ELY — Denali, a longtime wolf at the International Wolf Center in Ely, who delighted visitors with his playful, interactive behavior and was known as the center’s “gentle giant,” joined a new pack on Sept. 4.
He became the 12th member of the “Gone But Not Forgotten” pack.
The 13-year-old Northwestern subspecies of gray wolf — who arrived at the IWC in 2008 with his littermate, Aidan — was euthanized at about 9 p.m. that evening. A necropsy revealed a tumor on his liver had ruptured.
While it was a sad day for the center, the course of events, in many ways, was “fortuitous,” said IWC Wolf Curator Lori Schmidt. Denali experienced minimal suffering thanks to keen observations of an IWC volunteer assisting at the center over the Labor Day holiday weekend.
Denali had been interactive and didn’t show any signs of issues earlier in the day, Schmidt said. Staff had finished the evening’s “What’s for Dinner” program at the center and were preparing a dinner of a beaver carcass for the “Retired” pack members, Denali and Grizzer, at around 7 p.m., when volunteer Jess Edberg noticed something didn’t seem right with Denali.
“We had just decided to start feeding beaver carcasses to the retired pack again,” Schmidt noted. During the warmer weather, the older pack members did not get that treat to prevent stings from yellowjackets that were prevalent at the center over the summer. Wasps congregate around carcasses that aren’t eaten as quickly, and the older wolves' systems are more compromised, less able to handle stings, she explained.
Usually, Denali would take it right away, Schmidt said. “This guy loves food.”
Edberg then noticed Denali’s gums were pale, his ears were cold and he seemed dehydrated.
Schmidt, who has served as wolf curator since 1989, and two other wolf care staff members were quickly called to the center, as was the IWC’s veterinarian, Dr. Kristine Woerheide, after Denali’s condition deteriorated.
When it became clear no intervention would save the wolf, Woerheide performed euthanasia in the retirement enclosure. Care team members were able to keep Denali calm in his final moments, she noted.
The center strives to follow best management practices, such as avoiding the stress of transporting wolves if care can be given on site, Schmidt said. That is one of the huge advantages of “working with socialized wolves” who trust wolf care staff, she added.
“This trust takes hours and hours to build during the critical bonding period as pups, but the benefits are never more important than during those final moments when the hard decisions need to be made to end an animal’s suffering.”
Woerheide has also invested such time getting to know the wolves.
Staff was not aware he had a tumor; he exhibited no symptoms, Schmidt noted. The necropsy also revealed Denali had calcifications throughout his lung lobes and a mass on his right atrium.
Denali’s packmate, Grizzer, was “allowed to investigate” as the procedure was conducted. Social creatures such as dogs and wolves seem to “do less searching” later on if they are allowed to be part of the experience, Schmidt said.
Denali, who spent 12 years in the IWC’s main exhibit enclosure, joined the retirement pack last October.
The separate enclosure protects older wolves from “testing” behavior from the younger wolves. The natural process in which wolves test older wolves for weakness occurs in the wild and in captivity. However, in the wild, wolves have the freedom to leave the pack or disperse. In captivity, managers have to make that decision for them.
Schmidt said Denali did his job well at the center as one of its “ambassador” wolves, who help teach the IWC’s mission of “advancing the survival of wolf populations by educating about wolves, their relationship to wildlands and the human role in their future.”
He educated tens of thousands of visitors at the Ely exhibit, as well as thousands of people throughout the world through regular YouTube videos, wolf logs and webcams, according to the IWC.
People “gravitated” to Denali, who at 140 pounds, was the center’s all-time largest wolf, Schmidt said. However, he was not the most dominant wolf, earning him his “gentle giant” nickname.
Denali and his brother, Aiden, who had been the pack leader and died in 2019, were born at the Wildlife Science Center, located near the Twin Cities, where the center also obtained its newest pup.
“What we saw in his personality was his willingness to interact,” she said. Denali will be fondly remembered for his play-bows — getting down on his front leg and springing up to invite packmates to chase him. He was also known for his foreleg stabs — reaching out for attention, which he did to both the other wolves and wolf care staff.
Those behaviors continued into retirement, Schmidt said. “He was very social and engaging.”
As with each death of a wolf at the center, “we need to think about the animals left behind,” she noted.
Grizzer, who is 17, is now the lone retired wolf. “We opened a new gate with protective panels so he can be face-to-face with the exhibit pack,” which consists of 5-year-old wolves Grayson and Axel, and pup Reika, who was born in May and joined the exhibit pack Aug. 9.
“Every morning that’s the first place Grizzer goes — to see the exhibit pack,” Schmidt said. So far, Grayson has shown the most interest in greetings at the gate.
“Denali lived a great life,” she said. “He had beaver back in his life” and was active up until the last hours.
She added that wolves typically don’t live past 13 in the wild. In fact, “there is less than a 5% chance they get to (age) 5.” Captive wolves can live to age 15 or older.
The longtime curator is grateful, also, she said, for volunteer Edberg’s “situational awareness.” Edberg intuitively knew something was wrong, and she picked up on Denali’s change in behavior.
“Denali would have had a difficult night had Jess not been there to check on him,” Schmidt wrote on a IWC post. The wolf’s last moments, rather, were spent surrounded and comforted by the humans who knew him best.