How to Get Kissed by a Wolf in Northern Norway by Emma Yardley
TROMS, NORWAY — When the wolves at Polar Park Arctic Wildlife Centre want to say hello, they do it by licking your face.
“They also want to be inside your mouth,” explains Stig Sletten, the park’s head animal keeper. “You don’t have to open your mouth, but they are more interested in people who do.”
Sletten is preparing a group of visitors to go nose-to-nose with a pack of five young wolves just outside the recently opened Wolf Lodge, a luxury six-bedroom retreat sitting in the centre of a specially designed 20,000-square-metre enclosure at Polar Park, a sprawling 110 hectares of fenced wilderness in northern Norway’s Troms county.
Bragge, Peder, Frigg, Marit and Froya — named after Norse deities — are beautiful, healthy 2-year-old grey wolf siblings that began their human socialization process with Sletten and four other animal experts as pups, before their eyes had even opened.
“We do it to make sure the wolves are not scared of people, because it’s the animal that’s the most fearful of practically everything,” says Emilie Ehrhardt, who has worked with this pack since they were seven days old. “It’s for their safety that we do this, so that they will thrive in here.”
Helping grey wolves thrive is massively important, given there are only about 65 of them left in the wild in Norway. The young pack at Polar Park is the third group to be raised by humans since Sletten left his army career in 2008 to start the wolf socialization programme from scratch. His family has farmed in the area for generations, and he worked at the park when it first opened in 1994.
“We don’t have any schooling in Norway where we learn about these predators that we have up here,” says Sletten. “But people that have grown up on the farm, their feet are well on the ground with their thinking, their way of behaving with animals.”
Behaviour analysis is a big part of Sletten’s job, as demonstrated during a tour of the rest of the park.
Polar Park, the world’s northernmost animal park located around 200 kilometres south of Tromso, has homes for Norway’s arctic predators (lynx, wolverines, brown bears and arctic fox), many of which have been hunted to the brink of extinction, as well as their prey (reindeer, muskox, deer and moose). With only 12 pens, the animals’ surroundings are spacious and kept as natural as possible.
As he introduces us to Salt and Pepper, a pair of brown bears (Salt is an albino, hence the name), and later to a lynx named Josephine, Sletten silently watches our interactions with the animals… and with each other.
He’s seeking any traits that the wolves might also take note of — and possibly take advantage of.
Predictably, there are many rules we must be aware of before interacting with a pack of predators, even socialized ones: no sudden movements, no wool or feather jackets, no shouting, no pregnancies, no major health problems.
When it comes time to meet them, one member of the group has to stay behind. She was limping after recent knee surgery, and the wolves had noticed.
“They were probably thinking ‘Please let her in! Please let her in!’” says Sletten. “But we have to take care of the safety for you and the wolves.”
The rest of us follow Ehrhardt and Sletten down a narrow tunnel, enter the enclosure and form a semi-circle on a rocky platform. The pack immediately comes running over, enthusiastically weaving in and out, knocking against our limbs.
“You want to try and keep them on the ground,” instructs Sletten, showing us how to block their jumps with our arms. “If you don’t do it, they can scratch you with their claws. And if they do get you, don’t be afraid, they are not werewolves!”
True, but they’re still wolves, centimetres away from us with their thick calico fur and luminous yellow eyes.
Once the pack’s initial excitement wanes, Sletten tells us we can kneel if we want the wolves to come closer: “Not moving too much, sit still and relax, relax, relax… if you are more relaxed, the more comfortable they are.”
Bragge, the alpha male, appears directly in front of me and covers my face in long, wet licks. Wanting to make a good impression, I open my mouth a little; instantly, he sticks his tongue inside and gives a few good swipes.
There is a strange, adrenaline-fuelled calm that comes over you when tongue-to-tongue with a massive carnivorous creature. But thanks to the guidance from Sletten and Ehrhardt, there is no panic — just disbelief and gratitude.
“We want them to be relaxed and calm…we are trying to associate people to wolves in a positive way the whole time,” says Sletten. “We were not one of the hierarchy with the wolf, they just accept us inside their territory as long as we do the right things.”
It looks like everyone is doing the right things at Polar Park.
All fees at Wolf Lodge go directly towards maintaining the park and high quality of life for its animal inhabitants.
More info: polarpark.no
More info: polarpark.no