The howls, pitched high into the morning air, carried several possible meanings normally lost on human ears.
But two-legged listeners at the Wildlife Science Center near Forest Lake lucked out Friday, with wolf expert Peggy Callahan nearby to interpret.
The howling in this context, she said, probably meant something like: Halt, for this is my territory and you are in it.
“When you hear a wolf howl, you know that they’re comfortable and feel like they’re home,” said Callahan, the center’s executive director.
The challenge now facing Callahan is transporting the center’s diverse pack of animals to a new home before the nonprofit’s long-standing lease ends next month.
The scene on Friday was all bushy tails and spunky wails as Callahan and her team worked to corral, vaccinate and anesthetize 14 wolf pups for their journey to broader pastures.
The pups were among the first batch of animals moved to a new 165-acre property in Linwood Township in Anoka County’s northeastern corner, which the nonprofit acquired years ago but waited to fully develop owing to the Great Recession.
The center is home to the largest population of captive wolves in North America, Callahan said. It provides science education programs each year for thousands of students from preschool to 12th grade. Wildlife professionals frequent the center for training and research, and wildlife there have been featured on Animal Planet, the History Channel and National Geographic.
The nonprofit has been based at the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area in Anoka County near Forest Lake since 1991, leasing the site from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
But last year, the center and its creatures received an eviction notice from the state over various lease-related disputes. A main complaint raised safety concerns about an aging office and storage building where a staff member from the center regularly stayed overnight for security purposes.
The center resolved the problems raised by the eviction notice and has since been allowed to stay through the end of its lease, which expires March 31. The safety of the animals was never in question, DNR officials said.
“The DNR supports the mission of the science center. We think they do great work,” said Paul Telander, the DNR’s wildlife section manager.
The center was originally a state-owned and federally run wolf research facility. Callahan eventually took it over and turned it into an educational nonprofit.
The move, she said, comes thanks to donations and a dedicated cadre of staff and volunteers.
Enclosures at the new site will house about 70 wolves and the center’s other animals, which include bears, cougars, bobcats, lynx, birds of prey, foxes, raccoons, skunks and a porcupine. The goal is to raise enough money to one day build a classroom, she said.
Schools including Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids have also chipped in. In January, students constructed a wolf den box to donate to the new facility.
Biology teacher Peter Wieczorek said he has been bringing science students to the center for 13 years. They’ve participated in wolf research projects including reproductive studies related to endangered species.
“Our students are welcomed to join right in and learn by doing instead of just watching,” said Wieczorek, also the director of Northwest Passage.
This is home
To get ready for the wolf pups, Northwest Passage students ventured to the new facility and installed a fresh wolf den on a recent afternoon.
The hum and whirs of electric drills filled the snowy pen as students including Virjle Wells, a junior, assembled the wooden structure.
“I’m helping out my favorite animal — wolves,” Wells said.
On Friday, the first paws touched down on the slushy ground near the den box as the pups began padding around their new digs.
The pups’ enclosure, Callahan said, is more than twice as big as the one at the old facility. That means more room to run and socialize — as pups are apt to do.
Callahan’s 17-year-old daughter, Megan Callahan-Beckel, walked the enclosure and chirped greetings to the pups, whom she helped name and bottle feed.
“This is crazy,” Callahan-Beckel said, sitting in the enclosure. “My babies are actually here.”
Hours after the move, Callahan and her team watched the wolves zigzag around their new space and heard a welcome sound. The pups had started howling.
In the days and weeks to come, she said, they will be listening for more howls — those aroooos that declare, “This is home.”