April 06, 2016

Photo Essay: Playing With Wolves

I was notoriously scared of dogs as a kid—and for good reason, after having been chased, bitten, and knocked over by a few of them that were both strange and familiar.

I never liked dogs and never wanted one as a pet. I always wanted a cat.

So it would've never occurred to me that one day I would end up at a wolf preserve, nuzzling and snuggling and feeding and kissing some wild canines.

In fact, the first time I ever encountered any wolves—at concert pianist Hélène Grimaud's house (now the Wolf Conservation Center) in South Salem, NY—I kept my distance, watching them from the other side of a fence as they crawled up Hélène's back and climbed onto her head.

Back then, in the late 1990s / early 2000s, animal sanctuaries weren't quite as common as they are now. People just went to the zoo to see animals. No one thought much of saving them, aside from the occasional PETA protest of celebrities wearing real fur coats.

But, as it turns out, wolves have needed saving for a long time.

For centuries, the Canis lupus has been plagued by a reputation of being a big and bad threat to human survival. But the many different varieties of wolf—from gray to red to Alaskan timber—can actually be quite friendly to humans, as long as they can sniff you first.

At their Freedom Ranch in Lake Hughes, CA, the Shadowland Foundation's outreach programs try to dispel the myth of the wolf as nature's ultimate villain—a myth that's so widespread and so insidious that nearly all species of wolves have been hunted to extinction in the wild in the lower 48 states.

Those that survive (who number in the hundreds) are at facilities like Hélène's or the Shadowland Foundation, where pups and juveniles are trained early on to coexist with and obey humans, so they can act as ambassadors to teach the general public (especially children) why wolves are protected, and why they should be valued rather than eradicated.

At the Freedom Ranch, there's really no standing behind the fence. If you don't get right up in front of the wolves, you're not really experiencing them.

Now, the wolves at Shadowland aren't wild, and they can never be wild.

They've been trained so well that if they were to be released, they'd probably come up to greet any human they encountered—and the human would probably freak out and shoot them, or call someone with a gun who'll do it for them.

Now, that doesn't mean you ever want to stick your fingers in their mouths. Nor should you show any signs of aggression, like getting too close to their faces.

Photo by

But when they want to come up and sniff you—wherever they want to sniff you—you should just let them do it.

Photo by Joe Russo

In fact, they're so gentle, they'll eat a tasty treat right out of your mouth—and you'll feel nary a tooth.

Just a lot of tongue and saliva.

Like domestic dogs, wolves can have a lot of personality—but in their packs, they have a very distinct pecking order. The omegas have to let the alphas and the betas do everything first. And the lower their rank, the lower they'll hold their tail.

It doesn't mean that they're not happy. They all seem to know their place and settle into their respective roles—even if that means being the sentinel keeping watch and not getting tummy rubs and head scratches.

In fact, they look pretty darn happy.

After all, wolves were never meant to be the enemy of man. In Native American lore, wolves have been regarded as anything from hunting companions to guardians to all-powerful, god-like creatures.


Does this look like a bloodthirsty predator to you?

Sure, they're carnivorous hunters—as are we. But they tend to pick off the weakest animal in a group of elk, deer, bison, cattle, and what have you. And they use their own natural strength and skill rather than firearms.

They're not malevolent. They're just doing what it takes to survive.

I'm pretty sure they're not the devil incarnate, as some religions would have you believe.

They didn't choose this life.

They deserve to live—and die—as they were intended.

Besides, when they're left alone and alive, they help keep the ecosystem balanced. They eat deer that would otherwise eat all the vegetation. And more vegetation keeps the rivers from flooding, the soil from washing away, and the birds from finding somewhere else to nest.

More vegetation also means more rodents and little burrowing critters, which brings the hawks, eagles, and owls.

But wolves typically don't get any credit for that.

Instead, self-absorbed humans hear a howl and think it's a threat to them—when, in reality, it has nothing to do with them. It's just the wolves' way of talking to each other.

Not everything is about us.

And to me, the idea of a wolf turning into a man is much scarier than a man turning into a wolf.

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