At the time of my internship the White Wolf Sanctuary had ten arctic wolves (five males and five females) under its care. They were kept in male-female pairs and some I got to know personally whilst others had less human contact. They were from a range of backgrounds and each taught me something about captive animals in the USA. Buildling a unique relationship with each wolf was imperative to the role – the main management techniques of the wolves for volunteers was hands-off, but I was told that eventually if bonds and trust were strong enough I would be able to enter exhibits with Lois (the sanctuary founder and director) and particular animals.
From the first day it was obvious to me that each individual wolf had different approaches to humans. There were the ‘puppies’ – the three-year-olds who had been raised at the sanctuary since only a few weeks old and were delighted at the sight of people; the less trusting wolves who would hang back and seldom show interest; and even a bold wolf who I would not say was aggressive but he certainly asserted himself through testing people by lurching at them if they came anywhere near his particular exhibit. He seemed rewarded if he caused a reaction, such as a yelp of shock or a startled flinch.
The White Wolf Sanctuary was designed as a final home for arctic wolves from rescue situations. Unfortunately it was not involved in any breeding programs, but for good reason – simply put, the natural wild habitats for arctic wolves are currently unsafe for release. Also, captive wolves would need to be taught how to hunt and survive in the wilderness and while this is possible, due to the inability to release into the wild there really would be no point. Instead, WWS is a safe sanctuary for wolves to live out the rest of their days in safety, care, and in a home as close to a wild habitat as possible while being able to express their natural behaviours. I felt more personally rewarded working there than I had done working at a zoo. Good zoos are wonderful for education, awareness and preserving populations in safe environments, but I felt pride in knowing I was helping creatures that had been in need of a home; they hadn’t simply been bred in captivity for the purpose of visiting humans to see them.
During my day-to-day duties I was encouraged to ‘meet’ each wolf at the fence wherever possible (except for Mister Dominant’s exhibit) as allowing each wolf to build a relationship with me was all part of it. While in the wild wolves would seldom have such relationships with humans, at this rescue center the priority was each wolf’s welfare – if having a bond with certain people positively benefited their individual lives then this was something to be nurtured. I thought for this post I would give a little information on each wolf and the types of ways they interacted with us.
Odot was an 11-year-old male, named the alpha of the pack from when their group was not so separated. He was the first wolf I approached on my first morning at the sanctuary; the one who Lois was surprised to find had accepted me since he is, in general, not very interested in visitors.
Odot is a very large wolf. It was easy to see how he had asserted his way to alpha position. Each daily tour would begin with an educational talk and video before visitors were actually taken around the sanctuary, and Odot’s pawprints had been preserved in concrete to show visitors during the talk the immense size of arctic wolves’ feet in contrast to smaller species such as coyotes, foxes and even other subspecies of wolf.
Odot’s name comes from the Oregon Department of Transportation. In such parts of the US roadkill is common – however, not just anyone can remove big-game roadkill (such as elk and deer) from the street. O.D.O.T. has such authority, native tribes have permission as does anyone with a license – but that’s it. If you are caught removing or simply in the possession of big-game roadkill for personal use, it is an offense. O.D.O.T. provided the WWS with a license to allow them to pick up carcasses and use them at the sanctuary for feeding, which is so much better than just feeding them captive carnivore diet. Lois often explained how the idea to her was not a pleasant one, but she soon learnt how much the wolves relish carcasses. One of my duties of my internship became roadkill collection. I remember the first call-out we got was for a large doe found in a ditch. Not many people could see me as a person who would throw themselves into something like this (even Lois said so herself), but I hoisted the deer up, attached it to the WWS truck’s winch and helped guide it into the carrier. In the end, the wolves loved it. If we had enough carcasses to feed one to each pair of wolves it was a great reward to see them react. They would go straight for the belly, opening it up to expose the organs inside and would feed from these first. They would take pieces of leg and throw them into the air, demonstrating their strength. The wolves would roll around and cover themselves in blood and the scent of their prey. Even having been brought up in captivity and often fed a balanced mince-like diet, they knew how to feed from a carcass.
