A wolf pack lives in a large forested enclosure near Haliburton, Ontario, where visitors can watch from the observatory and learn lots about these magnificent and reclusive animals.
If you drive three hours north of Toronto, then veer a bit to the east, you’ll come to the Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Reserve. This unique forest, privately owned by Peter Schliefenbaum, sprawls over 80,000 acres of rolling hills, stands of hardwood, and clean lakes. Lesser known than its famous neighbor, Algonquin Park, the Haliburton Forest has plenty of beautiful sights and fun activities worth checking out. Its attractions include camping, dog sledding, treetop canopy tours, astronomy, hiking and biking trails, public wolf howls, and wildlife viewing.
One of the Forest’s most unusual attractions is the Wolf Center. This is a 15-acre enclosure where a pack of wolves lives and roams. An interpretive center comprises part of the fence in one corner, with an observatory that’s equipped with one-way glass and a microphone to watch and listen to the wolf pack. The only problem is, you never know when the wolf pack will be hanging out in front of the observatory! With 15 acres of forest to explore, they could be anywhere. (There is a live wolf cam that allows you to check in from home to see what's going on.)
Last week, when I visited with my kids, we got lucky. There were seven wolves lounging in the tall grass in front of the observatory. Some slept, some nipped at flies in the air, others stretched and walked around. The guide pointed out Luna and Fang, the Alpha pair, as well as their various offspring, whose names all start with the same alphabet letter based on their birth year. Later we even caught a glimpse of two fuzzy, nine-week-old pups, nursing while their mother stood, giving us a rare view.
When I asked a guide about the purpose of the Wolf Center, he explained that it’s not a sanctuary; they do not take in injured wolves because that would disrupt the natural balance of the wolf pack dynamic and likely end in death. Introducing new blood is a tricky business, and has only been done three times since the pack’s creation in 1977 – most recently when there was no male left.
This particular wolf pack started in the 1970s when a man named Jim Wuepper in Michigan bought two wolf pups for the purpose of nature photography. “This was back in the days when you could buy wolf pups and bear cubs straight out of the newspaper,” the guide told me. Wuepper kept the wolves in an 8-acre enclosure, where they grew and multiplied, but eventually realized he couldn’t care for them indefinitely. A friend who lived in Haliburton suggested the Forest which seemed a perfect solution; that way, the pack wouldn’t have to be separated. In 1993 the transfer occurred and doors opened to the public in 1996.
A Canadian Geographic article explains owner Peter Schliefenbaum’s approach to keeping captive wolves:
“For Schleifenbaum, who holds a PhD in forestry, this is all about education. He grew up in Germany, where wolves were killed off in the 1800s, and he wants to teach people that the animals are neither noble nor evil; they’re just part of a natural ecosystem.”
The wolves are fed once a week, although visitors are not told ahead of time when feeding will occur – 20 pounds of wild meat per animal, mostly beaver caught by local trappers within the Forest boundaries, but also plenty of whitetail deer and some moose. When I asked if 15 acres was sufficient space for these animals, the guide explained that it is because they don’t have to hunt for their own food. They continue to be opportunistic hunters, however, catching whatever small game gets into their enclosure.
My kids loved the interpretive center, with its exhibits on wolves throughout history, wolves in Native art, the short documentary film, and the extensive exhibit of taxidermy animals. They studied the snowy-white ermine, the pine marten, the moose, and the black bear up close. Afterwards, we made our way to the Forest's base camp, where we discovered several large forested enclosures, with a moose and a family of gigantic boars.
You can visit the Wolf Center from the May long weekend until Thanksgiving weekend, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission ranges from $12 per adult to free for children 6 and under.