Revealed: the real lives of wolves, foxes

Keepers at Shanghai Zoo share some interesting behind-the-scene stories about the alpha wolf's persistence in love, the fennec fox's trick and the maned wolf's appetite for fruits.


In the Zoo

This is a series in collaboration with Shanghai Zoo, profiling the residents at the zoo and the behind-the-scenes stories shared by zookeepers.  

Domestic dogs descended from wolves about 10,000 years ago. It was the first species to be domesticated by humans, and today they are cheerful pets and favorite assistants.

The biological family Canidae includes domestic dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes, jackals and other species that look like dogs. In the Year of the Dog, the canine friends at Shanghai Zoo are getting a little more attention and love from the visitors.

This week, the keepers at Shanghai Zoo have shared some interesting behind-the-scene stories about the alpha wolf’s persistence in love, the fennec fox’s trick and the maned wolf’s appetite for fruits.

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A pack of wolves at Shanghai Zoo. The wolf pack has a strict hierarchy as one must be dominated by an alpha male. — Wang Rongjiang

The wolf pack

When wolves were first introduced to Shanghai Zoo, they came from different places, and fights were inevitable, as a wolf pack must be dominated by an alpha male.

Huang Weirong spent more than a decade tending the sometimes fierce animals:

“One time we had five wolves from one zoo and one from the other placed together. The five wolves chased that one to beat him; that wolf first ran from the fight, which was useless, so he fought back and cornered the other five wolves. That’s an alpha wolf.”

That wolf wasn’t just fighting for the dominant position in the pack; he had his eye on a female wolf.

“Wolves are very sentimental and emotional animals. That alpha wolf kept running to the female that we isolated. He was very persistent and eventually got bitten,” said Huang.

Trying to merge the wolves from different places into one pack was not quite feasible, so the zoo waited till they bred a younger generation of wolves that grew up together.

The wolf pack has a strict hierarchy. The higher-ranking wolves always eat first. In winter, they usually eat more lamb, and in summer, veal.

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A wolf rests in his enclosure at Shanghai Zoo.

Huang is called “the king of wolves” by his colleagues, and it’s for good reason.

The wolves love digging into the ground, especially during breeding season as they hide the cubs deep inside.

But it’s a big problem in the zoo, as the wolves can potentially dig outside the enclosure and the keepers can not easily monitor the cubs.

“They are very smart animals, they know who’s the keeper in charge and who’s here to help. When I was around, they had very good behavior, and when I took days off, they immediately started messing around, like digging holes.

“The wolves knew that’s not the right thing to do, so they didn’t do it in front of me,” said Huang, who secured his status when the wolves were still young.

When he went in to feed them or clean the area, he figured out the alpha wolf in the pack and stared it down. 

His colleague Zhang Jiachen is now tending the pack, which has 12 members. “I’ve been taking care of them for two years now. They are not afraid of me, but I’m scared of the alpha wolf. I can’t go in there alone, but Huang could,” said Zhang.

The wolves are still a little scared of Huang, as they have very good memories, but not as much as before.

The keepers can not make direct contact with the wolves after they turn 6 months old, and they reach adulthood at age 3.

“The wolves are evil yet smart, audacious yet prudent, and also very brutal creatures,” said Zhang.

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Fennec foxes are adored by people for their lovely appearance: small body, exceptionally large ears.

The fox with big ears

Fennec foxes are adored by people for their lovely appearance: small body, exceptionally large ears.

Chen Gang has been taking care of the seven fennec foxes at Shanghai Zoo since 2015, five females and two males. The tiny creatures’ diet includes cooked beef, apples and cooked egg yolk.

Now, in breeding season, there is drama and tension in the group.

“They are quite serious about love and relationships. One female was in heat recently. There was one male quite close to her, while another only came to mate. The two males then fought each other,” Chen recounted.

The foxes mate for life in the wild. They also become more aggressive and violent in the breeding season.

Ti Gong

Chen Gang introduces fennec foxes to visitors at Shanghai Zoo.

Although the foxes know him very well, they are still quite arrogant. 

Chen has hung a hammock for the foxes, which he bought online. Yet when the keepers stand next to the hammock, the foxes would “walk straight away with a quite scornful look,” he said. “But if visitors are here, they stay.”

The fennec foxes have also picked up tricks.

“They sometimes bring back bottle caps, throw them in the air and catch them with their mouth. They do the same thing with cooked egg yolk, and two foxes are really good at this trick,” Chen said.

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The maned wolves have a more balanced diet than other meat-loving carnivores.

The maned wolf

Most wolves, foxes and dogs are carnivores who wouldn’t refuse a big feast of meat. But not the maned wolves, who eat a more balanced diet.

The largest canid in South America, the maned wolf is the only species in the genus Chrysocyon. They prey on small- and medium-sized animals especially rodents, as well as eating a large amount of vegetables and fruits. In their natural habitat, they love wolf apple. In the zoo, they eat apples, kiwi fruit and more in addition to some meat and kibble, as a meat-heavy diet is not healthy.



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