Five abandoned wolf pups were saved from the front lines of a massive forest fire burning in Alaska, thanks to the sharp eye of a Haines Junction firefighter.
Mark Fletcher is one of two Yukon firefighters who’s been helping for the past two weeks fight a fire that’s burned more than 775 square kilometres on the Kenai Peninsula.
Last Tuesday Fletcher was doing an equipment exchange near the fire line on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land when he spotted a black ball of fluff with two eyes staring up at him.
“He was right on the lip of all the diggings of the den. He was just a tiny black puppy just standing there in the middle of nowhere,” Fletcher said.
“He” turned out to be a she – a tiny wolf pup.
“It was an absolutely amazing experience,” Fletcher said. “In the end I kind of felt that maybe she was raising the flag, trying to alert me to a problem.”
The two spent five minutes sitting next to each other before the pup went back into the den.
It was clear the mother was not coming back, said Fletcher. The area had been damaged by fire, walked on by hundreds of people and driven on by heavy machinery used to fight the flames.
By the next day, a local biologist had confirmed the den was abandoned.
One of the smaller firefighters working in the area volunteered to go inside to investigate.
As Fletcher tells it, the man was so deep in the hole all that was visible were his boots.
His instructions were to wiggle his toes anytime he needed to be pulled up.
With each wiggle the firefighter brought a wolf pup out of the den. In total five were rescued, three males and two females. A sixth was found dead inside.
The siblings were rushed to the Alaska Zoo. A porcupine had taken up residence in the den and the pups had been stuck with dozens of quills. Many of the wounds had become infected.
“They were dehydrated, they’d been without their mother for a couple days so they were about 20 per cent low in body weight,” said zoo executive director Pat Lampi.
Lampi estimates the pups are about two weeks old – they had just opened their eyes.
They’re mostly in good health now, after some TLC, he said. They are all on antibiotics to prevent infections and veterinarians are keeping a close watch for quills that may have migrated into their tiny bodies.
“One took one of the quills right behind the eye, so it’s still questionable whether its going to have vision in that eye or not,” Lampi said.
Since news of the rescue broke, sanctuaries and zoos from around North America have been offering the pups new homes.
They would never survive in the wild because of their extremely young age, Lampi said.
“The time it takes for them to get all the care that they need right now, they very easily imprinted on people,” he said.
The Alaska Fish and Game Department has chosen the Minnesota Zoo to be the pups’ new home once they’re healthy enough to travel together.
“They are kind of a family unit, and as long as they are all together, any place will probably be home to them,” Lampi said.
There is no rush to move them, and nothing will happen until the pups get a clean bill of health, he said.
This week, Fletcher is heading back to the Yukon – but not before he stops by the Alaska Zoo to check in on the tiny wolf that first caught his eye.
“She’s my buddy now,” he laughed.
The firefighters who came to the rescue of the wolf and her brothers and sisters have named her Gannett, after the Gannett Glacier Fire Crew that worked on the team.
“I think their fate was sealed when that little one came out and said, ‘Hey man, we’ve got a little problem here if you’d like to help,” Fletcher said.
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