The wolverine has a reputation.
“He is one of the most powerful, thievish, daring, and efficient killing machines known to man,” writes Mark Allardyce in Wolverine: A Look into the Devil’s Eyes. The creature’s English name derives from the word wolver, or “wolf-like.” Its scientific label, Gulo gulo, comes from the Latin for “glutton.” It has been known to eat its victims—which include everything from deer and sheep to full-grown caribou—bones, teeth, and all. The animal has been called the hyena of the north. When you type “Can a wolverine” into Google, the search engine offers “kill a polar bear?”
It’s no surprise, then, that Mike Miller’s proposal to train wolverines to search for—and help rescue—avalanche survivors has raised some eyebrows around his corner of Alaska, near Anchorage.
“New ideas normally do sound ridiculous,” Miller says from his office at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, about an hour south of Anchorage in a valley popular with backcountry adventurers. The organization, which Miller founded two decades ago, houses hundreds of displaced or orphaned animals and has worked on big projects like reintroducing the Wood Bison to the Alaskan wilderness and repatriating condors from the San Diego Zoo. But what’s got Miller excited these days is training and breeding Kayla and Kasper, the two wolverines he’s recently acquired.
“Anything you can train a dog to do, you can train a wolverine to do, five times quicker,” Miller says.
Miller is fully aware that his plan sounds a little ridiculous. When I emailed him to ask about his idea, he felt compelled to defend it preemptively. “One hundred years ago, people who suggested using dogs for avalanche victim search were thought to be crazy,” he wrote. “I hope your readers understand that we are professional and serious.”
On the phone, Miller’s pitch is compelling. Right now, avalanche search and rescue or recovery is carried out by dogs—usually shepherds or retrievers—who walk the avalanche site with trainers, hectare by hectare, hunting for the scent of buried humans. Wolverines, Miller says, were born to do this; smelling a creature 20 feet below the snow is instinctive for them. They’re known to run along avalanche lines searching for dinner among the animals buried deep in the slide. The squat, bear-like member of the weasel family is famed for powering up difficult terrain that would require professional climbing equipment for humans.
“One hundred years ago people who suggested using dogs for avalanche victim search were thought to be crazy,” Miller wrote.
Despite the animal’s ferocious distinction, training a wolverine is not as outlandish as it may sound. There is a small fraternity of individuals who have successfully raised wolverines in captivity. Steve Kroschel, a prolific wildlife filmmaker, runs the Kroschel Wildlife Center in Haines, Alaska. He’s been raising wolverines for 35 years. He has home videos of playing with the animals: they jump on his back; they somersault through the snow; they chase Kroschel around like golden retrievers. “They’re very, very playful, and they have a great sense of humor,” Kroschel says. “They’re loyal. Once they know you well, it sticks—they’re kind to you.”
If anyone has been working to rehabilitate the wolverine’s image, it’s Kroschel. In 1991, he took a couple down to Burbank for a taping of "The Tonight Show," much to Johnny Carson’s discomfort on screen. “The wolverines did just fine,” Kroschel says. Then he brought out wolverine cubs on "The Today Show" with Katie Couric, and PBS and National Geographic came calling, asking to feature his wolverines in documentaries on the animal. “It’s a media revelation,” he says.
Kroschel has Miller’s female wolverine, Kayla, at his center right now to hopefully breed with one his trained males. (It is notoriously difficult to convince wolverines to breed in captivity, Kroschel and others say.) He’s working closely with Chandelle Cotter, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center’s animal behaviorist and training advisor. Cotter, who has experience training everything from black bears to giraffes, says the experience has been eye opening.
“When Mike first approached me with the idea I kind of giggled,” Cotter says. “But I thought about it more—and why not? There are species being used across the board for different things,” from training rats to hunt for landmines in Cambodia to teaching dogs to sniff for cancer.
Cotter says that only the wolverines born in captivity and raised with humans are up for the task of search and rescue. She says that with a program based on operant conditioning—i.e., positive reinforcement in the form of snacks for good behavior—they could be up and running in a few years’ time. “I have so much admiration and respect for the people who do search and recovery,” she says. “All we want to do, if this is a possibility, is give them another tool.”
Kroschel is confident, too. A few years ago, he simulated a wolverine avalanche rescue for a special on the National Geographic channel. He buried the show’s host in a few feet of snow, then sent his wolverine after the “victim.” Without any prior training, Jasper, the wolverine, dug the host out. (His natural instinct to dig up carcasses and his predilection toward humans, instilled from the hours Kroschel spent bottle-feeding him as a kit, both apparently kicked in.) “To train a wolverine to find a victim in an avalanche is not a big a stretch at all, Kroschel says. “Train them a couple times with a scent from a coat or somebody and they’ll dig it up. They’re excellent diggers—no dog can dig as fast as wolverine. And they’re easily leash-trained. Put them in the helicopter, they’ll fly right out [to the avalanche site.]” (Kroschel says his wolverines love helicopter flights.)
Miller and Cotter say their wolverines won’t do any digging—they’ll just be employed for their powerful olfactory system and ability to navigate harsh terrain. The center has been in close contact with the state Fish and Game department and employees there are “looking on in with interest.” (The department is already well aware that the wolverine has a bad wrap and, Miller says, is staffed with a few wolverine enthusiasts.) But not everyone is on board with the idea.
“Given the fear the public has of wolverines and the belief they are more aggressive than bears, I’m not sure this idea will be well-received by the public,” Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Tim DeSpain told Alaska Dispatch News.
Miller concedes that getting the public behind the idea won’t be a cakewalk. “They only think it’s impossible because of the reputation wolverines have,” he says. In the future, it seems, the most difficult part of his plan may not be training the wolverines, but instead convincing humans to reevaluate Alaska’s cuddliest “killing machine.”