Werewolf? There wolf.
“There” being the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) in South Salem. Chappaqua resident Deborah Heineman has been the Center’s executive director for about four years following stints as marketing director for major companies such as Readers Digest, Sotheby’s, and HBO. Always a dog lover, she found herself in a new and fascinating position.
Welcoming Wolves to Westchester
The Center was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1999 by Helene Grimaud, a French pianist with an affinity for canines, and J. Henry Fair, an environmental photographer known for aerial photography. The Center was originally created to raise awareness of the plight of endangered wolves through education. Grimaud and Fair “just wanted people to realize wolves were truly on the brink of extinction,” says Heineman.
The Center started with three “ambassador wolves:” Apache, Kaila, and Lukas, who all lived into their teens. But, Grimaud decided that, if the WCC was serious about saving an endangered species, it had to join the Species Survival Plan (“SSP”). The SSP shelters and breeds endangered wolves under the direction of U.S. Fish & Wildlife, developing protocols to reintroduce and bring species back into their natural environments. Many SSP members are zoos with limited space, which makes the 26-acre Wolf Conservation Center in Westchester unique.
So, seven years ago, the Center raised half a million dollars, working with the Westchester Land Trust to take over a portion of the Old Field Preserve property and creating SSP wolf enclosures. The Center’s efforts continue; “we now have an opportunity to own all the property on which the WCC resides and are hoping to buy and redo the original education site,” says Heineman.
Life at the Center
The Center’s goals are mainly education and conservation. Heineman, as the primary fundraiser, doesn’t spend much time on site. “I love the fact that I’m actually doing something that matters,” she says, but notes that she misses the interaction with the wolves.
Center volunteers do just about anything, age allowing. There is a lot of wolf care, like repairing fences and cleaning up, and helping with programs and events such as the Center’s annual holiday party, “Wine and Wolves.” The Center is also “the best recycling program in Westchester:” every time someone hits a deer on the roads, it’s dropped off at the Center for the wolves to eat.
The Center’s SSP residents are Mexican grey wolves and red wolves, both with a life expectancy in the wild of about eight to ten years. They live at the WCC in packs of anywhere from two to ten wolves. Right now, the three ambassador wolves are Atka, Zephyr, and Alawa. SSP wolves simply have numbers led by an “F” or an “M” (to indicate sex) rather than names.
Each pack of SSP wolves has free range of its 1-acre+ enclosure within the Center and minimal contact with humans. “If they lose their natural fear of humans then they would not be good candidates to release into the wild and wouldn’t survive,” says Heineman. The ambassador wolves are exceptions: “With ambassador wolves we go through an intense socialization process so they’re NOT afraid,” she adds. Wolf numbers in the wild have gone from less than 20 of each species at the end of the past Century into the hundreds today, showing the success of the Center and other places like it.
Spreading The Word
Atka, the Center’s Arctic wolf, is very cooperative and commands a fair amount of respect. He travels to schools and libraries to do presentations and helps teach about wolves and the importance of saving the species. Atka has presented before Congress twice, and has been on the Today Show. He’s always an invited guest at December’s Wine and Wolves event, and this year attended the Howling Wolves concert. In addition to Atka’s travels, the Center itself hosts a variety of programs that cater to specific age levels. Programs require pre-registration, so always call or check the website first.
The Chappaqua community is a huge part of the Center. Not only does Heineman live here, but the Center’s bookkeeper is a Greeley graduate and the majority of town vendors donate food and/or auction items each year to its fundraising events.
“They’re great, they’re like ‘absolutely!’ and they just do it,” says Heineman, who always appreciates any and all donations.
Lindsay Hand is a sophomore at Horace Greeley High School, and has written numerous articles and served as September’s “Guest Editor” for Inside Chappaqua.