May 20, 2022

Getting the boot: Arctic wolves almost trip up university prof

Susan Kutz nearly loses her footwear to a playful pack of curious intruders
Dr. Kutz
Susan Kutz out in the Arctic collecting samples in her Muck boots, during trip where she became friendly with the wolf locals. Courtesy Susan Kutz

What started off as an already unusual research trek into the Arctic for Dr. Susan Kutz, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, ended with her being on the receiving end of a four-legged surprise. And nearly minus one piece of footwear.

“I love the Arctic, the animals and ecosystems and the Arctic peoples,” says Kutz, DVM, PhD, and Canada Research Chair in Arctic One Health. “I work closely with the local communities to bridge together traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge … (to better) understand the ecosystem and do a better job at wildlife conservation.”

While most of Kutz’s research centres on working with Inuit communities and subsistence harvesters in studying the ecology and effects of disease in Arctic wildlife, on her latest trip to the high Arctic of Nunavut, she had first-hand experience of wolf-pack behaviours that ended up being a little too close for comfort.

'Interesting' text starts the adventure

In August 2021, Kutz received an interesting text message from a filmographer who was on Ellesmere Island working on a project about wolves. The text informed her that, while filming, the crew noticed what seemed to be a disease affecting the muskoxen population. 

As ecology and disease is the focus of her research, Kutz knew immediately she had to get involved. Being no stranger to the rough and harsh conditions the tundra can dish out, she knew exactly what to pack, including a pair of her brand-new Muck boots (a brand of boot designed to handle rough conditions).

“The tundra can be dry, it can be wet, it can be cold, and you need something better than your regular boot,” notes Kutz of her choice of footwear. 

Curious visitors make things interesting

Once Kutz and her research partner made it to the research camp, which had been set up on the Fosheim Peninsula in central Ellesmere Island, she quickly settled in to set herself up for a research expedition the next day.

wolf looking in tent

The image Susan Kutz took when she realized the wolves had come to visit.

Susan Kutz

“I was sitting in my tent,” recalls Kutz. “I looked off to my side and I see this silhouette through the side, and it was like Beauty and the Beast — you know when you get to see the silhouette of the beast — and then it’s like, ‘Oh! That’s a wolf!’ And then I looked forward and there was another wolf, no more than a metre away, staring right in at me through the screen door.” 

Quickly realizing what was happening outside her tent, the professor of ecosystem and public health called for her partner, excited to see no less than seven wolves who had come to investigate. At this point, Beauty and the Beast turned into something out of Never Cry Wolf.

Members of the crew yelled at the wolves and tried to drive the pack out of the camp, which was successful — but then Kutz realized one of the animals had adopted one of her Muck boots as its new toy.

Like a dog with a bone

“I hollered, ‘Wait, stop! That’s my boot!’ — because you need those boots,” says Kutz. Frantic, she tried to find other footwear to put on to go after the wolf, but one of the crew members hopped onto a quad bike to chase after the furry thief, who discovered a new game — dropping the boot, only to tease its pursuer.

“Just like a dog with a bone playing keep away, every time that the quad got too close to the dropped boot, they’d pick it up again,” Kutz says.

The chase finally ended when the crew member was able to drive the quad over top of the boot to keep it away from the playful pack. However, the wolves seemed less than enthused by this turn of events, surrounding the quad until a second crew member shooed them away. Once the boot/chew toy was finally returned, it was worse for wear, but Kutz managed to salvage it by duct-taping it back together.

Kutz’s close call hasn’t deterred her from exploring the Arctic. Indeed, she will be heading back to Ellesmere this summer to further investigate the evolving muskox issue. As well as collaborating with Nunavut Government biologists and connecting with communities about this concern, Kutz has gotten a new pair of Muck boots, ones not chewed by wolves, to take with her. 

“Despite the damage to the boot, it was incredible to experience the personalities and playful demeanours, and a ‘day in the life’ of these magnificent creatures,” says Kutz.