My visit to Wolf Sanctuary
Sigmund at Wolf Sanctuary
By Ruby R. Benjamin, Ed.D.
You haven’t been kissed till you’ve been kissed by a wolf – the four-legged kind.
I had the pleasure of experiencing this a few weeks ago when I volunteered at Wolf Sanctuary in Northern Colorado. It was a unique opportunity for a dog lover like me to learn about and interact with their ancestors, the wolves and wolf-dogs. I wanted to experience first-hand the reality of these magnificent animals and to dispel some of the irrational fears and myths attributed to them.
Arriving at the sanctuary
The road to the sanctuary is an adventure in itself, accessible only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle that’s high enough off the ground to travel on the unpaved, gullied road.
On my first day, I tagged along with one of the trusted volunteers making his morning rounds to distribute meatballs containing medicine. The wolves come to the fence of their half-acre habitats, eager for the “treat.” I was surprised how soft their mouths were when they took the meatball from a spoon. Dry food is available to them through a self-feeder, but Saturday is feast day. That’s when the local supermarkets donate raw meat, whole chickens and meat bones. The meats are distributed to various areas of the habitats for the wolves to sniff out and devour – a taste of past life in the wild.
Lance gets one of his special weekly treats
The sanctuary was founded 16 years ago by Frank Wendland, a kind and gentle man dedicated to improving the quality of life for the wolves through rescue, safety, and care and by educating the public.
The animals come from rescue groups or individuals who had adopted a wolf or wolf-dog cub, only to discover that it was more than they could handle. Some held them for more nefarious reasons and then turned to Wolf Sanctuary when they were no longer wanted.
Many of the wolves have been abused and are understandably wary of humans. One of them is too scared of people even to come to the fence for his treat, so he gets it delivered separately. But with patience and kindness, many of them slowly begin to trust humans again.
Of the 29 wolves and wolf-dogs, six are socialized enough for staff and volunteers to get up close and personal. Pax, a year-old wolf-dog and Sasha, his mother surrogate, are always happy to have us in their space, and I was greeted with great enthusiasm. Pax and Sasha jumped up and covered me with kisses. It was wonderful to be invited into their pack. Of course, staff members were around to monitor the exuberance of the animals – all 165 pounds of them – and to watch that they didn’t get too rambunctious. I was cautioned to be mindful of what’s going on around me at all times, to move slowly and to face the wolves so as not to surprise them. I always sat in their presence to reduce my height, which can be a threat, and I waited until they approached me.
Sigmund, a collie-wolf-dog stole my heart. When I first met him, I thought that he must be the incarnation of Peter, the rough collie of my childhood. At Wolf, Signmund found his forever companion, Tunyan, a full wolf.
His habitat is close to the house so that he enjoys lots of time with people who take part in his training toward becoming an ambassador wolf-dog who will visit schools as part of a program to show young people that wolves belong in the wild and play a critical role in the ecosystem.
One morning when I arrived at the sanctuary, the wolves and wolf-dogs were howling in chorus. Who said that wolves only howl at night when the moon is full? These animals howl at any time of the day. One wolf starts, and soon the others join in, their necks pointed toward the sky.
The howl is a haunting sound that doesn’t last long, but once heard is not easily forgotten. The wolves howl for social communication and, in the wild, to alert the rest of the pack to danger. They also bark and whine, but we don’t know the meaning of all their vocalizations. Canines have a complex language that includes verbalizations, physical movement, facial expressions and tail positions. It takes time to learn to “speak wolf.”
A healing experience
The wolves aren’t the only ones who find healing at the sanctuary. One day, sanctuary founder Frank Wendland had a call from a woman who wanted to visit and spend some time with the animals, especially Spirit.
Spirit had been brought to the sanctuary at age 5-and-a-half months from a man who wanted to get rid of him. The woman on the phone explained that she had helped the man care for Spirit from the time he was just a few weeks old until the day he was suddenly no longer there. And the man had refused to tell her where he was or what had happened.
Sometime later, her son was killed and she became severely depressed. But one day she had an overwhelming urge to open the mail that she had left piling up. She came across the Wolf sanctuary newsletter, and in it was a photo of Spirit. She felt her son had directed her to find Spirit in order to help her to heal. She went to the sanctuary, and when she called out to Spirit, the two of them were joyfully reunited. Healing had begun.
Tunyan in her habitat
There is something spiritual and intense about being in the presence of these magnificent, shy, powerful animals. I look into their yellow, slanted deep intelligent eyes and have a sense of serenity and awe. To be scent marked, kissed by a wolf and accepted into their pack is both an honor and a privilege.
Dr. Ruby Benjamin is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City with individuals and couples. She specializes in relationship issues with self, others and, sometimes with canines. She is on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health, the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and is a consultant to Doctors without Borders, Peer Support Network.