WSC celebrates triumphant transition

Photos by Ryan Howard
 Wildlife Science Center Executive Director Peggy Callahan is greeted by a litter of friendly wolf pups as she makes her rounds at WSC’s new home in Linwood.

Peggy Callahan is all about the animals, but if you squint, you can see a hint of personal pride as she surveys the Wildlife Science Center’s new digs.

“So many people counted us out,” the center’s executive director said.

She’s referring to WSC’s year-and-a-half moving process from its old site – a small parcel of Department of Natural Resources land carved out of the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area in Columbus – to a new, 165-acre facility owned by WSC in Linwood (22830 Sunrise Road NE). Though the center has long owned the Linwood property, it didn’t have the funds ready for a move – until, that is, the move became necessary when the DNR told the center in January 2016 it was terminating its lease due to some alleged lease violations.

Ultimately, the DNR allowed WSC to stay on the property through the end of its lease this spring, but center staff and community volunteers sprung into action to supply the finances, equipment and labor to move staff operations and a cadre of roughly 100 animals – wolves, bears, raccoons and cougars among them – to the new location. Many people thought the center had shut down after the lease termination notification, said Callahan, and still others thought there was no way the center could get enough money or would have enough time to successfully complete the move.

Of particular concern were the enclosures for the various fauna; since the animals always needed somewhere to stay, their new enclosures needed to be built before the old ones could be taken down. Worse still, when WSC staff tried to recover some of its old enclosures after many of the animals had been moved in March, much of the facility was frozen in place by the cold temperatures. Though staff was able to move all of the animals and the essential equipment from the property by 10 minutes to midnight on March 31, according to Callahan, there are still what she estimated as “thousands of dollars worth” of WSC equipment at the old site, which she said she hopes the DNR will allow her to get.

New enclosures afford much more room to the center’s wildlife.

Doubters aside, however, the center made it, a fact that Callahan attributed to a hard-working staff and a fleet of committed volunteers, some of whom took ample time off from work to provide hard labor over last summer and this spring.

“We’ve always had a tremendous outpouring of help,” she said. “People just really rallied.”

Today, 2 1/2 months after WSC’s official move-in date, the center is fully operational, though still lacking a few finishing touches that will make the facility more welcoming and usable to guests and animals alike. Callahan hopes for road materials to smooth out the bumpy dirt driving path to the enclosures, as well as some trees, canvas and man-made structures to provide shade to the animals. The animals’ enclosures are much bigger, allowing more space for exercise, play and roaming, but the natural tree cover that was ample at the Columbus site no longer exists.

“We need cover,” Callahan said, adding that WSC will soon be launching a Shade for the Animals funding campaign.

Another aspect of the center that’s not quite done is the education building. Though the building space for the center overall has dramatically increased, now including a living area and community kitchen for interns and long-term visitors as well as a cabin for overnight staff and visiting researchers, the center’s old education building is currently sitting on a trailer in the center’s front yard, awaiting a move further back on the property near the enclosures, where it will be grafted onto a new structure WSC plans to build.

Though Callahan always keeps an eye on what’s next, she’s also still reveling in the blessing of the new – and much more spacious – location.

“The enclosures are much larger, much more spacious,” she said. “The animals are really comfortable in them.”

She’s also excited about new programming that the expanded area can provide, from individually tailored programs to bigger public events to more studies – currently, WSC is working with researchers on studies regarding a wolf contraception and the stress effects of being raised in captivity, among other projects.

“There’s a lot of stuff that we can do on our own property that we couldn’t do on state land,” she remarked.

Happy as she is with the new facility, Callahan’s mind is always on the work. She wants to get signs up at the new place so people can easily find the new center, and she’s excited to line up more visiting groups. WSC held its first tour of the new facility April 1, just hours after moving out of the old site, and in between planning for the future, Callahan and the rest of the staff are still laboring hard on the day-to-day operations. She’s even taking turns with some of the other staff sleeping in the center’s baby wolf enclosure to monitor the pups and their irregular sleep schedules overnight. Every now and then, she or another staffer will be awoken at 2 a.m. by a dog pile.

“Our hair in the morning, it’s like the ’80s,” laughed animal care coordinator Roberta Ryan, who trades sleeping duties with Callahan.

With all that’s on her plate, one could forgive Callahan for living in the moment, but she’s given a bit of thought to what she sees the center growing into in the future. Once the buildings are all built and the shade is in place and the facility is a bit more user-friendly, she hopes to increase the staff and line up more studies.

Callahan displays a baby fox birthed at the center as part of a study, one of many conducted at WSC with participating educational and animal organizations.

The enclosures are a lot larger than they used to be. Does she want WSC to bring in more animals?

“I don’t want to get involved with mission creep,” she said. After thinking about it for a minute, she remarked that the center could use an ungulate – perhaps an elk – to help educate visitors about another class of wildlife.

She paused again.

“Grizzly bears,” she added, resolutely. “I want grizzlies one day.”

The center is still offering public tours on Saturdays as well as individually arranged tours by appointment. It’s also hosting educational camps for adults and kids. Call 651-464-3993 for information about visiting the center or volunteering.