Thursday, August 12, 2010

Howling with the Wolves

I have always had an unrequited love for wolves. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, where, or how it happened but, somewhere along the line, wolves walked right into my heart, curled up, and made themselves at home there. Even with little to no hope of ever being so lucky as to meet a wolf, much less have that love returned, my love for them has never diminished.

About 10 years ago, I discovered a wolf and wolf-dog sanctuary practically in my back yard. But life has a way of getting right smack dab in between you and the things you want to do. Oh, so close but so far away. For a brief time, I ran a website about wildlife rehabilitators, and the link to the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (then Candy Kitchen Ranch) was displayed prominently on the home page. Eventually, I lost track of the sanctuary and I thought maybe it didn’t exist anymore. Then, out of the blue, a dear friend on Twitter (Janice a/k/a @jlsemmel) tweeted about an upcoming open house at a wolf sanctuary. The name was different, but my wolflie passions were stirred, so I clicked on the link. And there it was! I was beside myself. The name had been changed, but it was still there. And Joy to the World! They were having an open house the weekend after my birthday. So, when my husband asked what I wanted for my birthday, I said I wanted a trip to the sanctuary. I even forgot to ask for chocolate cake. For those of you who know me, you know how huge that is.

The purpose of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (WSWS) in Ramah, NM is to provide the best possible home and care for abused and abandoned captive-bred wolves and wolf-dogs. Captive-bred wolves could not survive in the wild, and wolf-dogs are generally not a good fit for the average person, family or household. Since there is an overabundance of misinformation floating around about wolves, WSWS also has an outreach program to educate the public about wolves and the implications of owning a wolf-dog.

Some people mistakenly believe that cross-breeding wolves and dogs will produce a suitable pet. People will take on a wolf-dog, only to return it when they discover the animal is destructive and/or hard to control and doesn’t have the temperament to be a family pet. Cross-breeding wolves and dogs is illegal in most places, but that doesn’t stop disreputable breeders with little to no knowledge of wolf-dogs or compassion for the animals they are responsible for bringing into the world. Of course, they are stunningly beautiful animals.

Low-content wolf-dogs (those who are mostly dog) occasionally have the right temperament to go into an adoptive home, but it can still be a tricky proposition. For instance, WSWS has a pack of five wolf-dogs, 1 brother and 4 sisters, who are low-content wolf-dogs. However, this family group has been together since birth. Our guide said they experimented with taking a couple of them for a walk on leashes but didn’t get more than a few feet away from the enclosure, when they dropped down and started crawling back. In other words, it’s a package deal – all five or nothing – because WSWS has decided, and after observing this close-knit family, I agree, it would be beyond cruel to separate them.

But, back to the Open House. We were greeted by a volunteer who, much to my surprise, spoke with an English accent. Apparently, volunteers come from all over the world to spend a few months here. We were then asked to sign a waiver. So much legal nonsense, in my personal opinion, because I had no doubt no harm would come to us unless someone strapped an elk hindquarter to our backs and then tied us to a tree in the middle of one of the enclosures. Guided tours were scheduled every couple of hours, and we were in time to join one which had just left the courtyard.

Angel was the guide on our first tour. Yes, the first tour. I was so busy watching the wolves and trying to get photos of them that I didn’t hear half of what Angel said and had to take a second tour. I did, however, catch enough to know she is knowledgeable, passionate, and absolutely dedicated to the animals she cares for, as is everyone involved in the running of the sanctuary.

Specially for the Open House, the staff and volunteers had prepared an assortment of enrichment treats for the animals. The purpose of providing enrichment items is to give the animals new experiences and well, enrich their lives as much as possible in a captive environment. The enrichment items this day were frozen watermelon and paper canisters and piñatas filled with meat, peanut butter, deer urine (yes, deer urine), and stuffed animals. They love stuffed animals, as you can see. There was also more than a touch of jealousy and "nanner-nanner" going on here too.

The watermelon and canisters seemed to go over well with most everyone, and they were gleefully ripping and tearing them apart in no time.

However, this was the first time they had used piñatas and had varying results. Come to find out, wolves are notorious for not liking new things. For example, our guide informed us that the so-called biggest, baddest wolf in the sanctuary wouldn’t go near a plastic bucket. All of them eyed the swinging piñatas with great interest but approached them with caution and a definite degree of skittishness. Some more than others. And some just seemed to want someone they trusted to go first.

