Orphaned wolf pups finding love at the Alaska Zoo

The Funny River Fire on the Kenai Peninsula continues to burn this week, though most of the communities and structures are now considered safe. And thanks to the acts of a group of fire fighter medics and wildlife biologists, a family of five orphaned wolf cubs is safe, too, and now at the Alaska Zoo.

About a week ago bulldozers plowed through an area south of Soldotna to create a fire line. The machinery went past what wildfire medic and vet tech Eric Zucker knew to be an animal den, so the fire fighters tried to avoid it.

“When going out to the line, we modified where our personnel travelled,” he explained. “And every once in a while we’d pop down to see if there was any sign of the parents, because we’d heard a couple of wolves howling from the camp at night in the far distance.” They waited about two days, and then, “even after this rain, we didn’t see any new tracks, so our division got into contact with the Refuge.”

Zucker said the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge biologist decided to pull out the pups.

“We found the skinniest crew member we could to climb up into the den because it was pretty wide at first but then it got down to a pretty small little hole. Yeah, he was totally in there all the way,” he recalled.  “And the signal was for him to wiggle his feet so other crew members could pull him out. And he went in there six times to pull them out.”

Five of the six were still alive, but they were dehydrated and hungry. They also had quills stuck in their bodies and faces from a porcupine that had holed up with them to avoid the fire.

Now, the five pups are being cared for at the Alaska Zoo in their small rehabilitation facility.

One pup groaned contentedly as he eagerly sucked on a bottle of puppy formula fed to him by zookeeper Jim Rutkowski.

“Good baby. All right,” Rutkowski cooed at the fuzzy, two-week old pup.

Zookeeper Zach Shoemaker feeds another orphaned pup.
Zookeeper Zach Shoemaker feeds another orphaned pup.

The baby wolf weighs just over 2 pounds and needs about 250 – 300 calories per day to survive. At the moment, that means being fed every three hours. Peeking out of the fluffy black fur is a milky blue eye. It’s infected from where it was pierced by a quill. The pup is receiving antibiotics, but the zookeepers aren’t sure if he’ll be able to see again from that eye.

Another little wolf squirmed and whined as the zoo staff tried to pull a quill from his side.

“It’s like trying to take a splinter out of your kid’s foot,” said zoo curator Shannon Jensen. She said the quills can stay in the pups for years.

But zoo staff is working hard to get the little wolves healthy. Once the pups are well enough, they’ll be transferred to another zoo or facility in the Lower 48. Jensen said they cannot be released back into the wild because they’ve had too much contact with humans. The Alaska Zoo can’t keep them because they already have a pack that was taken from the wild in 2006.

Ultimately, it’s up to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to decide where they go. The department’s spokesperson, Ken Marsh, says many places are interested. They are currently working with an accredited facility that can keep all five pups together, but the department won’t know exactly where the pups will go for another few weeks.

UPDATE (5/30/14): The Minnesota Zoo says they can take and care for all five pups. They will be transferred as soon as they are healthy enough to do so safely.