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Saturday, May 17, 2014


Steve Cole reports: 

I have been going to Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary about once a year since sometime in early 2007 (and twice a year for the last few years). Usually I go with Leanna; once I went with Steven Petrick; twice I went with larger groups. This year (May 2014) was the first time I went by myself (and the first time I had driven that far by myself in 35 years).

I enjoy spending time with the wolves and supporting the sanctuary. Many people don't understand what wildlife sanctuaries are and why they exist, so let me explain. Lots of people think it would be fun to own a wild animal as a pet. There are plenty of unscrupulous breeders who will sell you a baby tiger, wolf, or whatever else you want, knowing full well that in a year or two you will realize that wild animals make awful pets and have a problem on your hands. (Guess what, the breeder won't take the pet back as they can only sell the cute baby animals.) There are more "pet" tigers in Texas than in there are in the wild on the entire planet. Most of these pets end up being put down, turned loose in the wild (with tragic results), or kept in small pens and fed insufficient food. Those owners with some morality eventually try to find one of the dozen or so sanctuaries that will accept the pet animals and give them a permanent home. Since it takes about $2000 to keep a wolf for a year (tigers cost more) the sanctuaries can only take the animals they have space to house and money to feed. Sanctuaries are always having fund raising events, and always turning down requests to take an animal. (Most shelters have strict rules, such as they won't take an animal from someone who is breeding more animals. Sometimes the DEA will pay a sanctuary to take an animal confiscated from a drug dealer, or a circus will pay a sanctuary to take a retired performing tiger.

Our first few trips to Wild Spirit (we have been to other sanctuaries as well) were during trips to Las Vegas for vacations or trade shows. Once we found out about the fund raising parties, we started going then. WSWS has four of these a year, and I go to two of them (in May when each wolf gets a basket of food, and in October when they get a pumpkin full of meat). Once I found out what was going on, I started bringing organ meat (heart, liver, kidney) to put into the baskets or pumpkins. The wolves love organ meat because they never get it unless I bring it, and anyway it's 1/3 the price of steak. For the last couple of years, I have been part of the program, giving lectures on wolf diet and behavior as "Chef Steve."

This year, Leanna didn't want to go, and (rather than accept Steven Petrick's offer to go along and do the driving) I decided to go on my own. A seven-hour drive (each way) by myself would give me time to clear my head and think about what to do with the rest of my life. (I decided to keep doing pretty much what I have been doing.) I booked a room at a bed and breakfast about a hundred yards from the sanctuary and planned to stay for three days. (Usually I get there just before the party starts and spend most of the day cutting meat and feeding wolves, then leave before the party ends.) This time I was determined to work with the staff and learn more about wolves. (I had one college course on predators 40 years ago and have read a few books and websites about the subject.)

I was greeted warmly on Friday afternoon by Crystal (the #2 ranking person at the sanctuary). I spent that day with her and with Joey (one of the volunteers). Crystal let me help take Kota (the 130-pound king wolf) from his normal pen to another one (so a tour group could take photos of his mate, Duchess.) [I should note here that WSWS never breeds or sells animals. The males are all fixed upon arrival. The animals cannot be released into the wild as they are captive bred, have no mother-taught hunting skills, and will approach humans expecting to be taken care of.] Thus began my first lesson that "every instinct you have about wolves is wrong." I have petted several of the "ambassador" wolves before, but Kota is not that friendly and cannot be allowed near crowds. His handler (Crystal) could control him with just me around. She invited me to pet him (which I did) but I started to scratch him all over and did something he didn't like so he growled at me. Fearing he was about to bite my hand, I instinctively raised my hands above my shoulders. Unfortunately, wolves think this means "I am a grizzly bear; we shall now fight to the death." Crystal had him under control and Kota (to his credit) looked at me with eyes that said "Dude, you have no idea what you just did, so I'm not going to kill you for the mistake." Later, I got to spend more time with Kota and he came to tolerate me very well.
I had some time with Ramon, the head of maintenance, who is sort of the handyman for the sanctuary. (Which is pretty big, housing as it does 60 wolves, four dingoes, five singing dogs, one fox, and three coyotes. There are numerous buildings and the animals are in pretty big pens. It takes over an hour to hike all the way from the office to the farthest pen and back.) I have (for the last five trips) taken not just organ meat but tools of various types. Ramon had sent me a list, and of course I took him about three times as much stuff as was on the list. He was very happy.

