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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lobos Spotted on the West Mesa

"Lobos Spotted on the West Mesa" screamed a headline over a close-up photograph of a wolf. It was part of an on-line ad for the University of New Mexico, whose sports teams are known as the Lobos.

Photo by Joan Hellquist
How ironic is this? And how very sad. The state's flagship university has as its mascot the lobo, or wolf, a species fighting extinction in this state. The Mexican gray wolf is the rarest and most unique subspecies of gray wolf. Sadly, there are no lobos to be spotted on Albuquerque's West Mesa, or in the rest of the state except for a very small area in the southwestern corner.

Efforts to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf into part of its former habitat in the so-called 'boot heel' of New Mexico and small areas of Arizona began in 1998 with the introduction of 11 captive-bred wolves. The goal of 100 wolves in the wild by 2011 has fallen far short. The 2011 census showed 58 wolves. The 2012 wolf census found 75 wolves, including 20 pups, so seeing a 30 percent increase over the past year is encouraging. However, several wolves were found dead last year, either shot or poisoned. Some of those executed were the alpha members of their packs. Emotions against reintroducing wolves into the wild run very strong among the ranching and cattle communities. Despite federal compensation for any cattle killed by wolves, many cattle ranchers persist in their hatred of wolves.

In addition to the removal of gray wolves in Idaho and Wyoming from the protection offered by the federal Endangered Species Act, the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission claims that it is powerless to prohibit trapping in the Gila Wilderness, part of the gray wolves' native territory. Sadly, a good number of these animals end up shot and killed by cowards.

Since moving to New Mexico, I have been blessed with the opportunity to spend time in the company of wolves and wolf/dog mixes. Every experience with them has been unforgettable.

I love going to see Hokshila, a timber wolf. Weighing more than 120 pounds and standing 6'3" on his hind legs, Hokshila clearly loves people. He sticks his muzzle through the fence and leans against it whenever anyone stops to pet him. I have spent time sitting in the pen with Liberty, a quiet wolf/malamute mix and cancer survivor. Bindi, the wolf/coyote/husky mix, is seemingly everywhere. He is allowed the run of the property (all of it is fenced). At one point he 'melted' onto the ground in pleasure as I massaged his neck and ears. So much for the big bad wolf of fairy tales and myth.

Photo by Sue Isley
On a visit to another wolf sanctuary, my face was smothered with kisses by Dakota, a timber wolf who planted his paws on the shoulders of visitors to his enclosure. He is hardly the ferocious beast portrayed by the anti-wolf crowd.
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Another time, I really got a sense of how much these animals love kids. One boy, perhaps 8 years old, was visibly terrified when he first spotted Hokshila. The boy's body stiffened, and his face was frozen in fear. A few minutes later, he and his two younger brothers happily posed for a picture with Hokshila. What happened during those few short minutes to change the boy's perception of this big wolf? Clearly something happened on a non-verbal level. Hokshila had turned terror into acceptance, a face frozen with fear into a face marked by a big smile.

A young mother sat on the grass with her baby, who could stand up with some assistance from his mother. Bindi, who had not shown much interest in other people at the public event, walked up to them. The mother stood her baby up, and he reached out for Bindi, who promptly covered the baby's face with kisses. While startled, the baby did not cry. Bindi then sat down in front of the mother and baby in a protective posture, as if saying "Don't even think about hurting this baby!" Bindi recognized the vulnerability of the baby, and his protective instincts kicked in. He wasn't menacing or growling at people to keep away, but his alert face and posture clearly showed that Bindi was on the job.

It was fascinating to watch people's reactions to the wolves. Some were apprehensive and stood back, while others were very interested in meeting the animals. Most seemed pretty blown away after spending a few minutes with animals usually maligned in the news media, fairy tales and cartoons. One young man walked by, made a U-turn, and stood looking at the wolves. "I don't like dogs," he said. But soon he was tentatively offering his hand to one of the wolves, who promptly licked it in greeting. This young man spent a long time talking to the founder of the rescue group. By the time he left, his attitude toward the wolves was remarkably different. Education and a positive experience made all the difference.

Perhaps some day there really will be 'lobos on the West Mesa,' not the kind that wears cherry-and-silver T-shirts, but lobos of the four-footed kind.