Werner Freund Wolf Research Paper
By Jennifer H. Swan and Marcus Klöckner, Stars and Stripes
Stripes European Travel, October 29, 2009
“In a sign of submission, an Arctic wolf pup licks German wolf researcher Werner Freund on the face while Freund visits with the animal in its enclosure at Wolfspark Werner Freund in Merzig, Germany.”
It’s clear who the dominant “wolf” is among the pack of hungry pups.
The one in charge lies on the ground, holding the slab of calf meat firmly in his teeth while the fair-coated Arctic canines tear off pieces of raw tendon and flesh. Between bites, they crawl playfully over his back all the while adhering to the group hierarchy, which means they don’t abscond with the meal, however tasty.
The alpha doesn’t eat. While he may smell like a wolf, howl and yelp like a wolf, and certainly demonstrates he can think like a wolf, the alpha is different in one very fundamental way: He’s a human named Werner Freund.
“When I am with the wolves, I become a wolf,” Freund says matter-of-factly. He is, as his book on wolf research is titled, Germany’s “wolf man.”
At 76, Freund is gray and grizzled like the creatures he has lived among for more than 30 years. Over the course of his lifetime, he has been many things, including a professional gardener, a German army sergeant, bear caretaker and world traveler.
His wolf man phase began later in life, five years after he settled in Merzig, Germany, in 1972. With land borrowed from the city, Freund and his wife, Erika, created a refuge for wolves in the neighboring Kammerforst forest. Wolfspark Werner Freund is currently home to more than 20 wolves from Europe, Siberia, Canada and elsewhere.
The wolves are acquired as cubs from zoos or animal parks, typically when they’re 10 to 14 days old. Freund, who’s raised more than 70 wolf pups, sequesters them from the public for six months, sleeping with them and feeding them by bottle every two hours until they’re ready for their first bites of meat. With such close interaction, the cubs think Freund is the she-wolf, or the alpha female of the pack. It’s a bond that lasts for the wolves’ lifetime and it’s why Freund can freely enter their territory and study their behavior up-close.
While humans may be able to train dogs, “you can’t domesticate a wolf,” Freund says. “I had to become a wolf” to be able to interact with them.
Freund says wolves, who live about six years in the wild, live longer at his center. One died there at age 17 this summer.
When Freund visits his wolves, he is meticulous about hygiene, a hard-earned lesson taught to him by the wolves.
One day he entered the territory of an alpha female Arctic wolf and her pack, and soon after went into another pack’s area, without showering. The dominant female in the second enclosure picked up “the smell of her opponent and suddenly she jumped high and bit me in the ear,” Freund recalls. “I had to fight with her and after the fight she came up to me and licked the blood dripping from my ear. That was a clear sign of her submission.”
Freund and his human assistants live in their own den on the park grounds, a cozy house where domestic cats have free rein and the wall decor in the living room reveals a lifetime of adventure and a love of all things wild.
Visitors may see the wolves for free — and perhaps catch a glimpse of the wolf man — during the park’s operating hours between sunup and sundown. Trails go past seven different fenced enclosures, inside of which like breeds of wolves live as packs. Though physically separate, the wolves often join one another in a chorus of spine-tingling howls that echo through the park. Visitors may even be lucky enough to spy Freund in the act. Howling, after all, is a form of bonding, Freund says.
Normally, visitors cannot mix with the wolves as Freund does. But there are exceptions.
On one day in late July, Freund invited a reporter to join him inside the Arctic pups’ enclosure. The opportunity would afford the chance to observe and photograph Freund and the wolves interacting up close.
Entering the wolves’ realm required a specific — and smelly — dress code. A sweater that held the wolves’ scent and had to be worn, as did tall rubber boots caked in mud, dried blood and who knows what else. The combination was a jolt to the human nose but a treat for the wolves. They only stopped licking the stranger’s boots when Freund brought out the main course, a chunk of raw beef.
As Freund held the meat for the dining wolves, the reporter shot photos, at one point lying nearly flat on the ground to get a good angle, figuring the wolves would pay no heed while eating. But curiosity got the best of some, and soon the wolves were walking over the reporter, licking her face and camera and trying to pull out her hair bands. They succeeded. Though clearly strong, the wolves remained playful and friendly and never aggressive.
That’s the side of wolves Freund wants the public to see, though from a more distant vantage. He is driven by a quest to give people a better understanding of the animals he loves so dearly.
