The Wolves of Algonquin: a history of a misunderstood animal
By Angelica Ingram
Standing on Highway 60 on a warm summer evening in August, a field naturalist lets out a long, vibrant, rich howl into the dark night sky.
The air is still and quiet as 2,000 people stand alert, patiently waiting for a response.
And then it comes, a chorus of howls reverberating over the thick woods of Algonquin Park, simultaneously greeting the thousands of visitors who have come to hear them.
The immensely popular wolf howls have been taking place at the provincial park since 1963, when they were introduced as a research tool to gain a better understanding of the animal, said Rick Stronks, chief park naturalist for Alqonguin Park.
Approximately 60 people came out to hear Stronks give a talk on the Wolves of Algonquin at the Haliburton Highlands Museum on Nov. 19, hosted by the Haliburton Highlands Field Naturalists.
Back in 1963 the perception of wolves was a negative one, often referred to as vermin, said Stronks.
To learn more about the animal the park began promoting a wolf howl in their newsletter, titled The Raven, and welcomed the public to attend the event.
Park staff never imagined the howl would draw more than a dozen or so cars.
The very first wolf howl attracted 164 cars and 656 people, said Stronks.
“People couldn’t believe how popular they were,” he said.
Since they started, the park has continued to host the popular event, now held every Thursday night in August.
The howls take a day or two of logistical planning, done by about 25 park staff.
They attract an average of 1,800 people (450 cars), but have often drawn more than that. The highest number of attendees for a howl was 2,700 people, said Stronks.
The park has hosted 116 public wolf howls in total, attracting 167,000 people over the years.
“We know they’re popular,” he said. “It can take two and a half hours just to move that many cars.”
Led by a naturalist, the howls take place on Highway 60, where a park staff member lets out a howl reminiscent of one produced by the animal and is reciprocated with howls from the wolves who live in and around the park.
The public howls are no longer used as a research method but rather an education program.
Stronks said the event is very likely one of the largest naturalist-led programs in the world.
“If we announce we’re going to have a public wolf howl ... we’ll get 2,000 people out and I think that speaks volumes about this animal. This is an animal that we’ve had this love/hate relationship with, we’re fascinated with this animal. It’s a truly interesting animal,” said Stronks.
The fascination with wolves dates back many years, said the park naturalist, who admitted he was slightly scared of the animal when he was a kid and was visiting his aunt and uncle’s farm in Barrie.
He points to children’s stories such as Little Red Riding Hood, Three Little Pigs and others where the villain is portrayed by a wolf.
In Ontario the wolf population is mostly made up of gray wolves, but there are also eastern and coyote breeds throughout the area.
An animal that lives in a pack, wolves typically live with their family members, but that doesn’t always mean things are pleasant.
“A pack is about survival,” said Stronks. “If you think everything is great in a pack it’s not.”
According to the naturalist there are 200 wolves living in 25 packs in and around Algonquin Park.
Wolves primarily feed on meat, mostly deer, moose (particularly fawns) and beavers. Their appetite for white-tailed deer is likely one of the reasons the animal has been vilified, as it has historically been competition for hunters, said Stronks.
During the 1920s park rangers in Algonquin Park were encouraged to hunt, snare or poison wolves, said Stronks.
Wolves howl for a variety of reasons, including as a communication tool for packs, a defence mechanism against other packs and for social bonding.
It was thus realized by scientists that these various howls, which sound different, could be used as a way to better understand the animal that had long been misunderstood.
Speaking about the public wolf howls, Stronks sees it as a great way to connect people with nature.
“For us [Algonquin Park] it’s this really neat and special opportunity to give back to the people,” he said.
The Haliburton Highlands Field Naturalists are always seeking new members to join their organization. Anyone interested can visit www.hhfn.ca.