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Close-up of a wolf's eyes

To The Wolves

Search for the origin of dogs puts students face to face with the species’ wild ancestors

As the bus turns down the winding gravel driveway, the haunting sound of howling—unsettlingly close—welcomes 35 Suffolk University freshmen to Wolf Hollow.

Greeting buses is one of the only times the seven wolves at the Ipswich, Massachusetts, sanctuary reliably howl as a group, says facility director Zee Soffron.

The pack used to respond to the calls of educational visitors, but that stopped with the passing of the group’s dominant male a few years ago. This complex social behavior is part of what intrigues researchers like Suffolk University Associate Professor and Biology Chair Lauren Nolfo-Clements.

Her course, Fido the Friendly Wolf: A Natural History of Dogs, tracks the evolution of canines through domestication — exploring how they went from pack hunters to pugs.

It’s part of the Seminar for Freshmen series of courses that offer new students unique opportunities to immerse themselves in the college experience by exploring exciting, provocative, or timely topics in-depth. Seminars encourage students to engage with the world outside the classroom, from the streets of Boston’s Beacon Hill to the wild acres of Wolf Hollow.

Lauren Nolfo-Clements, Biology Chair talking to camera

The very evolutionary trajectory of species is altered by the presence of humans and the changes that we make in the environment.

– Lauren Nolfo-Clements, Biology Chair

Wolf howling

Instinct or Intent?
Decoding Canine Communication

“My students go to Wolf Hollow at the beginning of the class to get first-hand field experience,” says Nolfo-Clements.“I want them to see that though dogs share many physical characteristics and some instincts with wolves, their natural behaviors have been modified to get along with humans.”

The topic hits home for psychology major Sophie Mailhot:

“We rescued our dog from a shelter and he had weird behaviors. We wondered if he was abused in his past home. I saw this course and I thought maybe I could learn a bit more about my dog.”

Seeing wolves up close for the first time and learning more about their complicated pack structure and nuanced communication was eye-opening for Mailhot.

“In psychology, you learn a lot about the mind, so it’s really interesting to learn about wolves’ minds, too,” she says. “Unlike dogs, wolves don’t necessarily just attack or bite. One of the trainers said they can give twelve signals before they will attack somebody. They’re going to warn you.”

Nicholas Nunez, Class of 2021, speaking to the camera

Certain states are allowing people to kill wolves without regard to the environment, and wolves are a keystone species. As a law major I could help the court understand what killing a wolf really means to their state and that it would be detrimental in most cases.

– Nicholas Nunez, Class of 2021

Wolf staring just off camera

Where Wolves (And We) Fit In

Fighting back against the popular image of wolves as vicious man-eaters is an important part of Wolf Hollow’s educational mission. It’s also key to understanding how wolves fit into the larger ecosystem and how human behavior impacts the species.

The Seminar for Freshmen courses attract students from all majors, allowing discussions to draw on a wide range of disciplines and interests. The experience shifted freshman law major Nicholas Nunez’s perspective in unexpected ways.

Nunez signed up for Nolfo-Clements’ class on a whim, he says. In fact, he’s never even had a dog. But he reasoned that college is for taking chances and trying new things.

Arriving at the sanctuary, Nunez took comfort in the double fences separating him from the wild creatures — but as he learned more about their critical role in the environment and how they’re threatened by various laws, Nunez began to see a part he might play in the wolves’ story.

After teaching the course for a few years Nolfo-Clements is prepared for the visit’s transformative effect on students. She lives for those moments when students see their readings come to life.

“Part of [the reason for] becoming a professor is that you want to educate students and give them the chance to change the world,” says Nolfo-Clements. “I want my students to truly understand that humans are having an impact and to figure out how we can either minimize it or make the impact that we’re having positive for the other species that share our environment.”

Sophie Mailhot, Class of 2021 talking to camera

Seeing a wolf for the first time, that’s crazy and it’s so different. I’m definitely taking away that you need to research things and look more before you just make your judgment.

– Sophie Mailhot, Class of 2021

White wolf laying down staring at camera

Photos courtesy of Wolf Hollow, Ipswich, Mass.

Suffolk University would like to thank Wolf Hollow for helping us share this Suffolk Experience