Nestled at the end of a road in the woods of Wilmington, a town known as home to Whiteface Mountain, lies a 50-acre wildlife refuge and wildlife rehabilitation center. From wolves to birds of prey, many animals have found a home at the refuge. Most are recovering from an injury, others are there for educational purposes. Founded by Wendy and Steve Hall, the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge represents their shared longtime passion which became a reality. Their son Alex grew up with the Wildlife Refuge as his home, and the animals- especially the wolves- have become Alex’s family.
Refuge Foundations and Establishment
Steve and Wendy have spent over 40 years rehabilitating injured wildlife. Growing up in New York City just a mile apart but never knowing it, this husband and wife duo has always had an interest in nature. When given the opportunity to pick activities as children, they would ask to go to the Museum of Natural History or the Bronx Zoo. Their shared passion for wildlife has been a constant in their lives since they met. Before moving to the Adirondacks, the couple lived downstate. Steve worked as a public speaker for a communications company, and Wendy was a nurse and ambulance lieutenant. Their former careers have played a tremendous role in the success of the refuge.
In the early 90s, Steve and Wendy spent a summer in Alaska where they adopted their first wolf hybrid and, perhaps un- aware, set themselves up for the next chapter of their lives. In 2000, the couple bought a home in the Adirondacks, intended to be their retirement home. Not long after September 11, Steve and Wendy decided to restart their lives and relocate their family to the Adirondacks.
Steve became a real estate broker, and Wendy continued to work with injured wildlife. As the wildlife rehab work grew, Wendy asked Steve to build more enclosures for the animals. When the wolf that they had brought home from Alaska died, Steve and Wendy added another 3⁄4 wolf hybrid to their family. Neighbors and friends visiting the house realized what a cool thing Steve and Wendy were doing, and encouraged them to open to the public. About six years ago, the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge became an official non-profit organization. With Steve managing the education and communication aspect of the business, and Wendy taking charge of the rehab, the refuge became an important feature of Wilmington.
The role of the Wildlife Refuge & Rehab Center is multifaceted, but its two main purposes are rehabilitation and education. Considering that only a fraction of the animals that could truly use rehabilitation receive it, the impact on nature is small. However, one of the bene ts achieved by wildlife rehabilitation is from the visitors to the refuge. As visitors walk around the property and interact with the animals, they become more interested and engaged. As a result, visitors often learn how nature works, show- ing curiosity about the animals and their role in the ecosystem.
The animals at the refuge are often predators that have a fatal flaw and most often cannot be released back into the wild. While an enclosure will never duplicate the animal’s natural habitat, they will never miss a meal, and their lifespans will double or even triple! Wendy also has a different way of rehabilitating animals – for some wildlife centers it’s all about having top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art enclosures. At the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, the philosophy is that it’s all about wilderness. Animals have the ability to heal in ways that humans can only imagine, and the more Wendy works with animals and gains an understanding of them, the more she begins to see life through their eyes, and not human eyes – a trait that she has passed on to Alex. The human vs. animal versions of life are very different from one another, and Wendy has learned how to provide the animals with as much of their own ideal habitat as possible, mimicking what would be found in nature. From eagles to snowy owls, and bobcats to foxes, the refuge gives visitors a peek into the true existence of these animals, and it sparks their curiosity.
Wolves: Cornerstones for Education
The Halls’ passion for the wolf species intensified when they brought home their first wolf from Alaska. The more time they spent with their wolf hybrid, the more the Halls realized they could impact people’s understanding of wolves in their natural context. After the death of their first wolf, the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge continues to be the home to three wolves – another 3⁄4 wolf hybrid, Cree, and two full Great Plains wolves, Kiska and Zeebie. Unlike the other animals living at the wildlife refuge, the wolves are not there for rehabilitation. They came from an organization that raises large animals in captivity for Hollywood, nature centers, documentaries, etc. As a result, they could not be released to the wild.
These wolves are part of an educational program that helps educate visitors about the wolf’s role in the ecosystem. With over a half acre enclosure to roam about, and 12 mile daily walks through the woods to inspect their territories, the wolves give visitors a peek into their interactions with nature. In the wild, wolves are keystone predators: animals that have exaggerated impacts on their environment. Wolves do two main things: control their prey populations and control their competitors.
