Kim Kortekaas, Msc
My name is Kim Kortekaas and I am the first PhD-student of the WSC. I come from the Netherlands where I studied Biology at the Wageningen University and earned my degree in behavioural ecology. For me it was quite a change to be in Ernstbrunn and to work hands-on with the animals of the WSC. During my master degree I did quite some field work, studying giraffe and antelope species, such as impala, in South-Africa, and also studying buzzards in Cameroon, but I had never worked with captive animals before. So, I went from waking up from lion roaring in Africa to wolf howling in Ernstbrunn. I used to love Tatonga’s howling; it was very special and I was always touched when I heard her, but unfortunately she is no longer with us.
For my PhD-project I study the physiological response of wolves and dogs to different situations, e.g. treadmill training, leash walk. As an adaptation to the human-dominated environment, domesticated animals, such as the dogs, are expected to have a lower stress response than their wild ancestors. The stress responsiveness of animals can be estimated via physiological measurements, such heart rate and heart rate variability. However, only a few studies have compared the ability to cope with a stressor in wolves and dogs. Hence, I study the stress reaction, i.e. arousal, of our wolves and dogs in several experimental situations. Here you can find more information about my project at the WSC.
So, when I started my PhD, my first goal was to find a method to non-invasively measure heart rate in our wolves and dogs. I played around with a human heart rate monitor consisting of a chest belt and watch, i.e. I tried out different conductive mediums (e.g. water, electrode gel, alcohol) and I also tried to optimize the application of the heart rate monitor to the animals. My first “test” subjects were actually the pet dogs around the WSC; I still have the recordings from walks with those dogs. Then, when the system functioned on them, we tried it on the wolves and pack dogs. All in all, it took me 6 months to make the heart rate monitor to work, but then I was able to start the first experiments.
A small part of my PhD also consists of the training of our wolves and dogs to use the treadmill. The treadmill at the WSC is the second largest in world (2.5 x 10 meters). At the moment, only single wolves and dogs are able to use the treadmill. I thought the training would take about 6 months in total per animal; however, some animals needed up to 3 years to learn this task. Hence, I have collected data on the training progress of the animals and how they respond physiologically to the training (heart rate), but have not been able to carry out other experiments. In the future, we plan to study the influence of social relationships on joint running, i.e. do I run with a partner I don’t like? But, we will also look at the energetics of running, i.e. how much energy do I spend when running?
My work at the WSC is more than just my project. It is actually very different from day to day. One day I’ll be training wolves or dog to run on the treadmill. The next day I’ll be advising a student on how best to write a research proposal. In between there are always a millions small jobs to do: from giving a tour to visiting researchers to feeding the wolves, and if I am very lucky, take care of our wolf puppies.