes and bison. So I love the bison. You're always in a truck. We don't we don't encourage hugging of bison. So 

Nicholas Hill  24:37  
that's I think that's probably a safe way to do it. I saw on your offerings that you have. We talked a little bit about some of the seminars, and I saw that one of the seminars was called a conservation dogs seminar. And I didn't know what that was. And I was just wondering if you could tell us what is a conservation dog? What are those seminars, 

Karah Rawlings  25:00  
I am really excited about this partnership, it's a new one that has just started up this year, there's a group of dog trainers, they call them finders, they train their dogs to actually identify either species that we're hoping to conserve. So there's a dog that's coming that's trained to find native bee habitats so that they can be marked and observed by whoever is working on those populations. My understanding, I'm still kind of new to it, I'm planning to go to the seminar and learn a whole bunch more. But these dogs are trained similar to what it sounds like, like a drug dog would be trained or something like that, to sniff out very specific, identifying things that they're looking for. So there are conservation dogs who look for different reptile species and that sort of thing. Apparently, there are some conservation dogs who can find invasive plants before they become super overgrown. So there's this movement to train these dogs. So that when you're dealing with a huge piece of property, to try and identify like what species are on the site, they can find it a lot faster and more efficiently than a lot of our human methods for finding it. So that you can either eradicate invasive species, you know, identify where they are, and get rid of them or find ones that are hard to find. And so there's this movement that people who are coming here are from the Midwest region, but I guess there's regional groups all across the United States that are working with dogs, and anyone who has a dog they're willing to work with, can come in and learn how to train their dog to do this. So this, this workshop is kind of an introduction to the science and how to become a part of it. And then we're hoping to do some more with them in the future where this would actually be a training site, because we have a lot of different species that come through here. So, so a training site where they could actually come out and work with people and their dogs on sending and tracking and everything. It's really cool. You know, from an animal behavior standpoint, the the idea that you can train this also from a conservation standpoint, so it really has us all very excited here. 

Nicholas Hill  27:12  
Is there anything that dogs can't do? I feel like every time I talk to someone, I'm learning about all these new and interesting trainings, and 

Karah Rawlings  27:20  
there's a lot of things my dogs can't do. But it's really not the dog's fault, I have to say.

Nicholas Hill  27:30  
And well, and one of the last things that I wanted to mention is that you also have a program called Next Generation wildlife advocates. And my understanding is that this is a program that is geared towards high schoolers. Can you tell us maybe just a little bit about that? 

Karah Rawlings  27:49  
Yeah. So it's one of our summer camp offering that we are hoping to expand a little bit. It's basically high school aged kids. And then they come once a week during our summer months to work on conservation projects at the park. So we do, it's an educational program, we give them a lot of the same training, we would give like our interns, we teach them about some of the same conservation principles. And they also do projects while they're here. So they, that group has created a lot of our pollinator gardens that are on site, they got several spots around the property, certified as wildlife habitats with the National Wildlife Federation, they just kind of when they come in, they kind of figure out what really inspires them, and then come up with projects. And then a lot of those kids come back and volunteer more. So we've had next generation kids who come back and then help teach the younger kids camps that come in through the summer, or they start a project in their neighborhood, maybe to create a Certified Wildlife Habitat. We're trying to just get them inspired to sort of go out and advocate for what we're doing here in their communities and their schools, and everything. So a lot of them are kids who came to our summer camps and got really, you know, kind of attached to our mission and wanted the next step up. So we added that program in to give them more of a hands on model to be able to do something so yeah, 

Nicholas Hill  29:16  
that's really cool. And we talked a little bit about you know, your own, like you were inspired by the park, having your daughter and your niece involved. And let me ask you, I know that we're coming up on our time here, Karah, if someone is listening to this and wanting to get involved, what are some other ways that someone can help out the park or just overall help out your mission? 

Karah Rawlings  29:40  
Um, well, there's all sorts of ways if you go to our website, Wolf We have a lot of different ways. If you're local, and one of volunteer, we're always looking for volunteers to help. Like I said, we're over 100 acres. We have a lot of animals. And we have volunteers. When I say local I mean we have volunteers that are come from over two hours away on a weekend and just work a couple days during the month. And that's, that's really helpful. So we have internship opportunities where you actually live on site for eight weeks and work with us more intensively, we always will take donations, we are a nonprofit, we pretty much rely on our admission fees and our program fees to operate. But then we also have some volunteers who do work remotely, they help us with like keeping our blog updated, or helping us create social media posts or things like that, that they can do remotely. If you are wanting to get involved with this at all, you can just go to wolf And look at all the different ways and even just join our email list. You'll know when all of our events are coming up, you'll know about our advocacy efforts. At the moment, if there's a petition, we would like you to sign or if there's some action you can take to protect wild wolves. Whatever you can do is just wonderful. 

Nicholas Hill  30:59  
Sounds like there's some really easy ways to get involved and to help and also I find it interesting you said that someone can come live kind of stay at the park for eight weeks. I just think that's that would be a very interesting thing to put in your your biography like well, I went to live with the wolves for two months. I just think that's a fun way to spin it. Karah thank you so much. I have learned a lot and I really appreciate you volunteering your time and and really just for the work that wolf Park is doing. I know that I'm excited to follow the team and sign up for the newsletter learn about the conservation efforts. And so yeah, just thank you so much. 

Karah Rawlings  31:41  
Thank you for having me.

Nicholas Hill  31:56  
Today's show was directed and produced by me with music from Alex Grohl special thanks to our guests for their time and insight. If you like today's episode, please follow us wherever you listen to podcasts, and consider leaving a review, as it will help us to spread the word about the show. You can view more information about today's episode online at acts of Thank you for listening