Where Do Wolf Babies Come From?

Sometimes Mother Nature can use a little human intervention

Asa: "Every year I think we should use a Mountain Dew bottle instead."

Now Asa takes over. First she measures Godfrey's testicles. Or rather, testicle: The left one is shriveled and nonfunctioning. "Oooh!" she exclaims as her calipers span the other kidney-shaped sperm bank: 52.5 millimeters. "This one," she says, "is as good as two."

The Minnesota contingency has taken the occasion to hang balloons and ribbons around the lab in Asa's honor. They've even prepared a birthday cake featuring a crude icing sketch of Asa with a pair of wolves, bearing her rectal probe. "You're next!" one caricatured wolf warns the other.

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.
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.

"I can't think of a better time," Asa sighs. "Electrojaculating wolves with my friends."

You might not guess it to look at her, but Frijole has sweet genes. The nervous, slightly chunky nine-year-old Mexican gray lives at the Wild Canid Center, a nonprofit wolf sanctuary based at Washington University's Tyson Research Center. Located about twenty miles southwest of St. Louis off Interstate 44, the center is home to 29 adult Mexican grays, the largest concentration of Canis lupus baileyi in the world, outside their natural mountain habitats in New Mexico and Arizona.

Mexican grays typically run about 60 to 80 pounds, while tundra wolves like Godfrey are longer-legged and can tip the scales at up to 120. Mexican grays go after smaller prey than their northern neighbors -- elk and smaller deer, not caribou. Frijole has a darker salt-and-pepper coat than most of her Minnesota cousins, with a more refined head and more rounded ears.

Years of human land grab and generations of fear led to the Mexican gray's downfall. "People had the perception that wolves would eat your livestock and your children," says Kim Scott, the Canid Center's assistant director. "Think about the fairy tales -- like 'Little Red Riding Hood,' 'The Three Little Pigs' and 'Peter and the Wolf.'"

In the late 1970s, the last five known wild Mexican grays were captured. They were eventually brought to St. Louis, and scientists like Asa have been attempting to breed them back from extinction's brink ever since. They've succeeded marginally -- there are now more than 200 in captivity. But like humans, when wolves breed with close relatives, the offspring are more prone to health problems.

Frijole is special because she's less related to the males in her group than her companions are. The problem is that wolves mate for life, and she's got a lout for a mate. His name is Alano, and his DNA is already over-represented in the Canid Center's population.

Which brings us to Dude, another Canid Center resident who's less related to Frijole than Alano is. Because Frijole has bonded with Alano, human intervention is required if she's to become pregnant by Dude.

The procedure Asa and Thomassen are practicing in Minnesota has never been successfully used on a Mexican gray. Previous techniques included an invasive surgical procedure that proved largely ineffective. That and an even lower-tech approach. "We used to just put the sperm in the vagina and hold her upside-down for twenty minutes," Asa recalls.

They don't want to practice on Frijole, because they don't want to have to put her under any more often than they have to; anesthesia always carries a risk.

And so it has come to pass that Godfrey the Minnesota tundra wolf is called upon to take one for the team.

Wolves like Frijole, who are raised in captivity, tend to weigh a good twenty pounds more than their counterparts in the wild.

This has a lot to do with their laid-back, decadent lifestyles. Rather than chase down their prey in the mountains, they gorge on car-splattered deer, which are picked up along interstates and brought in to the Wild Canid Center for them regularly.

But many of these wolves are eventually released back into the wild. Not surprisingly, they get jarred out of their comfort zones pretty quickly.

The same might be said of scientists. Pried away from their controlled environments, a group of reproductive biologists out on the town can be as graceful as an ensemble of belly-dancing rhinoceri.

They've been working all week, and tonight -- a Friday in late February -- it's time to put down the probes and rubber gloves and have some fun. Thomassen has been staying at Asa's Compton Heights row house, in order to conserve the Mexican gray project's precious funds. At 6 p.m. on the dot they head off to South Grand in Asa's red Miata convertible. They meet up with Karen Bauman, who works with Asa at the Endangered Species Research Center, at Mangia Italiano, where they choose a table all the way in the back. Over red wine and pasta with marinara, conversation stutters from topic to topic.

Glancing at a classified ad in the Riverfront Times, Bauman flippantly suggests that maybe she'll sell her eggs for $5,000.

"Oh no," Asa cuts in, dead serious. "Your eggs are too old. They're looking for people in their twenties, and you're in your thirties."

The talk turns to dogs, and why they make such poor dads. In the wild, Asa imparts, male dogs are monogamous and take care of their offspring; domesticated dogs make no such effort.

« Previous Page
Next Page »