Wow, have I been anticipating having time to write up this particular post. I think my responsibilities for The Project have been completed for at least the next few hours, and I don't leave for my teaching time in Scotland until next week, so if I work fast maybe I can get a post written. . . .
At the end of May, fellow spinner Kris Paige found an afternoon when I could tear myself away from The Project and suggested an excursion to the W.O.L.F. sanctuary in the mountains not too far from where I live. The sanctuary is not open to the public, but Kris has provided some volunteer vet-tech work for the animals and I'm a donor/member of the organization, so with advance arrangement we were able to visit.
Here's part of the road to the sanctuary:
I need to note at the start here that, despite the impression given by some of the photos I'll include in a moment, wolves are not just big dogs. They are wild animals. They make lousy pets, although some of them (those who want to) make utterly charming, if strong-minded and independent, acquaintances. My experience at the sanctuary gave me a deeper understanding of the theory of domestication that I first encountered in The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication, by Stephen Budiansky. The misperception that wolves are, or can be, domesticated or treated as dogs is the reason the sanctuary exists. They can't. Even wolf-dog crosses exhibit enough wild characteristics that they don't make good household members. Yet thousands of years ago, according to the theory Budiansky presents, some wolves may have chosen to collaborate with humans and by doing so set in motion the long evolutionary path that gave us dogs.
Wolves themselves are still an entirely different matter.
We met only with the individual animals who wanted to meet with us. The sanctuary enclosures are built into both sides of a steep canyon. The wolves who enjoy contact with humans are in the lower spaces, near the road and the buildings, while the wolves who prefer solitude hang out in the upper spaces. The exceptionally secure enclosures have been built so that they provide the animals with a varied environment that they can (and do) customize for their own comfort, although (as you'll see below) some items for their amusement are also added by the humans.
Here's one of the more reserved wolves—not as hard to find as a few of the others who appeared only as ears poking up from behind, say, a boulder or a down tree:
Their camouflage works quite nicely.
Most of the enclosures contain two wolves who have demonstrated that they enjoy each other's company; in a few cases, three wolves have chosen to "bunk" together. Assigning buddies requires intuitive and practical evaluation by the sanctuary humans. The wolves need company, but they have strong opinions about who they'll hang out with: energy levels, ability to share food and to play together, and likely percentage of wolf genetics (pure or crossed with dogs) all factor into good matches.
The first wolf we met with was Isabeau. She was bred and sold as a pet, but only lasted four months in her original situation before her desperate "owners" were looking for a way out of their commitment. Fortunately, there was space for her at W.O.L.F. (There is nowhere near as much space as is needed for the rescue occasions that arise; the sanctuary is currently full, and all wolf residents, once situated, remain for their entire lives.) Isabeau "earned" her space by being a potentially compatible buddy for a wolf already in residence named Shaman.
As we arrived for our visit, volunteers were finishing modifications on Isabeau's new wading pool. She loves water, but the new pool (a stock tank) was too deep and she was afraid to get into it, so they had been building steps for her inside it. While they worked, she was confined behind a fence in the back part of the enclosure, but as we got there she was released into the front again to check out the new water-access point:
It seemed to meet her approval.
Isabeau is quite sociable with humans, and the space she now shares with Nashoba is right by the caretaker's cabin. (Shaman unfortunately died last year at the age of ten, having lived at the sanctuary since he was a few weeks old; his spirit continues to infuse the sanctuary in many ways.) Isabeau's current buddy is Nashoba (behind her here), who arrived at just over a year old and initially was in with Shaman (to whom he was submissive) as well as Isabeau (in whom he found a playmate). Isabeau is a little over four years old and Nashoba is now three and a half.
Isabeau (front) and Nashoba (back)
When I first approached Isabeau, I held my hand out for her to sniff in a way that a vet had taught me years ago, a position designed to protect fingers if the dog being approached happens to bite. The sanctuary's founder, Frank Wendling, told me to change positions: palm up, fingers open. He said that Isabeau and the other wolves would see that gesture as friendlier. He continued, "If she wants to take your hand off, it won't matter how you're holding it."
Okay, then. Palm up and fingers open!
After visiting a bit with Lakota, an optimistic eleven-year-old who has been in sanctuary since he was just over a year old and is in treatment for mouth cancer (I was too close to him to get any photos), we went across the road to see Rajan, a wolf-dog who is about four years old, and has been at the sanctuary since he was just under two. He's shown here with Michelle, whom my daughter and I know from our work at a local independent bookstore. Michelle is now full-time at the sanctuary and was kind enough to show us around and introduce us to a number of the residents. Rajan is the perfect companion for Kiki, an Alaskan wolf who chooses to keep her distance from humans she doesn't know. Like Lakota, she's eleven and has been at W.O.L.F. since she was a little over a year old. We saw a hint of Kiki way up in the enclosure, while Rajan came right up to us for rubs.
The sanctuary trains the most willing animals to act as ambassadors, going out in public to help with educational and fundraising programs. Shaman, Isabeau's former companion, was one of the best ambassadors. Rajan has been stepping forward to do some of the ambassador jobs, as has Sigmund, whom we met shortly thereafter:
Sigmund is another wolf-dog. He's part collie, and mostly wolf. (Like our Border collie, Ariel, was part something else—probably spaniel—but, as we always said, 100 percent Border collie in personality and brain.) He doesn't like riding in the car, but he's pretty much okay with the other ambassador responsibilities.
Sigmund came from California, and went through a number of homes (from which he repeatedly escaped) and a couple of periods of determinedly uncatchable independence in the mountains. He is almost five and has been at the sanctuary since he was two and a half. At W.O.L.F., the initial thought was that Sigmund would join Isabeau and Shaman, but that didn't work. Shaman would have none of it, and the two males even fought through a fence.
However, it turned out that Sigmund and Tunyan, a full wolf, began playing through another fence. It turns out they were meant to be best buds.
Both Sigmund and Tunyan (TOO-yawn) have strong inclinations to be sociable with humans. Tunyan is eight years old and has been at W.O.L.F. since she was one month old. At the time, she was described as "a typical wolf pup. In other words she was a holy terror." We were warned that Tunyan, whose name means "brat" in Lakota, steals things. Like cameras.
I asked what she does with them.
The answer was, "Takes them into her space and chews them to bits and buries them."
Doesn't sound like a good dietary supplement for a wolf, plus I like my camera, so I kept it especially well secured while visiting with Tunyan.
She apparently also likes shoelaces.
Big paws. . . .
Sigmund and Tunyan live near the cabin, and are occasionally given access to the deck, in alternation with another wolf who doesn't get to be there at the same time that they are prowling around.
Sigmund and Tunyan
Two at once, starting to tussle, is a lot of critter in a small space:
Tunyan and Sigmund
Sigmund has long, soft fur: his probable collie heritage shows up in the fiber.
I was also fortunate enough to be given a sample of Shaman's fiber to spin; Shaman was pure wolf.
W.O.L.F. is looking for ways to use the fiber to support fundraising efforts for the animals' care, which is top-notch and requires significant amounts of resources. We're talking with the sanctuary organizers about the feasibility of making sample quantities of fiber available to spinners. There may also be opportunities for spinners to have access to fiber and make items that they would donate back to W.O.L.F. to be auctioned off at special events, like the recent Waltz for the Wolves. I was out of town at the time or I would have been there; my daughter attended.
The two scarves that Kris spun and knitted from Shaman's brushings, mixed with silk, topped the evening's auction results, earning $600 each for the wolves' benefit. That's spinning a whole lot of good.