Odot had been paired with a young wolf, Tamahawk, who had only been brought to the sanctuary about three months prior to my arrival. It had been feared that Odot would not take to this young, rambunctious female, but luckily in the end they accepted each other despite about a seven-year age gap (which is impressive considering wild wolves seldom live past nine or ten years of age). She would always test him though; always trying to rough him up, mark her territory by lifting her leg all over the place and even when I worked at the sanctuary they were still having regular, loud and ferocious-looking arguments. Tamahawk was the smallest wolf I have ever seen, yet had to be the most stubborn. She was a beauty, though. Aside from her small size she was easily distinguishable because she only had half a tail. Tamahawk had come from a couple living in another state of America. Keeping in mind the ownership of wolves as pets is illegal, this couple went ahead and did it anyway. She was confined to their back yard, and for fear of being caught they taped her muzzle shut at night to limit her howling. Obviously with her muzzle taped she could not eat or drink, either, and the couple were eventually discovered anyway and thus Tamahawk was brought to the sanctuary.
Despite being ill-treated, Tamahawk loves the attention of people. She would get possessive if Odot had come over for a scratch at the fence and would shove him out of the way. If she wasn’t sleeping in the sun, as soon as she saw you approach she would trot over with a huge wolf-smile on her face. She was adorable, and the one wolf I was probably most comfortable being inside the enclosures with.
Oh, beautiful Nike. Nike is named after not the sports company, but the Greek Winged Goddess of Victory. Nike is an aboslutely gorgeous soul. She is one of the four pups who were brought to WWS at a young age – they were on their way to a zoo with pretty low welfare and husbandry standards, but luckily WWS intervened at they ended up at the sanctuary instead. As far as I understand, the zoo in question has since shut down.
Nike and her three siblings were three years old when I was doing my internship, and were the most playful cheeky creatures. Looking at them it was easy to see why people try and keep them as pets – but when Nike and her habitat buddy, Tehalin, fought I could also see a reason why you shouldn’t! Fights between the siblings were never physically dangerous, but they were loud and terrifying to behold. I thought I had seen serious dog fights, but even a standard wolf dispute is much more intense.
Nike and Tehalin were very similar when it came to seeking attention. They were probably the two wolves deemed the most ‘friendly’ out of the bunch, and would gladly come up to the fence during tours to sniff at visitors’ hands. They were the pair I spent the most time with – even if you were walking to the other side of the sanctuary you couldn’t help but stop and hang out with them for a while. You would have to hold your arms outstretched to either side of you though to scratch each wolf at the same time – otherwise they would come to blows due to both wanting your affection. I remember going in with Nike and Tehalin for the first time to clean their water pool – Lois told me the three “don’ts”; don’t run, flail or fall over. Running encourages a chase, and falling is fairly self-explanatory. Even with them jumping up at me through excitement and wanting to play I was covered in tiny sharp scratches and had busted my lip from a head-butt. I am six feet tall, and each wolf could very easily stand with their front legs over my shoulders. I didn’t want to think what might happen if the playful pups found you on the ground.
This gorgeous guy took my breath away. His name means ‘beautiful spirit’, and it is the perfect description of him. I couldn’t help but fall in love with him. I like to think we had a special little connection; I could sit with him all day and feel at absolute peace. His huge, amber eyes would stare into you with such a calm and knowing I can hardly describe (this was when Nike was off entertaining herself elsewhere). It felt like I had known his presence forever. I think about him and miss him every single day.
As mentioned, when not having quiet one-on-one time Tehalin was also an extremely playful wolf, and he had some funny little quirks. It had been learnt long ago that when filling water troughs up with a hose, the wolves would chase them and make a game of dragging the hose lengths away. The way this was solved was with the use of metal pipes – by slipping a metal pipe through the fence and then inserting the hose through it, water troughs could be safely filled while the hose was protected. Tehalin just loved water though, and almost every time I’d go to fill a trough he’d be there without a doubt patting and licking at the end of the pipe, splashing through the water and making it more muddy than it was before I went to clean it out. Filling a whole trough was no little task; it was very time consuming, but providing Tehalin with this game and enrichment was worth repeating the job as many times as was necessary.
Asabe was another older male. He was huge as well, with a thick white coat that made him look even larger than Odot. Asabe had once been owned by a male elder of a tribal group who kept him tethered to a stake and beat him repeatedly. Because of this, Asabe hardly ever approached men. He was a very wary wolf, but had a calm and gentleness about him that I felt safe with. I never went into his habitat with him but would always sit beside the fence and provide him with extra company, giving him scratches and tickles and rubs. It took me a little while to get so comfortable with the massive beast, but I admit that I did trust him to a great extent.
Asabe was a great example to me of where domestic dogs get a lot of their behavioural characteristics from. He was constantly marking – not only with urine but by clawing the bark on trees and scratching marks on the ground. Wolves have scent glands in the pads of their paws; the pores excrete specialised odours and pheromones. Dogs express this scratching behaviour (often after toileting) for the same reason.
