My first day back at the White Wolf Sanctuary last month was, as I have mentioned, full of nervousness and excited anticipation. After I navigated the mountain’s forestry road hidden amongst jungle-like national forest, I reached the wolf-proof fences marking the beginning of the Sanctuary. I was, of course, on the look-out for fluffy white creatures effortlessly navigating their ways through the tall pine trees – and, as expected, I saw several. After four years of being away from them I couldn’t quite recognise the individual animals at that distance though, so I kept driving up to the informal car-park outside the WWS Director’s house and officially began my first shift.
As soon as I stepped out of my car I noticed one mature-looking wolf trot across his enclosure to gaze inquisitively at me from the fence-line. In the time between my last internship, five of the ten wolves I had met in 2010 have sadly passed away and WWS has rescued five more. I was certain that this fellow looking at me with great interest was one I had not met before, and as I went over to introduce myself to him I was told that he was indeed one of the newest additions to the White Wolf Sanctuary family. This great, gorgeous beast in front of me was named Goliath, an 11-year-old male Tundra wolf. Tundra wolves – like Arctic wolves – are a possible subspecies of the grey wolf (Canis lupus), the main difference to Arctics being that the Tundra’s native habitat stretches from Finland to far-east Russia, whilst the natural range of the Arctic wolf is found in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (a group of islands north of the Canadian mainland).
Goliath is a stunning example of his species, that’s for sure. Tall, lean and handsome with a coarse, thick white coat and ginormous padded paws. I knelt down beside him for the first time and held out the back of my hand for him to sniff – almost at once he turned to the side to let me scratch him. “He’s so trusting,” I remember thinking to myself – though I do not doubt that they have an excellent ability to judge a person’s character. It is always an honour when you know a wolf has ‘accepted’ you.
The wolves at the White Wolf Sanctuary tend to arrive at the centre with their reproductive organs intact, and WWS does not like to have them speyed or neutered because having an animal carted off to the veterinarian is extremely disruptive to all of the wolves. However, the Sanctuary does not breed animals (with wolves being killed all over the globe, the greater environment isn’t currently safe for release); instead they are generally kept in male-female pairs. A very interesting thing about pure wolves is that breeding pairs only produce pups once a year – typically, mating only occurs for one week or so during February (it coincides with our Valentine’s Day!), so WWS wolves happily coexist in their decided pairs (and yes, they choose whether they bond with a particular wolf or not; they could never be forced to live in harmony) until this particular week in February comes along and they are separated for a few days.
Goliath arrived at WWS from an establishment that was very tourist-focused. He was kept in a concrete pen, and people would pay to take photos of him. When he finally arrived at the White Wolf Sanctuary he was introduced to a beautiful older wolfie lady named Hope. Hope is a 15-year-old Arctic wolf, and had been living at WWS alone for some time since her previous mate passed away. Hope had been lonely, quiet and subdued. And then Goliath came along.
Goliath – this not-so-young male – was suddenly free of his concrete pen. He had grass to play in. Fields to run through. Ponds to swim in. And he was given careful meetings with this graceful, quiet older lass Hope. I’m going to let myself be completely anthropomorphic here and say that Goliath simply fell for her. Hope, also, seemed to find charm in this younger man and eventually he was teaching her to play like a pup again – Goliath, the wolf who had been contained his whole life, was teaching his older mate to rediscover exploration, playfulness and curiosity.
While I sat there with Goliath during our first interaction, Hope herself wandered over to greet me, this stranger she had never met before. My first impression was that she was a very gentle girl – being older she did not move with quite the confident strength and force as the others; she was slower, but no less bold or self-assured. Hope brought her muzzle to my hand and sniffed it very quickly, and proceeded to cover it with dainty wolf licks. I felt honoured.
During this stay at the White Wolf Sanctuary I found that Hope wasn’t one for prolonged cuddles with me, but would often come over to greet me with a few graceful kisses before she went on about her day. Goliath seemed to be the one of the pair who liked to hog the attention – and he would be obviously unimpressed if he didn’t get his fill. I loved spending time with these two, almost as much as I loved seeing them spend time together.
