WOLF WEEK: Ely's International Wolf Center demystifies wolves

On the outskirts of Ely, Minnesota, the International Wolf Center houses the answers to every imaginable wolf question you might have. It is also home to some of the most majestic predators you’ll ever see face-to-face.

Forty-thousand visitors a year wander through the exhibits at the International Wolf Center. It is as close as you can get to a wolf in the wild -- without really being in the wild. And the hope is that those 40,000 people leave here with a better understanding of, and appreciation for the wolf.

Rob Schultz, executive director of the International Wolf Center, believes the wolf is a “wildly misunderstood” animal and aims to clear up most of the misconceptions surrounding the animal.     

“A lot of people come here and they’re worried about, is it safe to be outside out in the woods with wolves? Will they attack me?," Schultz said. "That’s an understandable fear but really it doesn’t happen. It’s so rare you’d probably be more apt to hit the Powerball than be attacked by wolves out in the wild." 

Arguably and mostly through ignorance, story tellers, artists and authors did the wolf a disservice over the decades and a monster was created. That “monster” was killed -- by the thousands --not just in Minnesota, but around the world.

The focal point inside the International Wolf Center is the exhibit of mounted timber wolves showing visitors what wolves “actually” do in the wild; hunt, eat, play, sleep -- and above all avoid humans.

“That’s one of the magical things that happens here, because wolves are so hard to see in the outdoors," Schultz said. "Most people think you can see a wolf like you can see a deer, but the reality is that doesn’t happen. Wolves avoid humans at any cost." 

Since wolves are so hard to see in the wild the, the International Wolf Center provides more than just a glimpse. The outdoor enclosure enables researchers and visitors from around the world a chance to learn, dispel myths and just plain wonder at one of nature’s greatest predators.

“You’re going to see a lot of things," Schultz said. "What happens is we spend a lot of time socializing these wolves, so you’ll notice about 200 different behaviors that wolves will demonstrate here in front of the public that they would normally do out in the wild.” 

Life in this “ambassador wolf pack” mimics the social hierarchy found in wild wolf packs. 

At the moment, Aiden is the pack’s alpha. He’s big and he runs the show, but he’s aging.

“He’s the alpha male," Schultz said. "He’s been the alpha for about seven years and we’re getting really close to a change in leadership. The younger ones are starting to take their position and challenge him so in the months ahead we’re likely going to see that flip."

The center has plans for the eventual change of leadership. 

“He will actually got to a retirement enclosure," Schultz said. "In the wild when there’s an overtake of that leadership position wolves will typically leave the pack." 

Today, the world knows more about wolves than ever before--not so much as the scary creatures of fables and children’s storybooks, but rather, as told by the International Wolf Center, just a resilient animal of the north woods that has done a better job of tolerating man than man has of it.