“There is this image of the evil wolf but this is too far from reality,” he says. “Wolves kill in order to have something to eat, so do other animals.” Wolves, like people, are social creatures, Freund says.
His long-time assistant, Tatjana Schneider, adds: “Humans could learn a lot from wolves. They (wolves) stick together and try to survive.
Freund, she says, “wants to show and tell people about what the wolf really is, what it stands for.”
79-year-old Werner Freund has a unique gift. The ex-paratrooper and now wolf-researcher from Germany can get along with wolves so well, it’s almost like he’s a member of their pack. In fact, it’s been 40 long years since he started living among wolves and rearing them from pups at his ‘Wolfspark’ sanctuary , located in Merzig, in the German province of Saarland. The close relationship between Werner and his wolves is quite obvious from pictures of him leaning back on his haunches and howling, and of the wild beasts eating meat straight from his mouth.
Wolves are generally a feared species; come into close quarters and your chances of making it out alive are quite slim. But things are different in the case of Werner. It’s like they’ve accepted him as one of their own. When Werner is around, his wolves are actually playful, docile and submissive towards him. Perhaps it’s because he’s successfully asserted his dominance as the alpha male in the pack. The park is inhabited by wolves from six different packs around the world, including Siberian, Arctic, Canadian, European and Mongolian ones. They were mostly acquired as cubs from animal parks or zoos and hand-reared by Werner.
It may seem gross and unnecessary, but there’s a reason why Werner feeds the wolves with his mouth. The feeding routine is unique – he first howls, calling on his pack to come for the meat that he has procured. The raw meat comes from a steady supply of slaughtered deer that he keeps handy to feed his packs. The hungry wolves excitedly make their way, heeding to their leader’s calls. Werner makes sure that he sinks his teeth into the meat first, sealing his position as the dominant male each time – just like in the animal world where the alpha male always gets the first cut. The hungry wolves wait and watch obediently and proceed to snack on the raw meat only once he permits them to.
Photo: Michael Schönberger
Feeding first is the only way that Werner can make sure he maintains the respect of the pack. And it works. When the wolves are not feeding, they play around with him and joyfully lick his face as a sign of subservience and acknowledgement. These gestures sometimes hurt Warner, as the wolves show their delight by violently poking their muzzles into the corners of his mouth. Sounds scary, but it’s nothing more than a rough greeting. Werner has scars, pockmarks, and sometimes even comes away with a black eye after these encounters, but he says the intimacy is needed to become one with the pack. “If I didn’t live such a wolf-like life, I’d never be able to connect with the wolves,” he says. In fact, he is constantly acting the part. “I noticed early-on that dominant wolves behave arrogantly towards the rest. As a human, I’m not arrogant, but as a wolf I am. It’s the only way I can maintain my position at the head of the pack. So Werner will get down on all fours, growl at a threatening wolf, look away nonchalantly when a challenger approaches, and sometimes even resort to biting.
Photo: Michael Schönberger
The wolf that Werner is always wary of is the one directly beneath him in the hierarchy. Since wolf packs constantly shift the position of power, he needs to make sure he is not attacked if there are changes in the ranking order. So while he might be comfortable enough to take a midday snooze with his furry companions, he must always be careful to notice even slight signals that might warn of a change in his position. After all, in the eyes of the pack he is still an outsider, but with the exclusive place above the alpha male. Even so, Werner does not meddle in a pack’s internal squabbles. “When I enter their fenced-in territory, I only go to the alpha wolf or his mate,” he says. “If I go to the others, it could be read as an attack. I don’t want to challenge their hierarchies. What they do is their business and I try not to get involved in their fights. If two wolves are having it out, I may go between them if it gets too rough. But I try not to, since I risk being attacked.”
Werner established the snowy, 25-acre wolf sanctuary in 1972, and has raised more than 70 animals since then. Currently, there are about 29 of them at Wolfspark. There’s a video that shows Werner playing around with his wolves and it’s sweet to see how well humans and animals can really get along. If you thought it was only in the movies that wolf-men transformed into wolves, well, Werner is the perfect example it can happen in real life (minus the CGI effects, of course).. “Yes, I’m an animal,” he says quite cheerfully. “When I’m not with the wolves, of course I’m human; but with the wolves, I’m a wolf.”