Yesterday I drove out to Montgomery as I have done for the past few Saturdays, to help out at the wolf sanctuary. I've been worried all week about what Jean and the wolves would do if the wildfires get closer... I got downright upset as I got about 10 miles out from the sanctuary on CR105 and it was so smokey that it looked like fog... you could see where you were going, but the smoke hung thick and heavy, and I had to turn my a/c to recirculate because the smell was strong. I think the morning humidity helped the smoke hang in the air because by the time I left it had cleared off to some extent... but it looked dire.
I could tell that the wolves were edgy. Their sense of smell is so much keener than ours, keener even than a dog's. I read the other day that in a study, it took wolves ten minutes to identify trays with hidden food whereas it took dogs an hour. So imagine a barbecue smoker on steroids, and that's what it smelled like, times it by fifteen and that's what it smelled like to them. For all that, it was business as usual, cleaning the cages, going for walks, there was some tension but I think the sense of normalcy helped calm them.
Since my last post I have become a walker. I have walked Rafiki, Sable, Tala and Remus, or rather they have walked me. And I love it. I love any interaction I get.
Rafiki is shy. When she is willing to let you pet her she backs into a corner in the enclosure where she feels safe and she won't look you in the eyes at first, has to do with how she was treated at the pound. She reminds me of my cat Gracie... very loving but timid... wants to be loved but is afraid to trust anyone (hell, a few years ago that was me!). Rafiki, outside of the enclosure is a much more confident animal. She likes to walk fast, so I don't hold her back if I can help it - I walk fast too - just not that fast. When we get a certain distance ahead she will turn to find out where her penmate Romulus is and she will let him close the distance a little before she moves on, but she does like to be in front. After she looks back, she doesn't turn around and continue on, instead she walks in a circle, and Janet once said it looks like I had a show horse on a leash, because when Rafiki walks in a circle, I walk in a circle. It's hard to pick a favorite, but I think if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Rafiki - don't tell the others.
Sable is shy as well, but in a different way. She, like Rafiki, is a gorgeous white wolf-dog hybrid. Everyone always confuses the two, and when we're walking they will often call her Rafiki. Sable is curious and looks at me through the chain link fence, but if I move in any way she backs away. The first time I went to collar her she stood still and let me do it, everyone was amazed, and when we walked I could pet her as much as I wanted (and since it was a minor miracle I took advantage of it). Whenever Shae or Jesse reached over to try to pet her, she would put me in between herself and the human. The last two times we've walked she backs away from me when I try to collar her, but has no problem walking with me. She is the easiest to walk, she doesn't pull very much, and often walks just in front, or to the side, of me. When Sable comes up to me of her own accord, I will feel like I've made progress. With her it is baby steps.
Tala is an ambassador wolf who gets to go up to the benches and meet people. She and Remus were the first two that Mike and I had contact with when we went to visit the sanctuary in February. She's long and lean and gorgeous, mid-content wolf. She also likes to pull on walks and though lean, she's all muscle and determination. She's very friendly and loves attention. Between her and Remus, neither recognizes the other's dominance, so they often get into tussles and it sounds like they're killing each other. In reality I don't think they actually bite each other, they just jump around, growling and squealing at each other with their jaws open. When I went to pet Tala through the fence this weekend, Remus came up and stood in front of me, his body flat against the fence, growling low in his throat to tell her to back off, I belong to him. She didn't back off. Fighting ensued. So I backed away, feeling bad that I had caused the tussle in the first place.
Remus was the one I had a crush on in February. He's a gorgeous boy and he knows it. I think he's also trying to kill me... Last weekend after we walked, and after we went up to greet the people (something he apparently just started doing), he barreled into his enclosure and dove into the water tub, knocking my shoulder into a support post in the process. Ouch. This weekend he damn near got out of his enclosure as I was going in to collar him. Janet grabbed him by his coat, and I pinned him to the enclosure by bending my leg up under his neck. He is goodnatured... he didn't yip, growl, nip or anything, but the back of my thigh cramped up. He is like a horse... when we first start out he bounds out of the cage and I have to really work to hold him back. Like his brother Romulus, he pulls so hard on his chain that he's constantly panting and struggling to breathe. Last time the whole walk was like that, this time he eventually slowed down and we walked together. So much more pleasant. As we were heading back to the enclosures, a blackhawk helicopter flew overhead and he started whining, but as soon as I put my hand on his head he got quiet. He's a sweetheart sometimes. Then, for the second time, he took me straight to the benches and got tons of attention from everyone because, as I said... he's gorgeous. If he were a man, he'd be Billy Zane.
They all have their own unique personalities... Lakota (or Kotes as I have dubbed her) is a gorgeous white timber wolf, very submissive in her posture as she scent marks me through the fence. She makes a pass and I'll scratch, then she turns the other way and I scratch again. Around the third or fourth pass, her penmate Apache, a grey timber wolf decides that he is the dominant one and I should also scratch him. Whereas she squats down and rubs up and along the fence with her tail tucked, looking me directly in the eye, he walks past me, standing tall, sometimes knocking her out of the way. He looks me in the eye sometimes, but unless Kotes comes up to me, I don't exist.