When the enrichment items had been given to the animals in the enclosures, we were allowed to go behind the barrier and, when given the go-ahead by the guide, we could take pictures through the fence. We were advised to back away from the fence if any of the animals came towards us. (Common sense here – if an animal has food on the brain, you don’t wanna have a finger sticking through the fence mistaken for a food item.) Once the animals were occupied with the enrichment food items, they were relatively stationary and in an area close enough to get photos. But you know how animals are – unpredictable, always on the move, getting behind trees, or lounging in the tall weeds at the back of the enclosure. They rarely make it easy. But, once in a while, you just get lucky.

Despite my lack of focus on what the guides were saying, I did manage to learn a few things. I was curious how Arctic and Timber wolves fare in the extreme heat we have in New Mexico, but Mother Nature seems to have taken care of that problem. The wolves shed down most of their coats in preparation for the summer heat. I also noticed the enclosures have small ponds and water buckets, and I witnessed one wolf repeatedly sticking his front paws into one of the buckets.

And, whereas your dog may be mildly curious about what is making that strange buzzing sound in the wall (electricity), a wolf has the intense curiosity and the strength (in jaw power and claws) to tear a wall apart to see exactly what is going on in there.

One of the high-content wolf-dogs really caught my eye and captured my heart. Ally. Ally’s story was very nearly a tragic one. She was bred in Alaska, where it is illegal to breed wolf-dogs, by one of the disreputable breeders I mentioned earlier. When she became too much for her owners, she was turned over to authorities. Generally, these wolf-dogs are destroyed, because there is no one to take them. However, Ally was rescued by a friend of the WSWS, who fostered her until the director could fly to Alaska and bring her home to the sanctuary.

Ally is only a year old and is the newest rescue, having been there just a few weeks. (By the way, being the new pup on the block, Ally needs sponsors.) She has the beautiful golden eyes of a wolf, magnificent markings, style and grace, plus a certain delicacy, almost daintiness, about her. At the sanctuary, she is known as The Supermodel. She is obviously still adjusting to her new home and enclosure-mate, Flurry, but she seems to be quickly overcoming the shyness and timidity inherent in wolves. She came right up to the fence several times, a behavior a lot of the other wolves and wolf-dogs who have been there much longer did not display. Yep, she’s a doll, all right. I don’t see how Flurry can resist her charms. At this point, he is still grumbling when she gets close, but it’s early days.

Another enrichment item that comes along every so often at the sanctuary is fresh meat. Occasionally, when someone hits a deer or elk on the highway, the sanctuary will get a call to come out and pick it up. The carcass is then taken to a communal enclosure which the wolves are released into, so they can enjoy their feast in the proper wolfie way. The wolf equivalent of Thanksgiving or Christmas. In Howlville. Instead of Whoville. (Sorry couldn’t resist, that just rolled out through my fingertips before I could stop it.)

And, speaking of howling, we had the rare, special privilege of being serenaded by the entire pack not once but twice that day. I’m not sure what set them off the first time, but the guide on our second tour asked us all to howl to get them started. I’m pretty sure everyone in the group howled at the count of three, as instructed. And we didn’t feel the least bit silly.

Now, we have all heard wolves howling in movies and on television, but hearing The Call of the Wild up close and personal is an experience that defies description. But I’ll try. As the first howl goes up, your jaw drops, you give a little gasp, you smile, maybe even giggle a little, and then your eyes close as you are drawn into a mystical place by the haunting, soulful tune your ears can’t quite believe they’re hearing. As the howls continue, they seem to resonate within your body, striking a chord in your very heart and soul. I don’t mind telling you I get a little misty-eyed re-living that experience in my mind.

A few of the wolves were rescued as pups and have been socialized to a degree I didn’t even realize was possible. These few special wolves are Ambassadors who go to schools, libraries and special events for the purposes of education and fund-raising. We had been told these Ambassadors would be making appearances throughout the day, and we were really looking forward to that.

After the tour was over, one of the guides, Angel, brought out Forest, who is a Timber-Arctic cross. A full-blood wolf, in other words. He is a beautiful animal with those mesmerizing golden eyes, and we were thrilled to be able to get closer to him. However, we never dreamed we would be able to pet him. Yes, pet him! Turns out Forest is a regular social butterfly. We were instructed not to lean our face into his, but if he leaned into your face, it was no cause for alarm.

Being the intelligent, sociable critter he is, Forest has figured out the best place to get the most attention, pats and scritches is standing on the picnic tables, so we all sat down and waited for Forest to make his rounds. He went from one table to the next, basking in the adoration of his fans and getting all the petting he could. And posing for photos. Yes, posing. If Forest could speak, I have no doubt he would have announced, “Gather 'round. I’m ready for my close-up now.” It was quite a sight.

