Rachel Vanausdall greets a wolf at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana.
Rachel Vanausdall greets a wolf at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana. Four years ago Vanausdall became involved with public education at the nonprofit park dedicated to research, conservation and education. (Photo © Monty Sloan/Wolf Park)

Howling with Wolves

By Tera Fair - Published May 18, 2015

On a late summer evening the sun was setting and the air getting cooler while Rachel Vanausdall ran through wolf facts and information in her head.

The senior wildlife major from Lebanon, Indiana, was preparing for Howl Night at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana, during an internship last year. Vanausdall and other staff members help Wolf Park visitors learn about wolves and howl at the moon with them.

Four years ago, Vanausdall attended an educational program at Wolf Park and knew she just had to get involved. The nonprofit park is dedicated to research, conservation and public education about wolves. A Howl Night experience solidified her choice to volunteer and kept her coming back.

"Howl Nights are incredible in all seasons," she explains. "However, despite the frigid cold, winter is probably the best time for a howl night, in my opinion. You can see the wolves more clearly, and they seem to like the cold, so they are pretty active during the program."

When Vanausdall first started at Wolf Park, she volunteered and assisted in the gift shop. But when she learned about an internship, she was eager for more responsibility—despite some intense competition.

"Wolf Park's internships are pretty popular," she says. "They take 10 interns a season from all over the world. Since I was already familiar with the animals and staff as a volunteer, I was accepted for the summer after my freshman year."

As an intern, her responsibilities expanded. She interacted more with the wolves, observed wolf behavior, helped medicate them and even took care of wolf puppies. She relied on those observations and experiences when she led tours.

"The cool thing people don't realize about the animals at Wolf Park is that they are not domesticated animals; they are socialized wild animals," Vanausdall says.

Socialization is a process that begins early in a wolf's life. Park staff remove wolf pups from their mothers at 10-to-14 days old. Human foster parents live and interact with the pups continuously for the first month of their lives.

Before the pups are placed back with other wolves in their natural habitat, they have interacted with humans for about 1,500 hours. So while they are used to humans, they are still wild animals, which can make them unpredictable.

Vanausdall used the behavioral similarities between dogs and wolves to connect with her audiences.

"For example, if a wolf gets nervous, it starts blinking really fast or flicking its tongue," Vanausdall says. "We are trained to look for things like that, and we can show visitors what to look for, too."

For Vanausdall, the most rewarding experiences were the ones she didn't expect to enjoy.

"Wolf Park taught me how to work with people," she says. "It was fun to convey the information I learned, and having people share my excitement made everything worthwhile."

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Howling with the wolves is part of her job
From the Fall 2014 issue of Destination Purdue, a publication for high school students that seeks to broaden the awareness of agriculture and promote interest in the College of Agriculture.