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Monday, February 28, 2011

Among the Wolves

Wolves touch a place in my heart like no other wild animal. I have two dogs, and I love them immensely. I have worked for a large animal shelter, I have volunteered with a variety of animal welfare organizations and I have fostered homeless golden retrievers. I have a real soft spot for dogs.

But there is something very special about wolves. They look so similar to dogs, yet they clearly are  not like their domesticated relatives. I have been blessed to be able to sit in a pen with some of these magnificent animals. It is an experience I never will forget. I sat with Liberty, a wolf/malamute mix, talking to him and stroking him.

Dadyoe is a gray wolf. Initially nervous around people he doesn't know, he is becoming calmer around strangers, and I watched him engage in a game of chase with one of his favorite human visitors. As I sat in his pen and observed him, I felt no fear, just awe at getting to be so close to such a beautiful animal.

I spent a couple of hours with some other wolves yesterday. There were three wolves and wolf/dogs, all rescued from abusive situations. Hokshila, a timber wolf, weighs 125 pounds. Liberty weighs about 80 pounds. And Bindi, at 65 pounds, is a wolf/coyote/husky. They were part of an educational outreach presentation by a wolf rescue group to give people an opportunity to not only learn about wolves, but also to meet them up close and see what awesome creatures they are.

Every time I have spent time with these animals, which have been socialized and no longer fear people, I have come away so amazed by how gentle and trusting they are, especially given their histories of abuse and neglect. Spending time with them is like spending time with a dog that isn't a dog. Wolves have much in common with domestic dogs, of course, yet the differences are noticeable. There is a 'wildness' about them, although they respond to commands (sit, shake, down, come), walk on a leash and gently take treats, as do many pet dogs. The wolves exhibit typical canine greeting behaviors and they wag their tails.

But unlike dogs, wolves do not bark. They howl and growl, but they do not bark. Their eyes are almond-shaped, while dogs' eyes are round. Wolf eyes also tend to be amber or green; most dogs have brown eyes. (A couple of breeds, such as the Siberian husky and Australian shepherd, can have blue eyes). There are differences in the skulls, ears and muzzles, too. But the most profound difference isn't something visible; it is something that is sensed.

There is something in their presence that reminds me that these are not domesticated dogs. I have no fear of them; I can read their body language as I can read that of dogs. I have been kissed by Hokshila and leaned on by Liberty. Bindi rolls over for tummy rubs just as my dogs do. But what is different is their sense of 'wolfness.' It is more than their intelligence, although that is considerable.

I discovered a wonderful video on Facebook called The Kiss of the Wolf.
The video captures the beauty, trust, inquisitiveness and playfulness of these magnificent animals; the musical accompaniment is haunting. I encourage people to watch it.

As the ancestors of our beloved domestic dogs, don't wolves deserve our respect and protection? As apex predators, they help keep the populations of deer, elk and other ungulates under control. They prey on the weak and ill, thereby strengthening the wild populations of prey animals. They also help keep the rodent and rabbit populations in check. They work together to hunt, showing intelligence and coordination, and the pack helps raise the pups. And they care for each other. Pack members will take food to an injured wolf unable to get to the kill. I have seen that same concern shown by Bindi, who placed himself in front of a small child sitting on the grass, as if daring anyone to try to harm the baby.

Maligned, hated, hunted, poisoned, trapped and shot from airplanes, wolves are remarkable animals. They are not the evil creatures of fairy tales and myths. Wolves, for good reason, steer clear of humans in the wild. They are shy, seldom seen in the wild. They do not deserve the reputation they have been given. They deserve our protection as they struggle to survive against those who hate them simply for being wolves.