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At the California Wolf Center, special ‘Howl-o-Ween’ tours scare the myths away

Katie Sindewald (left) and Theresa Kosen shown with two Northwestern gray wolves at the California Wolf Center in Julian.
At the California Wolf Center in Julian, educating and marketing coordinator Katie Sindewald (left) and executive director Theresa Kosen are shown with Poppy (left) and Yana, two of the center’s Northwestern gray wolf ambassadors. The nonprofit conservation center is offering special ‘Howl-o-Ween’ tours on Oct. 29 and 30. Reservations are required.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The California Wolf Center’s special ‘Howl-o-Ween’ tours will be held Oct. 29 and 30 at the conservation center in Julian

If you are a human thinking of attending the “Howl-o-Ween” event being held Oct. 29 and 30 at the California Wolf Center in Julian, here is a tidbit of useful information:

While Halloween treats will be served to the center’s ambassador wolf packs, you will not be on the menu.

“It’s not as extreme as thinking that a wolf will eat your grandma, then dress up like her, and then try to eat you,” said education and marketing coordinator Katie Sindewald, referencing the “Little Red Riding Hood” scenario that has long been the bane of wolf existence. “But some people genuinely believe, ‘If I hike out somewhere and I’m in the range of a wolf, they might try to eat me.’

“So something we really have to get over is the public’s misunderstanding that wolves are aggressive towards people. They’re not. They don’t recognize us as a prey animal and they don’t recognize us as a fellow wolf. They really don’t know what to do with us, so they opt to avoid us.”

For the Northwestern gray wolves and Mexican gray wolves that are on exhibit at the center, the “Howl-o-Ween” goodies might be pieces of pumpkin doused with vanilla, which guests can toss to the wolves for some seasonal nibbling. Staffers will also place some holiday-themed enrichment items in the packs’ habitats, usually with the wolves watching from a wary distance.

The center’s ambassador wolves are not trained, so there will be no tricks on the schedule. But when it comes to these shy, human-averse animals, the simple fact of seeing one is a treat worth savoring. And with these specialty tours starting at the wolf-friendly 4 p.m., the fun may not stop there.

“The wolves are most active during the dusk hours, so they are more likely to be howling,” Sindewald said. “I grew up in San Diego, so I’m used to hearing coyotes make their yipping noise. But when you hear a wolf pack howl together, it just makes you want to stand there and listen to it. There is nothing else like it.”

Founded in 1977 as the Julian Center for Science and Education, the organization started with two scientists — biologist Paul Kenis and his botanist wife Judy — and the two Northwestern gray wolf pups the couple wanted to raise with minimal human interaction.

Over time, the wolves started breeding, and the packs grew. Fellow scientists came to study wolf genetics and behaviors, and in 2014, the Julian Center for Science and Education — which is 4.5 miles from downtown Julian — became the California Wolf Center. The nonprofit organization bought the property from the founders in 2017. It is now home to 25 endangered Mexican gray wolves, and four Northwestern gray wolves.

Mexican gray wolves Thor, Emma and Durango in their California Wolf Center enclosure.
Mexican gray wolves Thor, Emma and Durango in their enclosure at the California Wolf Center.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The majority of the center’s wolves live a mostly human-free life roaming the 50-acre property in their tightknit family packs. The seven ambassador wolves are on exhibit to the public, but only through tours that need to be booked in advance. The Wolf Center offers public tours Friday through Monday. Private tours are available on weekdays, and there are educational exhibits and wildlife gift items available at the organization’s standalone visitor center and nature store in downtown Julian.

Whether you go on your own or with a human pack, you will learn that there is so much more to wolves than big teeth and infamy.

For instance, they aren’t the most successful hunters in the predator world. Less than 20 percent of their hunts end in a kill, so they have adapted by eating just once every few days. (Even so, the California Wolf Center still goes through a lot of chicken.)

Also, they have a mutually beneficial relationship with ravens. Wolves provide ravens with carrion leftovers, and ravens are good at leading wolves to animal cadavers or nearby prey.

But what might interest visitors the most is the way a wolf pack looks a lot like a family. Because it is one.

“In every pack, there is just one male and one female that breed, and the puppies that they have are taken care of by the rest of the pack,” said Theresa Kosen, the center’s executive director. “The puppies are the future of the pack, so everyone hunts and brings back the food they need. They protect them. They take care of them.

“The pack is very family focused, and I think that’s a really good message.”

Meanwhile, the California Wolf Center is focused on making sure wolves remain a viable part of the global family. The organization is part of the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan, which is working to reestablish the endangered species, in part by integrating captive-born pups with newly born litters in the wild. The California Wolf Center is one of the largest breeding facilities participating in the plan.

Through its Mexican Wolf Conservation Program, the center works with nonprofit partners and public agencies to support the wolf’s recovery. And in its Working Circle program, the center has joined ranchers in Northern California to find ways to reduce conflict between wolves and livestock.

That old fairytale turned wolves into the villains, and real-life hunting and extermination almost made the Mexican and Northwestern gray wolves extinct. With a little help from a lot of heroes, they are getting the second chance they deserve.

“In our world, they were eradicated. In the 1800s and early 1900s, we destroyed the wolves,” Kosen said. “So we want them back.”

The “Howl-o-Ween” tours will be held Oct. 29 and 30 at the California Wolf Center in Julian. Tickets are $50. Children under 4 get in free, but the tours are most appropriate for children ages 5 and up. Reservations are required. Go to californiawolfcenter.org/wolf-tours for details.


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