Goliath treats Hope as any true gentleman should. She sleeps a good portion of the day, especially in hot weather, and you can be sure that whatever Goliath is up to he will not be far from her side. When the pair is moved into another enclosure, as utterly eager as he may be to explore their new area he always makes sure Hope has successfully come through to the new habitat with him – and if she lags behind Goliath will trot around her in encouragement as if to say, “Come along, dear.” Every evening as the heat of the day settles, Goliath and Hope go for their routine “stroll” – it is an adorable sight; the pair wander across the field of one of their favourite enclosures, into the trees and all the way back to the most farthest fence. It is their nightly routine, and because Hope is over 15-years-old (which is an incredible age for a wolf to live to) WWS has set things up so that the special ‘seniors’ have access to this favoured strolling enclosure as much as possible.
The White Wolf Sanctuary holds over 50 acres of wolf-friendly habitat. Enclosures are separated by two sets of chain-link fences, and wolves are rotated around habitats so that they often have a new area to explore. As much as Goliath and Hope love their nightly stroll, sometimes they can’t make up their minds about which area they exactly want to be in. For example, there is one enclosure in which Hope spends a lot of her time resting – it is a relatively small habitat but has her favourite “wolf cabin” inside, and is opposite the Director’s house, makeshift car-park, Visitor’s Cabin and lies along the driveway up to the Sanctuary – in other words, it is the centre of attention and she gets to see everything that is going on; every car that passes, every person walking to and from the Visitor’s Cabin, etc. The pair always has access to their favourite strolling area, too, but Hope really does love it near her little cabin. Just to give them a new environment during the day, sometimes they will be moved across the driveway to a different habitat. To do this, large metal fences are swung across the driveway to connect the two enclosures and their gates are opened, allowing the wolves to run (or amble) through to the new habitat. In the evenings in time for Hope and Goliath’s stroll, the enclosures are reconnected and the wolves can head back to their favourite habitats. However, sometimes one of them just doesn’t feel like it. Sometimes they would rather sit down and make life a little bit more difficult for the WWS staff – and I am sure the wolves realise it, which you can’t help but laugh about. The photo to the left shows what I am talking about. There is Hope, sitting smack-bang in the middle of the raceway between the two enclosures we have connected. With other habitats it wouldn’t be a problem, but because this particular raceway lies over the WWS driveway, no cars can get in or out – so depending on which side you’re on, you’re stuck until she decides to move! And there she sits, happily missing out on her stroll while she makes up her mind about which enclosure she would prefer for the evening.
The wolves’ personalities constantly amaze me, and are such a joy. Goliath is always making me smile at his antics. Tundra wolves have been known to show significant tear-staining under their eyes, so you can often see evident brown streaks on either side of Goliath’s face. He is prone to allergies – not surprising, since he came from an enclosed space and now has the freedom of nature all around him. Because of this, though, and due to his age, he gets regular medication and supplements – that is if we can get him to eat them. Wolves are, as you can probably imagine, not silly creatures and have an incredible sense of smell. If you want to sneak medication into food, you have to be very careful about it. Even if you are extremely careful, and offer the tastiest morsel of a wolf’s most favourite treat, they can still tell and may simply refuse what you are giving them. Goliath is hilarious – instead of simply refusing to eat something he mistrusts, he carefully holds the little bite-sized piece of treat in his mouth, walks off into his habitat, digs a shallow hole with his paws, unceremoniously drops the prepared treat into the hole and swiftly covers it up with his nose. Then he will come back to you to see what else you have to offer. I learnt the hard way that I had to be very particular about how I presented Goliath’s laced treats to him – after a couple of times having to answer, “No, Goliath didn’t get his medication…” I figured out a tactic that was successful… at least some of the time!
The heat in September had Hope acting very lethargic. She had Sanctuary staff worried. In the wild it is rare for a wolf to make it past even six or so years old, so 15 truly is an extraordinary age – even for a captive-born Arctic wolf. It is one of those things, though, about mortality; at some point you do have to say goodbye. The wolves sense sadness, too – if you approach a day with dread in your heart, they will be able to tell. Despite inevitable goodbyes, it makes more sense to treasure each given moment; savour the precious time granted. Not relishing those positive moments is simply impossible when you are spending them at the Sanctuary, that’s for sure.