Learning from wolves: Peggy Callahan of the Wildlife Science Center

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 6, 2013 - 5:47 PM

Fascinated by wolves since a young age, Peggy Callahan founded the Wildlife Science Center, a nonprofit dedicated to research and education on wolves, mountain lions and other wildlife.


With beads of sweat running down her face on a steamy late-summer morning, Peggy Callahan cups hands to mouth and produces a low, long guttural wolf howl.

Suddenly more than a dozen captive wolves at Callahan’s Wildlife Science Center near Forest Lake — home to some of the animals since they were pups — join the chorus, tipping their heads skyward and producing a hair-raising cacophony.

Twenty seconds later they are silent.

Callahan, 51, clad in a dirty tank top and shorts, with knees muddied from working in animal pens, smiles. She is clearly in her element — outdoors, knee-deep in wolves, black bears, mountain lions and other critters that are studied and displayed at her center. This day, 20 senior citizens are visiting, and Callahan — her hands animated as she speaks — explains wolf reproduction, habits and management.

“Wolves kill other wolves — for food, breeding, status,’’ she tells the group near a pen with rare Mexican gray wolves. “That’s the unromantic picture.’’ Her words flow like water from a tap, and she barely pauses to catch a breath. Despite the sweltering heat, she has their rapt attention.

Callahan, who grew up in Rochester, Minn., is founder and executive director of the center, which has 60 captive wolves, including gray wolves, red wolves and Mexican gray wolves, as well as five black bears, two Wyoming mountain lions, a couple of bobcats and more.

But this is no zoo.

The center is a combination research and education facility. The captive animals are used for research, and wildlife students, biologists and researchers come from around the nation to learn firsthand about them — knowledge used to study and manage wild populations. And 20,000 citizens, ranging from preschoolers to seniors, come yearly for the center’s educational programs.

The wolves are the No. 1 attraction. Some have been raised by humans since they were born. All are habituated to Callahan and her staff, which allows them to go inside wolf pens to clean them, and treat the wolves or take samples from them. None will ever be released into the wild, so the habituation reduces the stress on the wolves when they must be worked with by Callahan and her staff.

But the wolves aren’t tame, Callahan notes. There’s always the chance one will challenge Callahan’s dominance — just as wolves challenge each other in the wild. “We have one wolf that I raised since it was pup, and it clearly would love to kill me,’’ Callahan said. “I have to go into that pen with several other people for safety.’’

Callahan has been enamored of wolves since she was a kid. “I had a German shepherd, and I told everyone it was a wolf,’’ she said. At age 8, she wrote to famed Minnesota wolf researcher Dave Mech.

“I told him I wanted to study wolves and was worried there wouldn’t be any. He wrote back and said there will be wolves around for you to study.’’

She stayed on the science course, got a biology degree from Carleton College and in 1985 began working for the Wolf Project, a federal wolf research facility located where her center is now. She managed the captive wolves there and helped refine the use of anesthetics to immobilize wolves during research. She helped with field studies of black bears, red fox, deer and wolves and was involved with capturing wolves at Isle Royale.

But federal funding for the project ended in 1991, and the 40 captive wolves housed there were going to be euthanized. Callahan decided to try to keep the facility open as a nonprofit.

“I quit grad school and got a job as a zookeeper at the Minnesota Zoo,’’ Callahan said, while continuing to work at the Wolf Project facility. “It took two more years for us to raise enough money for me to leave the zoo and work here full time.’’

The nonprofit Wildlife Science Center, operated on state land, opened to the public in 1994, and melds research with education. “I love the idea that these captive animals get used for more than just display,’’ Callahan said.

For example, nine federal Wildlife Services employees recently learned to anesthetize and draw blood from the center’s mountain lions. “I feel if you have captive animals, you use them to the fullest extent, obviously without being cruel,’’ she said.

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  • In a sign of submission, a wolf raised at the Wildlife Science Center near Forest Lake nuzzled Peggy Callahan, the center’s founder and executive director. “I am always vigilant,” she said.

  • A wolf howled from a hole it had dug to keep cool.

  • A young wolf-coyote hybrid sniffed tree leaves at the Wildlife Science Center. Famed Minnesota wolf researcher Dave Mech is involved with the center’s hybrid studies.

  • The Wildlife Science Center is located 6½ miles west of Forest Lake, near the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area headquarters in Columbus. Public tours are given at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturdays. Cost is $6 for adults; $4 for children. Private group tours, extended tours, school programs, wolf-howl bonfires and sleepovers are available. Visit www.wildlifesciencecenter.org or call 651-464-3993 for more information.

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