The first few days I worked at the White Wolf Sanctuary I was focused on learning my way around the centre, making myself familiar to each of the wolves and gleaning all I could from sanctuary tours. The tours are a wonderful way to spend a few hours of the day and involve an interactive talk, short video of the wolves’ earlier days and a full tour of the rescue centre as well as the opportunity to ‘meet’ most of the wolves. I couldn’t stop admiring the passion of every single person dedicated to the sanctuary, especially Lois Tulleners. Every tour group would be met with warm enthusiasm, each talk would inspire and educate guests and I know every single group would go away feeling rewarded and more aware. The time invested in inviting people up to the sanctuary on a daily basis was massive and I was surprised at how small the entry donation was for all of this. It would cost each person hardly more than what you would pay for visiting the local zoo here in Auckland, and I was amazed at how the chance to actually touch and interact with the wolves was included. I know of many places that would charge a heck of a lot more to let visitors meet their animals, and keeping in mind the sanctuary is an entirely non-profit organisation and runs solely on donations, the miniscule entry cost was a tiny ask. I truly, truly can not put into words how much I admire Lois’ work and determination to keep these animals and her sanctuary safe – I have no idea how she does it. Huge self sacrifice is involved, and I don’t know anyone else who would be willing and able to do this for such a cause whilst relying solely on donations to keep it all going.
Tours also required a huge sense of trust in the guests. Meeting so many people from all over the world with different perspectives and points of view on wildlife, I was still surprised and sometimes even appalled at how the occasional person would disrespect the sanctuary rules. Not much was asked of guests; they were simply asked to stay together, not stray from sanctuary staff members and obviously not approach a wolf without being invited to. But several times I found myself witnessing someone who would just blatantly disregard this obvious trust put in them. Knowing how deeply Lois felt for the wolves in her care, her number one priority was keeping them safe and positively enriched – putting yourself in her shoes I could imagine that giving strangers the ability to roam around your animals would at times be a difficult task. Especially when hearing how some of them talked about the wolves. I witnessed huge disagreements in opinions – it would generally be adults who were obviously just there for their kids, but they would be inclined to go against any ideals the sanctuary was trying to promote. I would simply never dream of visiting a sanctuary where the director and all the volunteers plainly care about their cause so much and then disrespect them by telling them they are wrong, their views are stupid and their animals should be shot and skinned.
So that’s a fairly strong example, and disputes would seldom happen but I was surprised that this sort of thing would actually occur at all. I would never think to disrespect someone like that when they are very obviously putting their life and soul into a cause and hurting absolutely no-one along the way. As I said, I don’t know anyone else who would be willing to give their entire life up for something like this, but Lois is that woman.
Most of the people I did meet during tours were absolutely wonderful though. I was so, extremely nervous the first time Lois asked me to take the truck down the mountain to fetch that day’s group by myself. I have never been the most outgoing individual and I wasn’t sure I would exude much confidence. It was a little awkward at times having to wait for guests who got lost and turned up late or simply never arrived (unfortunately, phone coverage in the immediate area was pretty much nonexistent so lost visitors would have to drive for a while before being able to contact Lois, and then she had no way of contacting me at the bottom of the mountain to give me a heads up), but most of the time greetings ran seamlessly. As soon as I opened my mouth to welcome guests and give the first few instructions before heading up the remote trail I would be met with a myriad of questions about myself; where was I from, what was I doing so far from home, why did I choose Oregon, did I like it here, were people being friendly to me? People, no matter where they were from, seemed to be touched by the fact that this girl from New Zealand had ventured halfway across the world to dedicate herself to something she had no responsibility over. That in itself was thanks enough for me.
Tours always proved to be a great time. I surprised myself when discovering that I actually enjoyed meeting the groups – all this time I had been looking for a way to distance myself from greater society and get lost with wolves for a while but it was so heart-warming to chat with like-minded people who admired the sanctuary’s work, enlightening not so like-minded people and compelling them to change their perspectives a little, and just experiencing the pure enjoyment and awe each visitor expressed when coming face-to-face with the animals. Even those leaning toward a more opposed opinion of wolves in the United States couldn’t deny they were astounded by the personalities of the Arctic wolves in the sanctuary’s care. Without a doubt near every guest would melt and leave at the end of the day talking about their favourite member of the pack.
A few tours groups had the luck of being on site when the wolves would begin howling. When this occurred all activity at the sanctuary would stop; as each wolf would cease his/her activity to lose themselves in the chorus, so would every human stand quietly to listen.
The true sensation one feels when in the middle of a wolf chorus is indescribable, but I will try! A wolf or two will start it – a long, calling song. Others will take up the cry and a wash of haunting tones takes over; an eerie yet beautiful cacophony. Their voices do not hit the same pitch; some wolves will waver across notes, others wax and wane a single pitch – the combined result is a powerfully moving united symphony. It can last minutes, and I remember sitting up at the top of the mountain hearing these voices echo all around the sanctuary – there were only ten wolves but you could swear there were countless more.
Occasionally the coyotes living out in the forests would banter back. You could hear their shorter, less powerful howls and yips in answer and sometimes our own Tamahawk would sing to them. She sounded quite like a coyote herself; having her muzzle taped for so long must have hindered the development of her howl. Lois told us a story of one of the sanctuary’s late wolves who seemed to enjoy the company of a coyote; the smaller mammal would wander down to the habitat fences and they would run back and forth together. It must have been a sight!
Aside from tours the days would be spent preparing feed for the wolves, moving them through exhibits, providing them with enrichment and of course cleaning habitats out. The outdoor work was so much fun; I really do miss it. While it wasn’t very warm right on the coast where I would return each evening, the sanctuary is inland and up on the mountain it would get stinking hot. I loved it. The wolves did too; they had their lighter, summer coats on and would sunbathe in the gentle early morning sun then retreat somewhere cozy for the afternoon. They had frozen ice blocks, frozen deer and hose showers. It was a wonderful time. During winter it does snow up the mountain and the wolves get their massive winter furs on so look even more colossal. They are made for weather like that, but even so they certainly enjoyed the summer.
If they didn’t finish with a carcass in the heat it would quickly spoil. This wouldn’t bother the wolves but stronger smells attracted birds such as ravens and vultures. These creatures were also frequent visitors of the sanctuary and occasionally one would be unlucky enough to become a wolf’s prey. The bases of the fence lines were spotted with mounds of wolf fur and discarded raven feathers. I remember seeing one tour guest stooping to collect tufts every so often and at the time I wondered what he was doing; he was native to the states so surely wolves and ravens weren’t uncommon to him. At the end of the tour after I drove the group back down the mountain to say my thanks and goodbyes the man handed me a beautiful glossy black raven feather with wolf fur meticulously entwined around its quill. He presented it as a gift, explaining how wolves and ravens are entwined together as messengers of the gods. He told me he had been touched by my story, and I know I will never forget this man. To this day that Navajo cleansing feather sits in a special drawer beside my bed, surviving a trip halfway across the world and through fumigation at Customs. It is one of my favourite reminders of a very special journey.
I knew my days at the sanctuary would eventually end (this time around) and ten weeks did pass very quickly. However, every single day up there brought a new experience, something new to learn and something new to teach. Being there every day gave me more hope for us; this rescue centre was now a reality to me and it helped me remember there are people out there with an immense passion to have even a small positive influence. It’s very cliché but one person can make a huge difference, even if it is on a few lives.