Yoda and Mystery, the alphas... I don't think we really exist in their world. Mystery is 100% pure wolf who was caught in a trap that she escaped from and was then shot. She is cunning and aloof, loping around the cage in circles. It's her who always starts the howling. It's her that they believe to be Alpha of the 'pack'. Yoda is a big boy that turns into an excited puppy when he sees the leash coming his way, literally hopping from paw to paw. All the wolves and wolf-dogs go crazy when he comes out. Most of the time he shrugs it off. This weekend with the wildfires making everyone antsy, he growled low in his throat and was about to walk over and sort things out with Remus (although there were two fences between them). If he'd really wanted to go over there, I doubt we could have stopped him, but Jesse pulled on the leash and we took a different route... he calmed back down. He likes to sniff and mark by urinating on an object and then scratching the dirt to also mark the surrounding area with his scent. All the wolves that follow, sniff the same spots, mark the same spots. We walk them in a certain order: Duchess, Yoda, Romulus and Rafiki, Tracker and Sable, Koa, Remus and Tala, then Luke. We don't walk Lakota and Apache, Mystery, or Lola (we would walk her but they tell me she hasn't expressed an interest in going).
Luke and Lola are both white wolf dogs. Lola is people shy. Janet walks Luke, and Lola usually retreats to the dog house while we clean her cage. This weekend she stayed out, near the far edge of the enclosure and let us do our thing. That said, it was the end of the enclosure where we were, not the other end, so I felt like it was significant progress. I've been getting her to come up and sniff my hand through the cage, and I hope to be able to approach her someday, but it could be weeks or it could be months. I slowly moved closer to her, squatting down and holding my hand out to her, but I could see that she was on edge and ready to bolt at any moment so I didn't push. When Jesse walked up to her she ran away as I expected her to.
Duchess is the only one that scares me. I'm wary of some, completely relaxed around others... Duchess puts me on guard because I've seen her snap at someone and I've heard too many stories about her. She's the textbook lanky, lopey wolf. She can be very friendly and solicitous, but she's also bi-polar. I scratch her through the fence for a short period of time and I'm done, I'm afraid to hit a sore spot with her and make her mad (she has hot spots that they have been treating). Some people don't seem afraid of her at all... more power to them.
Romulus is a gentle giant. He's still a puppy so he's rambunctious sometimes, but he is a sweetheart. He's Mike's favorite, and like I said... hard for me to pick a favorite, especially now that I've been out there for a while, but I do love Romy. He and Remus are brothers, they're about two years old. Whereas Remus is thinner... wolf with Collie in him. Romulus is almost like a Saint Bernard-wolf mix. Mom came out a couple of weeks ago and she was nervous around all of them, but she was facinated by Romy, said he was the most beautiful. Romy is the yin to Rafiki's yang, she is calm and refined, he is a bull in a china shop, but he is incredibly sweet. When he gets frustrated, he snaps his jaws... he wouldn't bite anyone, to me, each snap is like he's cursing under his breath because he does it when he's being walked and not allowed to run free. He looks terrifying when they bring Yoda out, he stands up and shakes the fence, snarling and snapping his jaws because he wants to be Alpha, but to people he's never aggressive in the least.
Tracker is Sable's penmate, and the newest addition to the sanctuary. He's mostly dog. This weekend he was jumping like a coiled spring and someone joked that they should have named him Tigger because he got about three feet off the ground with each jump. He's adorable. He's another one that always gets to go up and meet people, and he loves to drink from the hose, be sprayed with the hose, and lay in his water tub (took a nap in it once). He has brought Sable out of her shell a bit. From what I understand, she was very protective of her previous penmate who recently died of old age, and now she is becoming much more playful and animated.
Lastly there is Koa, or Koa-bear as he is called. A 'ferocious' beast who would lick you to death if you let him. He is the gentlest of them all, but he is also 95% dog. Somehow he was labelled a wolf and once labelled, it stuck, so he ended up at the sanctuary. He's a big, burly ball of furry love. He and Duchess each have an enclosure to themselves, the rest are paired up. In his case it's because he's too submissive, so it's hard to put him with another wolf-dog. Life is good for Koa.
It's a long drive out there, the work is exhausting, but I love it. It's the best part of my week. Like my dad said, it's very peaceful out there. It's rewarding when the wolves accept you into their pack, and you see changes in their behavior toward you week by week as the trust between you builds. It's not for everyone, there have been people who showed up for a weekend and never came back... we pick up poop, we fill in holes, we scrub water tubs, we walk... but I am looking forward to the day when Mike and I open our sanctuary and are able to do it fulltime. We came up with a name: The Nashoba Refuge. We were originally going with Wolf Haven, but there was already a Wolfhaven. Both of us associate wolves with Native American Indians, so I looked up the word for wolf in Cherokee and there was no word as such, just symbols and a phonetic pronunciation, but the Chickasaw were also from Tennessee and their word for wolf was Nashoba. As soon as I found it, I knew that was our name. We both liked it, so that's what we chose. Both our heads are spinning with ideas and eagerness. It's going to take a while to get going, but we are determined... we know this is what we want to do, and volunteering has only strengthened my resolve.