During the visit I saw many of the previous gifts Leanna and I have taken being used, from a carpenter's level to the water bottles most of the staff carried around.

Saturday morning I spent the day with various members of the staff, including Rae (the nutritionist who set me up a nice carving station so I could cut the meat), Meredith (head of enrichment), Ramon (who was construction an addition to one of the buildings), Joey (who is from North Carolina), and some of the other volunteers (Mikhail from Sweden, Holly from England, Chloe from Wales, Amber from Australia, and two very pretty girls whose names I never heard). WSWS has a program where students in animal and wildlife management intern at the sanctuary, and many volunteers spend time there.

During the day, I learned that everyone who works there (even the highest-ranking people) have certain animals assigned to their care. Every day begins at 8am with these people taking white buckets to the pens to clean up the poop. Everyone is supposed to be done with that by 9am because at 9:30 everyone is back at the same pens with orange buckets of meat to feed the animals. (You do not want to be inside a pen with two wolves when they see the wolves in the next pen given meat. They get pretty enthusiastic about feeding time.) After this is over, one unlucky volunteer has to clean out all of the buckets with bleach and take the poop to a pit on the far end of the property. (The sanctuary owns an adjacent campground where many people stay overnight.)

In the afternoon, several of the volunteers conducted tours for people who had come to see the wolves. I tagged along, adding my comments to the various wolf stories. I know a lot about wolves since I have been going there longer than any of the volunteers.

Late in the day, word came that Leyton (the big boss) was arriving at the camp from a trip to another sanctuary (in Indiana) where he had picked up the first three coyotes to join the WSWS menagerie. I hiked up the hill (when I really wanted to take a nap; I am not in the best of shape in the first place, my broken knee was swollen, and the altitude was killing me) to the coyote pens. (I learned that the various species cannot be kept in adjoining pens because diseases that one species ignores as deadly to another. There is a ten-foot gap between pens with different species.) I was able to help this operation in three ways: my multi-tool wire cutter solved a problem, I provided some of the meat for the first meal of the new arrivals, and I became the default "still" photographer as the other three were taking video. Leyton was concerned that the coyotes would not want to eat during the stress of the trip. He threw them a few pieces of chicken, which they ate with gusto. (They would not get close to him as he was not familiar.) At my suggestion, Leyton went back down the hill to the Wolf Kitchen to get some of the heart and liver I had brought. This turned out to be the first red meat that the coyotes had ever had in their entire lives. After sniffing the first piece he threw to them, they came right up to him and put their noses into the bowl. Leyton dumped the meat on the ground and backed up, not out of fear but to avoid stressing them. They ate the offerings with extreme enthusiasm. I had a chance to have a nice long chat with Leyton, who treats me like a brother. (We both have food allergies that make dining in unfamiliar restaurants a life and death casino.)

The day included my two mistakes, and the early-afternoon event is worth it's own mea culpa. I had for years been trying to convince the WSWS staff that everything has to be marketing and they should charge tour groups extra for the privilege of throwing food to the wolves. I asked permission to take four of the rib bones I had brought up the hill and give them to Kota and Duchess in front of a current tour group. This was granted and Rae even got the bones out of the cooler room for me. So I staggered up the hill on my bad knee and walked right up behind the tour group. Someone saw me coming and the whole group turned around to see me, passing the excited word "He's got bones!" What I did not know was the Joey (who was the guide for that tour) was inside the pen with the two wolves across the path from Kota and Duchess. Remember what I said about not wanting to be in a cage with two wolves when two other wolves were getting food? Joey quickly extricated himself from the pen without getting hurt, but his two wolves were very jumpy. (It should have been arranged for me to wait out of sight while someone warned Joey of an off-the-schedule event.) The point of four bones was that Kota steals Duchess's food and we all figured that we'd have to give him three for Duchess to get one. I quickly made a deal with Joey. I gave him two of the bones for his wolves in exchange for him opening a remote gate that moved Kota into a separate sub-pen from Duchess. That way, Kota would only get one bone and Duchess could chew her bone in peace. Then came my second mistake. After I fed Kota a bone, I called out "Is there a young lady who would like to give this bone to Duchess?" Most of the women (of all ages) raised their hands and I gave the bone to the first teenage girl who reached me. I didn't think a bit about the fact that I was handing someone a piece of raw meat; neither did the teenage girl. (Handling raw meat is one of those "go wash your hands now" things.) Joey, caught up in the moment, gave his two bones to a teenage boy and girl and allowed them to feed the wolves. Crystal heard of this and told us both that it was really very un-cool to hand a tourist raw meat in a time and place that there was no way for them to wash their hands with soap. She also told me that they had (following my suggestion) already begun having "feeding tours" at a different time of the day (and a higher price), so there was no real need for me to prove to them that tourists wanted to feed the wolves themselves. (These feeding tours involve rubber gloves. The point is to protect the tourist from the meat, not the wolf from the tourist.)
 I should take a moment to mention a man who became my good friend, Frank Blackmoon. He runs (and built) the Trading Post across the road and the B&B lodge behind it. That Trading Post is the only hardware store within 50 miles and does steady business from the people who enjoy living that far off the grid. His B&B is primarily filled with people visiting WSWS or visiting their relatives in the area. Frank exemplifies the very best of Small Business America; he saw a market and filled a need!

