Living with wolfdogs - Words and pictures by Lovisa Cullheim
The fascination with the wild has created a widespread trade with exotic animals in the USA. But when people try to domesticate the wild it does not always end well and the need for wildlife sanctuaries is increasing. One of them is the wolf refuge Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation in Colorado.
The sun is just about to rise. The air is still cold from the chilly night. And as the first rays of sunshine push through the thick pine tree branches there is suddenly a howling that multiplies into a choir of ragged voices. Screaming as if the moon was full.
In the hillsides of the remote mountain village Guffey in southwest Colorado lies Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, brainchild of Mark Johnson who started the sanctuary 18 years ago with the hope of creating a safe haven for abused and neglected wolves and wolfdogs (crossbreeds between wolves and dogs).
He has dedicated his life to the carnivore that inspires everything from mystery to hatred and fascination in the USA. Today he and his wife Catherine have 12 rescued animals, five of them pure grey wolves and the rest wolfdog crosses.
According to Mark, an increasing problem in the USA is that lot of people want to own a part of the wild and decide to get a dog that is part wolf. But these wolfdog crosses often have a set of needs and demands that are very different from those of a household breed.
"They are often extremely intelligent, curious and strong willed and the wolf in them can manifest in a strong wanderlust and prey instinct, causing them to run away," Mark Johnson says. "A lot of owners do not know how to train their pets the right way which often leads to abuse and neglect. Most of the animals at the sanctuary have suffered severe abuse in the hands of their owners".
"Sadly, in my experience the most commonly used weapon against these guys is the baseball bat. It’s very powerful and it puts some distance between the animal and the owner. I have seen animals with their teeth knocked out and one came in with a cigarette burn on her forehead. People do not know how to handle them and try to beat them into submission. In my opinion a lot of these owners should not even be allowed to own a pet rock", he adds.
The starry-eyed eight year olds are sitting on the ground in a half circle around wolf and Malamute mix Baby, their hands raised and eyes locked at the big, light grey animal that they know so well from the nursery rimes and children's stories. Today Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation is visiting Colorado Springs and the Catamount Institute that does environmental education for children.
An important part of RMWF:s job is to dispel common myths about wolves. Myths that more than often gather strength from the blood thirsty monster that roams the shadowy forests of the fairy tale world. Some kids come in feeling nervous because they have read things or heard things about the wolf from their parents for example.
After all, animals like wolves are regularly portrayed negatively in pop culture and that rubs off on them. Just take stories such as the ”Little red riding hood” and ”The three little pigs and the big bad wolf” as an example. The students are curious about these sort of edgy animals that seem to have a bad reputation. "But as soon as they get to meet the wolves they have a lot less fear and a renewed understanding for these fascinating animals," says Tracy Jackson who is the education director at Catamount Institute.
The story of the wolfdog called Baby that RMWF often brings to presentations like this is a pretty typical example of the consequences of the trade with these animals that are in many states considered to be exotic. Baby, her mother and her sister were used to breed wolfdogs for drug money.
Sadly, a not so unrealistic business concept as wolfdogs are in high demand and can easily cost up to 2 000 dollars. Baby was severely abused with a baseball bat for the first four and a half years of her life. Despite the violence she was put through, she has had an amazing recovery. She has never shown aggression towards people, is very patient and loves children. "Just imagine a person being treated like that for their first four years. They would have been ruined for life. I just can’t believe how she bounced back from that, it’s really amazing," says Mark Johnson.
Owning a sanctuary with 12 animals that are part or 100 percent wolf means that you have to adapt to a certain lifestyle. Mark and his wife Catherine have built their lives around the animals that they refer to as ”the kids”, living in a solar powered trailer with a few sheds for storage around the large enclosed area with all the pens.
The wolves are a reliable alarm clock at 4:30 am (they do however not howl at the moon, that’s just another popular myth) and they can easily go through 60 pounds of meat every day, some of it coming from road kill that Mark picks up with his truck. The wolfdogs need to be walked and on top of that Mark and Catherine have five tours every day during the summer months. But despite all the work there is no regret.
Mark Johnson says he has invested approximately 100 000 dollars in the sanctuary already. "But emotionally it’s the most rewarding job I have ever had," says Mark Johnson.
The next big challenge for the sanctuary is the possible doubling of the number of residents. RMWF have been asked to take 12 pure arctic wolves that are in desperate need of a home.
The sanctuary is entirely donation based and no one involved is getting paid. RMWF accepts donations and volunteers. To help them, you can visit their website HERE or donate directly to the RMWF.