Finally, he climbed up on our table. I reached up my hand to give him a scritch as he walked by, and he casually leaned down and gave me a kiss! Be still, my heart! I haven’t stopped giggling about that yet. Oh, Forest, you handsome devil, you do know how to steal a girl’s heart! {Swoon} Unfortunately, since I am always the one holding the camera, there are no pictures of this momentous event, but I know it happened, and it's a memory I'll treasure forever.

Of course, nothing gets in the way of a good roll in a smelly patch of grass. Besides, he knew his fan club wasn't going anywhere.

As often happens in the mountains, there were intermittent rain showers that afternoon, but we barely even noticed we were sopping wet. Unfortunately, when the lightning started, that did get our attention, and we decided to wrap up our visit. On our way out, we stopped at the Howling Wolf Grill where George cooked up two lip-smacking, juicy, double-patty cheeseburgers in their newly-opened kitchen. Their slogan is “Feeding your hunger feeds our Wolves!” And, of course, we also cruised the Gift Shop for souvenirs of our visit, knowing that money too would go for the care and feeding of the wolves.

To say we had a great time would be the understatement of the year. As birthday presents go, this was the best to date. The wolves received enrichment items that day, but I know we were the ones who were really enriched.

WSWS is a non-profit organization and operates solely on donations. In these lean times, they are feeling the pinch and are in dire need of donors and sponsors for the wolves. If you want to learn more or are interested in visiting WSWS, sponsoring a wolf, donating a wish list item, or scheduling a presentation, please check out their stunningly beautiful and informative website.

You can also help by making a purchase in their gift shop. And, yes, they have even captured the musical stylings of the wolves on a CD.

Also, if you are planning to visit WSWS, I recommend staying at this excellent B&B I was so impressed I wrote a review for them here

This area has other points of interest, along with some spectacular scenery. Thanks to our B&B hostess, Sheri, we discovered some places we didn't even know existed. I'll be telling you more about those in upcoming posts.

Extra special thanks to my friend, Janice (@jlsemmel on Twitter), without whom this trip never would have happened. She also has a website - “Arizona Destinations” - at you should visit. She has great tips on places to visit in Arizona and incorporates some breath-taking photos.


Renagade said...

Awesome account of a Birthday you will never forget!
I too, have a draw to the wolves. Something I can not explain.
Wolf Hybrids (as we call wolf/dogs here) Can be good companions for a SELECT group of people but they are never 'pets'. The temperment is not dog-like no matter how much dog is in there. The wolf always shines through. Aloof, mysterious, cautious, on guard. THEY choose what and whom they want around them.
For Forest to give you a kiss is a very high honor... you may feel like you have been touched by his actions, but he sensed something in you that stirred his heart as well.

Gypsy Trading Company said...

What an amazing experience for you! I have long been a fan of wolves, and growing up in Washington State, we have had our share of Hybrid's. I remember an article back a few years ago about a breeder down from Alaska who was selling these pups in Belluvue. It was termed the "in thing"! I couldn't believe it. The ignorance and disrespect for the animals was beyond words. People living in apartments were taking then in. A travesty to be sure! Belluvue is our "New York" I guess you could say, more so than Seattle. This Trendy city has gone through numerous animal phases that I have to say disgusts me. Pot belly pigs, ducks, and of course the wolf hybrid. It seems that although it is filled with professional people, and "educated" they are more educated fools! The feds eventually did a sweep and picked up these mystical Canis lupus, and hopefully sent them to a wolf recovery program or a sanctuary like yours.I have read where introducing them back to the wild is sometimes hard, so I pray they all found good places to be.
These are beautiful creatures, and to remove them from their natural habitats is a disgrace. I am glad there are programs like the one you went to. Thank you for sharing your experience, and for posting such beautiful pictures!

Dick Carlson said...

I love the metaphor that the "Biggest, Baddest Wolf" doesn't immediately jump in and play with new things.

Bet that's how he lives to become the biggest and baddest.

Circesdad said...

An absolutely fabulous blog post about a wonderful experience. Thank you so much for creating it. Please give yourself a huge pat on the back for shooting a beautiful set of pictures.

L Eckert said...

Thank you for such a lovely wolf story. We recently acquired a wolf dog, and we are learning so much from stories like your own. I hope someday we too can visit the sanctuary.
Luckily our little wolf dog is well socialized; but your accounting of how they will try to take the wall apart to see where the electricity comes from has the "ring of truth." The wolf dog is a bit like a problem love it desperately and survive on your sense of humor! Anyway, I could talk about Snowflake all day...but your piece was well written and beautiful. Good luck to you!

Anonymous said...

I loved that you shared this whole experience, and did so well. Thank you! What a beautiful story.