Then Sunday came, the day of the big fundraiser itself. They had a special treat for me, to thank me for all the meat and tools, which was a private meeting with Zoerro, the wolf who is the official mascot of the University of New Mexico. Unfortunately, nobody realized just how much blood I had spilled on the ground in front of the Wolf Kitchen when I was cutting meat the day before, and I was sitting on a chair in the middle of that. Zoerro came up to the area and became very shy and agitated. He was convinced that he had accidentally stumbled into the killing ground of another pack of wolves, and that I was the alpha male of that pack. Zoerro genuinely feared that I would kill him just for being there!

After that, I helped pack the gift baskets, which contain a lot of things that the wolves are not otherwise given to eat (goldfish crackers, Raman noodles), just because it gives them something different. The staff let me add the raw liver and heart to each basket. (I thought this a great honor but the real reason was so nobody else had to wash their hands three times in boiling water as I had to afterward.)

The crowd gathered at 12:30 and I got to give my Chef Steve speech (which I cut short because of the 40mph wind). Then the wolves were given their baskets. I didn't see most of that as I was having a very bad time with my swollen knee and what the altitude was doing to my heart. I did see Kota get his basket (and for some reason, he wasn't interested in the heart despite having eaten the last several with great enthusiasm).

I walked down the hill intending to wait for the tour's last stop (Romeo the fox) but noticed that my deadline to leave had arrived. I had to leave then or not get home that night, and to wait for all the friends I wanted to say goodbye to would mean that I would have to stop halfway home and make it back to Amarillo sometime Monday. So I found someone (Amber as it turned out) and explained to her that I had to leave "right now" and proceeded to drive home (into a constant 45mph headwind, dirt storm, and tumbleweed stampede).

My goal for the trip was to learn as much as I can, and I want to thank the whole WSWS crew for being so patient in answering my questions.  While I take them a lot of stuff I am far from their biggest donor and I'm sure I pushed towards the limits of their patience. Thanks to Leyton for sitting down after a 30-hour drive and teaching me the ins and outs of moving animals across the country. Thanks to Georgia for chatting with me about the coyotes when she would rather have been chatting with her husband.  Thanks to Crystal for letting me meet Kota and to Rory for trying to let me meet Zoerro. Thanks to Ramon for reminding me what it was like to be a very young project director trying to get a lot done with not very much in the way of tools or materials. Thanks to Meredith for discussing enrichment with me, and to Dawn for our hilarious conversation about what it takes to run a non-profit page on Facebook. Thanks to the interns and volunteers (Joey, Mikhail, Holly, Chloe, and the two young women whose names I never heard) for chatting with me about their experiences. Thanks especially to Rae who, on her busiest day of the year, explained to me not just what went into a basket for each wolf but why it went in there in the order it went. She also taught me that if five pounds of meat is the right amount, adding a few more pounds was most definitely not "simply swell."     

All told, it was a fantastic experience. I learned ten times as much about how to handle wolves in the three days I was there than I have ever learned during one of the parties.