From chatting with the Halls, visitors learn that wolves are the number one natural controller of beaver, deer, elk, moose, and caribou populations. Through the years, a decline in North American wolf populations allowed for the boom of these prey animals. With no predator to hunt them, elk herds in Yellowstone exploded and were decimating the park. In the mid90s the government decided to reintroduce wolves, and the impact was clear: wolves kept the elk population in check.
Visitors to the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge will also learn that, in terms of competitor control, animals are not discretionary. If there is a threat to their food source, a predator will do what it takes to keep from starving. Coyotes present the biggest competition for food. With the decline in wolf populations, especially those out west, many more coyote pups were surviving. With increasing populations, the western coyote’s territories were getting smaller, so they began to move east. They moved either south of the Great Lakes or north, through Canada. Here they encountered the eastern Canadian wolves. Because of the limited wolf populations, it was not uncommon for wolves to mate with the western coyotes.
Those populations began to spill across the border into the Adirondack Park in the 1930s and 1940s. These coywolves are the coyotes that we see in the Adirondacks today.
Understanding the history and function of wolves in their natural habitat gives visitors a context for the environment in which these animals live – one in which people can start to appreciate the challenges the species faces and how wolves can act as natural balances, keeping key populations in check.
Alex Hall has a special relationship with the wolves at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, a connection that seems to run deeper than a typical human/animal bond. Having grown up at the refuge with education in the foreground, Alex understands the natural history of wolves and he understands how they act in the wild. And, even though he can’t speak with the wolves at the refuge like he can with another human, Alex grew up with the animals, raised them, and truly bonded with them. Over time, this personal connection with the wolves has evolved into trust and mutual respect, to the point where he feels that every time he is with the wolves, he becomes one of them. The wolves are kindred spirits; Alex calls them a brotherhood. While Alex is their trainer and he maintains his position at the top of their hierarchy.
Visitors to the wildlife refuge will often witness this very personal interaction between wolf and man. From walking with them, to roughhousing, to just lying together and enjoying an Adirondack sunset, Alex is able to interact with the wolves in a way that leaves many people in awe. The Halls, especially Alex, hope that seeing his bond with the wolves will help educate visitors and allow them to sympathize with wolves. Alex wants to help make people more aware of their surroundings; help them become more conscious of the natural world and wildlife that surrounds them. People tend to be very wary of wolves, and think that wolves pose a threat to humans. They are actually much more beneficial to the environment than many often know. As visitors begin to understand how wolves truly act in nature – learning that wolves do not exist to be resentful and create havoc in the world – they will be able to leave the refuge with a more realistic image of wolves in the wild, instead of the overly dramatized version of wolves that is so often portrayed in movies.
Just as the wolves continually learn from Alex, Alex has also taken lessons from the time he has spent with his wolves. Liv- ing at the refuge and working with the animals has made Alex more aware of the impact that humans have on the environment. While animals are not vengeful creatures, they deserve to have a voice. It is people like Alex who are speakers for the animals, and he has learned that while we are here on Earth, it is important to get more people thinking like caretakers and less like temporary inhabitants. The brotherhood Alex shares with his wolves has put him more in tune and respectful of nature, allowing his passion for being a guardian of the wild to shine through.
Learning from the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge
Along with the wolves representing apex predators, the other species at the refuge are indicator species: those that represent the health of the environment and show us, as humans, how well we are working as stewards. While there are many keystone predators in the wild, humans are the ultimate keystone predator. Our actions are making it di cult for the rest of the predators in the world to do their jobs effectively. Humans inevitably tend to introduce imbalance into ecosystems, so for the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge there is a heavy emphasis on educating visitors on what makes a healthy ecosystem, what the function of an indicator species is, and understanding how the human impact on the environment can Society’s perception of the inner workings of nature is often skewed by the way that it is portrayed in movies and various media channels. If there is one major takeaway from learning about the relationship that Alex has with the wolves, and from the way Steve and Wendy maintain the refuge, it’s that there is incredible value in getting to know a creature beyond the typical human/animal bond. From human impact to their roles in nature, once we start to see things from the perspective of an animal, that is when we can really begin to act as stewards of the land.LOCALadk is donating to the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge as part of their “Keeping It LOCAL” campaign, and so can you! To support the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, simply visit: www.adirondackwildlife.net/index.html