In 2010, the year of my graduation ceremony, I finally decided to follow my heart and volunteer at a wolf sanctuary for ten weeks. I had actually started planning the trip around Christmas time the year before and sent a whole host of emails out to sanctuaries in Canada and the United States to try and get a feel for the sorts of places I might like to visit. The two organisations I had the most rapid responses from were the White Wolf Sanctuary in the state of Oregon and the Red Wolf Sanctuary in Indiana. I eventually planned to head to WWS for six weeks or so then finish my time at RWS.
Leading up to the journey I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I have had some experience with a range of species at a local zoo I worked at for a few years – I mainly did work with primates but also got to have contact with various carnivores. My thesis at the end of my Bachelor’s degree was written on lion behaviour – obviously very different to wolves, but much more similar to them than most primate species! Zoo mentality had also improved my common sense when it came to working with wild animals: never, ever assume you can predict them. Ever. (In saying that, the same goes for any species really, including people in my opinion!) I feel that if a moment comes where someone believes they can predict an animal, it is a moment in which they need to be humbled.
Trying to think back to my opinions and what I believed I knew of wolves before truly working with them is surprisingly difficult. I know I had heard the stories growing up about these aggressive, scary beasts, but as far as I am aware I never saw them that way. In my mind they were always majestic, timid yet strong animals. I was always drawn to them, and I can’t say why exactly. I’ve never been a dog owner and the first time I worked at a shelter I felt very intimidated. But, for some reason, I just had this gut feeling about wolves and I followed it to the USA.
In saying that, it doesn’t mean I was completely confident with the thought of dealing with these animals. A veterinary nursing/zoo keeping friend of mine was constantly telling me the weeks before leaving, “Whatever you do, even if they say it’s alright, do NOT go in with them!” I would laugh and nod my head, fully aware of the fact that I understand and perceive animals as unpredictable creatures, but fully aware of the fact that it did not seem to bother me. I wasn’t sure on the exact policies (hands-on versus hands-off) of the sanctuaries, but I knew that given the chance to interact with a wolf in whatever way I probably wouldn’t pass it up. However, I did doubt myself and my own skills and knowledge; I did worry that I would get over there and give an utterly miserable impression of someone wanting to get involved with wolf conservation. I was worried that I wouldn’t do a good job.
One thing I remember being conscious of beforehand was the controversial aspect to wolves as species in many of their native countries. ‘The Loop’ introduced me to this mindset and while I had no idea of the complexities of the relationships between wolves, the ecosystems they inhabit and the people also using those same ecosystems, I was sure it was a matter I would come across during my volunteer work. To me it made sense that loss of natural habitat left roaming wolves with no choice but to wander into human-dominated territory, and this in turn would cause a whole series of issues not unfamiliar to any species trying to coexist in the company of people. Such is an issue I feel strongly about, and I was interested to see how much of it I would taste during those upcoming few short months in America.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that my knowledge of wolves was not great by any means, but that I was open-minded and entirely set on learning. I knew that most likely many of my preconceptions would be challenged, but I was looking forward to being taught by and experiencing these creatures first-hand. I hoped that no matter how well or not I fitted into overseas volunteer life and demands, I would leave with honed and adjusted knowledge, improved and expanded skills and most importantly a greater desire to go back and do it all again.