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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Dream Come True

I'm a city girl. I grew up in and have always lived in highly urban areas. Still, I have loved the outdoors for many years: hiking, backpacking, camping, outdoor photography. Being outside in the sunshine and fresh air is so important to my emotional well-being.

Recently one of my long-held dreams came true when I attended a talk by Stephanie Kaylan, founder of the Wanagi Wolf Fund and Rescue just north of Albuquerque. She spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the Open Space Alliance visitor center. While Stephanie provided a lot of information and stories about wolves, the real stars were her two sidekicks, Hokshila and Bindi.

Hokshila is a timber wolf, a massive, beautiful animal who stands 6'3" on his hind legs and weighs anywhere from 117 to 130 pounds, depending on time of year. Bindi, a New Mexico gray wolf/coyote/Siberian husky mix, is much smaller.

I have admired the beauty, power and intelligence of wolves for many years, but this was my first opportunity to actually see wolves up close. Seeing Hokshila when I walked into the room took my breath away. He is such a large animal, and obviously extremely strong. And yet, his favorite people to greet were the children present. Hokshila wore a harness attached to a short, wide leash, and his power was obvious. As he pulled to greet people in the audience, he risked injuring Stephanie's shoulder joint. Yet he would sit on command and gently take a biscuit from her hand.

Anybody who still believes that wolves are aloof, solitary, evil animals is badly mistaken. Bindi, like Hokshila, loves people. It also is clear that these animals are attached to each other. When Bindi was taken outside for a bathroom break, Hokshila watched through the window, obviously missing his buddy. Bindi's best friend, however, is Stephanie's dog Hozho. He reportedly follows her everywhere and loves to just 'hang out' with her. Because Hokshila was grieving the recent death of his female companion, a new female wolf from a rescue in Oregon will soon join him to help ease his grief.

I have never understood how people can love dogs, yet despise the wolf, which is, after all, the ancestor of the dog. Wolves live in family groups; the entire pack helps raise the young. If a wolf is injured and unable to get to food, another wolf will take chunks of meat to it. Wolves hunt to survive, not for recreation. And when they hunt, they do so in a coordinated fashion, working together to bring down their large prey. More often than not, they are not successful in their attempts to bring down a large animal. Wolves prey on the old, the sick, the young and the injured. In that way, they help keep the population of prey animals -- whether deer, elk, moose or buffalo -- healthy and strong. Stephanie mentioned a study in which a researcher examined the femur bones of animals killed by wolves. Every one showed signs of disease. In addition to keeping the prey herds healthy, not attempting to take down a healthy animal such as a moose or buffalo drastically reduces the chance of a wolf being seriously injured by the prey.

After the presentation and a short break for Hokshila, we were allowed to pose with him for a picture, for a $10 donation to the Wanagi Wolf Fund. This was an opportunity I wouldn't pass up for anything. My daughter used my camera to take pictures of me with Hokshila, and I took pictures of her with him. Kneeling beside this very large predator was such an awe-inspiring experience. I had to remind myself that this was a timber wolf, not a domestic dog, around which I had placed my arm.

I was walking on air the rest of the day after meeting these wolves. I found it hard to sleep as I replayed our brief meeting in my mind. These animals, which too many people fear and hate, are loyal, intelligent, loving, beautiful creatures. Hokshila, Bindi and the other wolves in refuges cannot be released into the ever-diminishing wild, as they can no longer fend for themselves. Because they were raised by or lived with people, they have come to associate people with food. If released, these animals would likely either starve or seek food from people.

Wolves have been human companions for thousands of years. Because of the relationship that developed between wolves and early humans, we now enjoy, and benefit from, the love, companionship and service of hundreds of breeds of dogs (and even more mixed breeds). Rather than fearing wolves (remember "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", the evil wolf in "The Three Little Pigs," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Peter and the Wolf"?), we should emulate their spirit of cooperation and concern for other members of their pack.

These magnificent animals offer us so many opportunities to learn from them. It is up to us to decide whether we will be open to their generosity, or whether we will continue to exploit them by breeding wolves and wolf/dogs as pets, most of which end up chained to trees, caged, abused or dumped at animal shelters when they mature and do the things that wolves do. Some people apparently see having a wolf or wolf/dog as a status symbol, although the vast majority have no clue what it takes to keep these animals physically and mentally happy and challenged.

Wolves have largely been exterminated from their natural habitat. Efforts to reintroduce wolf populations into a small portion of their former range have met with mixed results. Too often, they are hunted and killed by cowardly people who fear the wolf.

I have contacted Stephanie about volunteering with her rescue group. She needs people to help with all kinds of things at the refuge, including -- get this -- helping to socialize some of the wolves and wolf/dogs by spending time in their large enclosures with them! I'm still waiting to hear back from her, but I so hope I will be able to volunteer with this group. I've been trying to determine where I want to volunteer since I retired, and this sounds like the perfect thing for me. I love animals, especially canines, and I love being outside. And just think of the opportunities to photograph these magnificent animals!

I believe we owe it to captive wolves to provide as nearly natural a life and environment as possible, to treat them with respect, and to learn as much as we can from them. Hokshila, Bindi and the other wolves and wolf/dogs in refuges are ambassadors from their species to ours. Will we be receptive to the message they are trying to deliver, or will we continue to exploit and kill them?