If you hear a howl in the night as you pass through South Salem, you're not imagining things -- that's the cry of a wolf. At the end of a quiet road that winds uphill through a curtain of lush greenery is a secluded place that more than two dozen wolves call home: the Wolf Conservation Center. Among the 27-acre facility's four-legged residents are 24 Mexican gray wolves and six red wolves -- both critically endangered species. The non-profit organization protects and breeds the rare animals as candidates for release into federally designated wild areas. It also provides a natural habitat where curious young humans can safely observe and learn about them.
One of the WCC's missions is to bring the message to kids that a wolf is not a pet, nor a fairy tale villain -- it's an impressive creature to behold and a vital part of a healthy and diverse bio-network. In trying to achieve their mission, the center hosts a variety of children's programs that typically include a presentation about wolves, a visit with the center's three sociable "Ambassador wolves," and a viewing of some of the critically endangered wolves that, though captive, are decidedly on the wilder side. Here's what to know before you go.
Little legs may find it easier to run rather than walk up the steep, paved path from the small gravel parking lot to the classroom. Inside there's a video screen, rows of folding chairs and a gigantic teddy bear in a WCC cap. Wooden cutouts of assorted woodland creatures, wolf photos, bones, fossils and a stuffed, mounted wolf will keep the kids' attention while waiting for the program to start. Simple shelves in a rear corner serve as a small souvenir shop, with wolf-themed wares priced from $3 to $45.
Presentations cover a variety of topics such as wolf mythology, biology and ecology and the human role in protecting their future. It's best to choose an age-appropriate program, as some topics might go over the heads of kids under five -- and test their patience.
After the program, everyone heads outside and kids are encouraged to howl to the wolves -- a task that most undertake with gusto. If you hush and listen, you may be treated to an answering howl from the resident wolves just up the hill. Then it's onto the main attraction and time for an up-close encounter with the wolves.
You may have the disorienting sensation that you're the specimen on exhibit as you enter a fenced-in viewing area to watch lively littermates Alawa and Zephyr, a pair of one-year-old Canadian/Rocky Mountain gray wolves. Kids will love hearing their story while watching these exuberant creatures pant and pace along the fence in step with the teacher, who might offer a tossed treat like a "mousical" -- a mouse frozen in a block of ice to simulate a small winter meal wolves might experience in the wild.
In the next enclosure is Atka, a 10-year-old white Wild Arctic wolf described as the WCC's best "wolf teacher" and worst wolf representative. His friendly, almost doglike nature and his comfort with humans belie one of the center's core messages -- wolves are not pets. Behind his fence, Atka will cheerily escort you along the trail to the final portion of the program -- the endangered wolves.
The spacious habitats of the four red wolves and two Mexican gray wolves that are on exhibit can make them harder to spot. But even a glimpse is thrilling, because although the animals are somewhat accustomed to seeing humans, these are no show-dogs - they're rare wolves whose wild instincts are, to some degree, intact. Even though you're separated by high fences topped with barbed wire, it's still unnerving -- and awe-inspiring -- to see a pair of wolves coming to get a closer look at you and your own pups.
The center offers several programs to get kids excited about wolves and teach them why it's so crucial to conserve not only the wolves, but also all wildlife and wild places. Most programs are offered multiple times per month, so check the online calendar for times and dates. Pre-registration is required for all programs, which are $13 for adults and $11 for kids under 12 (unless otherwise noted).
Wolves of North America: Adults and kids ages five and up will get the most out of this 90-minute program covering the mythology, biology and ecology of wolf families.
Pack Chat for Kids: This simplified 90-minute presentation is a good introduction to wolves for children ages four through eight. Learn about wolf mythology and the important role of wolves in the natural world. ($13 for adults; $11 for kids under 12)
Wolf Tails for Kids -- Mythology of a Predator: This all-ages 90-minute program covers the relationship between wolves and humans in the past. Guests will be introduced to wolf mythologies and then have a chance to create and share their own.
Evening Howl for Pups of All Ages: Bring your flashlight for this short sunset hike to howl with Alawa and Zephyr and see the WCC's critically endangered red wolves and Mexican wolves. Treats are included with this 90-minute program ($16 for adults; $13 for kids under 12).
Sleeping With Wolves: This overnight camping adventure includes evening fireside snacks, a pizza party with Atka, Alawa and Zephyr, a movie under the stars at Zephyr and Alawa's enclosure, a light breakfast and a tent for four people. All ages are welcome; kids must have an adult chaperone. Space is limited and dates sell out quickly for this popular program, which runs from 6 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. ($285 per four-person tent; $150 for singles; you must bring your own tent)
Wolf Camp for Kids: In this four-day program, offered about twice a month, kids in grades two through five can hear wolf myths and create their own, play a special version of hide and seek using tracking and telemetry tools that real wolf biologists use in the field, create plaster paw prints from real wolf tracks and more. The camp is $200 for grades 2 and 3 (10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Tuesday through Friday) and $250 for grades 4 through 6 (9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Tuesday through Friday).
IF YOU GO
What: Wolf Conservation Center, South Salem; 914-763-2373; nywolf.org
When: The center is not open for drop-in visits. Guests must sign-up for one of the WCC's programs to visit the center; pre-registration is required.
Good to know: Programs are conducted rain or shine; dress for the outdoors. Visitors who are unable to walk up hills or walk 100-200 yards should email email@example.com so that the staff can make the appropriate arrangements.