Disclaimer: The following content is from an article in the December 1998 issue of Weird and Strange Rhode Island.
In the late 1950’s, the Slater Park Zoo in Pawtucket Rhode Island had traded some of their deer for exotic animals such as a lion, a baboon, two Barbary Sheep, several monkeys, a leopard, and an Arctic Wolf. A series of concrete-block shelters with fenced runs was constructed to house the new arrivals, which was considered acceptable housing at the time they were built. Although the zoo had been successful before the trade, its success, along with its popularity, had noticeably skyrocketed after the trade, which would continue in the years following.
However, the zoo started to decline in 1979 due to waning interest and signs of this began to show. Those who have visited the zoo at the time reported seeing dirty and poorly rearranged exhibits that involved putting predatory animals next to prey. The zoo had addressed these issues and tried to fix them, but it wasn’t enough to remedy the declining interest and by the early 1980’s, the zoo was in financial trouble. To cut down on operating costs, several employees, including groundskeepers, were laid off. Eventually, three of the zoo’s animals (including a black bear, a lion, and a bull) were sold off to other zoos for $100,000 each. The zoo would soon be dealt another blow when, in the late 1980’s, the television show 60 Minutes had named Slater Park Zoo one of the worst zoos in America due to evidence of egregious animal abuse, especially regarding Fanny the elephant, who was kept in a tiny enclosure and chained up.
By December of 1990, interest in the zoo had sharply declined and it was in even deeper financial trouble. Because of this, the zoo was forced to sell off several more animals, including two horses, a leopard, a polar bear, two black bear cubs, an Arctic Wolf and her three pups. According to a former employee of the Slater Park Zoo, when the wolves were getting ready to be transported, one of the pups had escaped. Efforts to find and bring the pup back had been made but yielded no success.
Beginning in April of 1991 however, reports of a white wolf had sprung up in Pawtucket and nearby cities. One of these accounts was made by a mother, who was attacked by the wolf while biking in a local park with her son. There had also been accounts of pets being attacked and in some cases, killed by this wolf. Because of these reports, the Slater Park Zoo strongly encouraged communities to call animal control if they spotted the wolf, as they not only thought it was the lost wolf pup, but that it also posed a threat to humans and pets. During this time, people all across northern Rhode Island started taking serious precaution against the wolf. For example, children and pets wouldn’t be allowed outside after sunset, some people carried small guns with them at all times, and all kinds of traps were set up in people’s yards and even near trash barrels. At one point, some people refused to leave their homes without accompaniment and there would even be people who called animal control over anything that resembled the white wolf, even if it turned out to be something completely different.
This wasn’t the first time an animal had escaped from the Slater Park Zoo however. In May of 1979, an eight hundred pound polar bear named Frosty escaped. The animal was shot and killed by police near the Countryside Mobile Home Park. Unlike Frosty though, the wolf seemed to elude the overworked animal control officers, even after the Slater Park Zoo closed in 1993, much to their dismay.
It has been eight years since the wolf pup escaped and the hysteria has drastically died down. But that doesn’t mean the reports have stopped. In fact, in September of this year, a seventeen year old boy claimed to have seen the wolf while raking leaves in his backyard. In the wake of this report, several others have also claimed to have encountered the wolf, with one even saying that it bit them on the arm. However, animal experts say that the average lifespan of an Arctic Wolf in the wild is about seven years. In other words, it would be very unlikely for those people to have seen the wolf, as it most likely would’ve already been dead a year prior.
Despite this, we at Weird and Strange Rhode Island believe that the story of the white wolf will continue to fascinate Rhode Islanders for years to come.
Article by Ellen Lansing