Wildlife Center seeks to breed and train wolverines
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center’s wolverine program has seen some exciting developments in the past year, and it is hoping for some more highlights in the future. Last April, the center acquired Kasper, a male wolverine from Norway. He gained notoriety for nearly chewing and clawing out of his cage after arriving at Newark International Airport in New Jersey.
In November, AWCC acquired Kayla, a female wolverine from Sweden. Her arrival was rather sedate compared to Kasper’s. She is an addition to the center’s captive wolverine program, which is not intended to release any of the animals into the wild. Kayla was kept in quarantine as a precaution before being loaned to the Kroschel Wildlife Center in Haines. The goal is to expose her to the male wolverines, see if she takes a fancy to one, and hope they breed.
Breeding wolverines in captivity is incredibly difficult, but KWC has previously had success. If Kayla is successfully bred, her kit will be taken to AWCC to be hand raised as soon as it can live alone. Then the kit’s training with operant conditioning will begin and last a lifetime. Mike Miller, Director of AWCC, wants to see if a kit can be taught to become a search and rescue wolverine. As far as anybody knows, it’s the first project of its kind.
Chandelle Cotter, AWCC’s Animal Behavior and Training Manager, uses operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to train an animal to cooperate. There is no dominance and punishment to get compliance. She has been working with Kasper shortly after he has arrived, and she has seen progress with his ability and willingness to cooperate. For example, he will hold his mouth open on command so he can get his teeth inspected. Since he was not hand-raised, he is not a candidate for search and rescue training.
“We’re building these relationships and forming this trust with the animals,” Cotter said. “We’re really working together. All over the world animals are being trained to do amazing things. In Africa, there are rats that are trained to find land mines, and they’re clearing acres and acres of country that is being given back to the people for the first time. They [rats] are being trained using operant conditioning.”
Howard Golden is the Fur Bearing Research Biologist for Southcentral Alaska for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In his position, he has advised AWCC on its holding facility for wolverines and how they are going to display them. He is familiar with center’s ambitious training idea but wonders whether it is possible.
“Wolverines have an incredible sense of smell,” Golden said, “and to some degree it may actually be recovery than rescue, but we’re talking about using them for avalanche recovery. Whether they can do that or not, I think they’re somewhat skeptical themselves as to how well it will work. They’ll also have a couple of younger animals they can work with and would be a little more tractable and able to deal with.”
This training program has a number of obstacles that could thwart it, but Miller and Cotter believe it is possible to train a wolverine. How far one can be trained remains to be seen in this project. If it works, it would be an unprecedented feat.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle is to get a young kit because successful breeding in captivity is rare. Golden said that not a lot of research has been done on wolverine reproductive biology. Captive breeding is difficult because wolverines are induced ovulaters, so a female won’t ovulate unless there is a male around that wants to mate. The furry partners need compatibility, which can be tough with so few specimens available.
There are European programs having a greater rate of success, which is how Kasper and Kayla became available. AWCC and KWC view their wolverine programs as a way to educate the public about these rare, elusive creatures that are frequently misunderstood and stereotyped. Successfully breeding a captive wolverine in Alaska would be a big step forward in increasing awareness.
“It’s always good for the public to be able to see animals like wolverines because they are so hard to see,” said Golden. “They’re never that abundant, even when populations are doing well. I know that Mike and his crew are committed to having the wolverines there be a really good exhibit and try to have it more than a showcase of wolverines. They want to be able to do something more with them. They spent a lot of time, money, and effort getting a good facility built out there.”