Where Do Wolf Babies Come From?

Sometimes Mother Nature can use a little human intervention

Cheryl Asa wants to offer a disclaimer. She is going to be talking solely about animal sex tonight, and any parallels to the human variety must be drawn at one's own risk.

That said, she's ready to begin her nearly packed pre-Valentine's Day lecture at the Saint Louis Zoo.

"So, what puts a female nonhuman animal in the mood?" she asks rhetorically, drawing giggles from the crowd, which includes a group of 30 students from John Burroughs School. "This is an interesting one," she remarks, pointing to a projected image of a pair of flies. "These flies here, they're in copulo right now."

Jennifer Silverberg
Behold the rectal probe, Cheryl Asa's weapon in the 
fight to save Canis lupus baileyi, the Mexican 
gray wolf.
Jennifer Silverberg
Behold the rectal probe, Cheryl Asa's weapon in the fight to save Canis lupus baileyi, the Mexican gray wolf.

The audience peers closer. The female appears to be eating something.

"He has brought her a food gift," Asa explains in her usual manner, which is to say, verbosely. "The larger the better, because he's not very fast, and she'll fly off when she's done. So if he brings her a nice big juicy gift, then it takes her a long time to eat it, and the chances increase that his sperm will be the ones that fertilize her eggs."

Moving on to feral horses (one of Asa's specialties), she can't help sneaking in a warning for any potential polygamists. "One male feral horse mates with a bunch of mares," she says. "It's called a harem group. So you guys might think, 'That sounds like a great thing -- one male and a whole bunch of females!'"

Unfortunately, there's more than one male in these herds. "If you get to be that one male, then you're home, but the bachelors who are out there get nothing."

Clad in a red blouse and black boots, Asa is by far the comeliest sexagenarian in the room (though technically she won't be 60 for another two weeks). With a few matronly strands of gray hair highlighting an otherwise dark-brown bob, she gives off an aura that's part college professor, part MILF. In the movie, Jennifer Connelly would play her.

Currently the head of the Endangered Species Research Center, Asa has seventeen years at the zoo under her belt. She knows perhaps as much about animal sex as anyone in the world, and she's happy to babble on for hours about how spiders, addaxes or garter snakes get busy. She helped pioneer the growing field of animal contraception, co-founding the Wildlife Contraception Center (also based at the zoo), the only facility of its kind in the world. The center's scientists have helped develop and implement birth-control techniques for a wide swath of God's creatures, from the dusky leaf monkey to the hippo.

But the beast that really lights Asa's fire is the wolf. Right now she's on a quest to save the Mexican gray, the most endangered wolf in the world. Only about 60 are thought to exist in the wild, and of the 200 or so in captivity, many are not suitable mates because they're too closely related to one another. Soon Asa will travel 600 snowy miles in the dead of night to insert an electrified probe into a male wolf's rectum in order to harvest his sperm, which will then be used to manually impregnate an ovulating female.

"Though February is the month of romance with Valentine's Day coming up next week," she says, wrapping up tonight's lecture, "it's also the breeding season of most of the North American wolves and foxes. So this is a really busy month for us."

It's cold in Bumblefuck, Minnesota. Five degrees, to be precise. Asa and her zoo crew have traveled to the Wildlife Science Center, an animal sanctuary and educational facility about 40 minutes north of the Twin Cities where roving packs of German shepherds wander the grounds, taunting caged wolves and following the scientists as they drag their microscopes, petri dishes and other paraphernalia indoors.

Asa climbs atop one of the more handsome dogs and rubs her rump on his black coat.

"Isn't he hot?" inquires Peggy Callahan, the center's director. Asa nods affirmatively but says she prefers German shepherds with the more typical black-and-tan coats.

Today's inseminations will take place in the center's functional but decidedly unglamorous lab, atop a rusty table covered with a tattered blue blanket. "Please clean the raptor food bucket daily," a sign on the fridge reads. "Green and black sludge probably isn't healthy."

The group has been joined by Ragnar Thomassen, a bespectacled Norwegian veterinary professor who has flown in from Oslo. Thomassen has been doing artificial inseminations on domestic dogs and foxes for years, and he's here to demonstrate how his method might be used on wolves.

The test subject is Godfrey, a 90-pound tundra wolf who could, on a good day, rip you limb from limb. It took Callahan and a half-dozen center workers to corner Godfrey in his cage. Once they had him, they shot him full of ketamine, an animal tranquilizer known to legions of club kids as Special K. Now he's on his back on the table, his legs inelegantly splayed. He'll be under for about 45 minutes. "He won't wake up, I promise," Callahan assures the group.

Mark Beckel, Callahan's husband and fellow wolf enthusiast, smoothly pulls Godfrey's penis from beneath a layer of fur. It looks not unlike a tube of red lipstick. After threading a thin catheter through the wolf's urethra, Beckel attaches the tube to a syringe and extracts Godfrey's urine -- enough to fill a twenty-ounce Diet Coke bottle.

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