Asabe’s mate was a shy girl called Journey. Asabe actually lost his previous mate before Journey, and it was doubted that he would wish to be with another. However, they get along so well they are often described as a match made in Heaven.
Asabe, despite his caution with males, was a lot more approachable than Journey. I can probably count on one hand the number of times she willingly came up to the fence to meet me, and even then it was not for very long. She seemed satisfied to hang in the background but did love it when Lois came in for a visit.
Modoc – the gentle giant. He is named after a native tribe that adopted Lois. Modoc and his sibling Sakarri are the two other pups who were raised at the sanctuary. His personality is so incredibly different to that of his brother and sisters, though. The others are so energetic and keen to interact, whereas Modoc would seldom approach tour groups and was only comfortable with one or two people present. His quiet and careful nature clicked with me, though, and as with Tehalin and Asabe I’d spend a lot of time with him alone.
Modoc was actually the first wolf I met face-to-face. I remember it being a less-than-ideal situation, though. WWS’s global newsletter was due to come out, and as I’d had a fair amount of involvement with it Lois wanted to include a photo of me meeting one of the pack. It had been a long day though; a tour had just ended and we were switching wolves around the different exhibits. Modoc was in a transfer area with Lois and she beckoned me to come in. I was in no way relaxed, and very obviously nor was Modoc. Modoc is yet another large male, and while I knew his personality enough to not be as threatened by him as I would have been if I wasn’t familiar with him, I knew how wolves perceive us would be very different when we are separated by a fence as opposed to when we are in together. This was extremely apparent; Modoc had his tail tucked between his legs, I had crouched down as was usual but was so worried about making a positive impression on him that I’m sure my stress showed too.
Thankfully, not too long after this we tried again at a time where both of us were feeling much calmer, and it was a wonderful meeting.
Another pup with a perfectly fitting name; Sakarri means ‘sweet’ in Inuit. She is exactly that; a sweet, carefree animal who would whimper and whine at first sight of you, wiggle her tail all the way up to the fence to meet you and would kiss, lick and smooch you incessantly. Like Nike, she went absolutely nuts when people would go in the exhibits with her, and all she wanted to do was lick your face. When hanging out between the fence, Sakarri’s quirk was that she would lift her front leg and daintily hold it up. I’m not sure why she does this but it’s super cute. :)
Ventana and her partner, Nepenthe, have an absolutely heart-breaking story. They had actually been rescued from an illegal fur-farm that would kill animals at six months of age to harvest their pelts. The conditions of this place were, apparently, abhorrent. Animals were confined to cages so small that it was impossible for them to stand or fully extend their limbs. For this reason, Nepenthe and Ventana were found with underdeveloped hind legs, and were also severely malnourished. Now as I said before, Lois found the idea of roadkill for use with her wolves a very difficult concept to agree with. I understand where she is coming from; it is not a nice thought knowing a free animal died in a nasty accident. However, I do think it is fitting for things to go full circle and for the prey to be fed out to predators they would be supporting in the wild.
The first time Lois had been told about a carcass to collect she convinced herself to look past the sad side and realise it was for the good of her animals, and so went to bring it back for them. The animal had been a pregnant doe, with full milk sacs still in tact. This was shortly after Nepenthe and Ventana had been brought to WWS and were not in a good state. Lois ended up actually feeding them the doe’s milk, full of nutrients and colostrum to boost the immune system. Their strength grew, and looking at them during my visit (albeit over a decade on) you would never have known they’d had such a rough start.
These were the two wolves I had the least amount to do with. Ventana was an absolutely stunning female, so placid and calm, but stayed away from really anyone but Lois. She was an inspiration though, a reminder of the good that can come when someone takes a stand against cruelty.
Sadly, Ventana passed away earlier this year at 14 years old, which is an impressive age even for a captive wolf. I know she will be very greatly missed.
Nepenthe is the bold fellow I mentioned who likes to assert his dominance on people. He worked so well with Ventana, his sister, and liked Lois’ company, but anyone else he would run, lunge and leer at. I learnt to ignore him but for some reason the sensitive part of me still took offense, even though I knew it wasn’t a personal act!
The group dynamics have changed since I left, especially with Ventana’s passing. But it is said that even years after meeting these animals, they will still remember you from the first time they caught your scent. I hope that one day, in the not too distant future, I can find this out for myself.
Adore, am grateful for, and miss you guys, always.