The Weekly Wolf
I spent six years living with the wolves of
Each Monday, this page will feature a photograph and story
of these wolves or a fellow species from the gray wolf's ecosystem.
February 25, 2013
No matter how old she gets, or how far away she is, Nali will always be my little girl.
When we first met, Nali and her brother Gandy were living on the end of chains in a trailer park just outside of Denver, CO. The two pups were scared of their own shadows, not to mention all of the traffic and people constantly passing by. Their owner had bought them at a gun show a few weeks earlier, convinced that they were 90% arctic wolves. He was now desperate for Mission:Wolf to take the pups – city officials would be back at the end of the week to confiscate Nali and Gandy and put them down because it’s illegal to keep wolves as pets in Denver. Within moments of laying eyes on them, I knew two things: 1) they were definitely not wolves and would never fit in at Mission:Wolf… and 2) there was no way I could leave them there. So I loaded the pups into the backseat of my truck and drove away.
As I pulled out of the trailer park, I had no idea what to do next. Over the phone, Nali and Gandy’s owner had claimed that the ‘wolves’ were two months old… so I’d only brought along one small puppy carrier. Now I found myself driving down the road with a couple of five month old shepherd/ collie crosses, each at least three times the size of the pathetic little carrier, who were terrified of me. Every little bump sent them scrambling around the cab, whining and crying, until I happened to flip past a radio station playing country music. They instantly settled down a bit. Much to my chagrin, the pups seemed to prefer the twang-y-est country songs I could find. I still wasn’t sure where I was headed… could I even bring a couple of abused dogs back to the refuge? The resident wolves were awfully territorial about dogs coming onto their turf. But I also couldn’t take them to the dog shelter since they’d already been labeled as ‘wolves’ and would end up being put down.
I finally got through to Mission:Wolf’s temperamental cell phone (as the refuge is too remote for conveniences like regular phone or electrical lines, we had to rely on a solar-powered cell phone that only got service when the sun, clouds, and wind happened to align). Kent, the director, took pity on me and the pups, saying that of course I should bring them to the refuge. By this time it was too late in the day to make the six-hour drive back into the mountains… so now what?
My first order of business was to stop at Pet Smart to pick up supplies. I suddenly needed collars, leashes, dog food, bowls, the whole works. I don’t think I’ve ever run through a store that fast – I had to leave Nali and Gandy in the truck, and I had no idea what I’d find when I returned. When I got back, the pups hadn’t exactly destroyed anything, but they’d both thrown up all over the backseat. I guess their owner hadn’t thought about the impending car trip and had fed them a hearty breakfast. Just getting the collars on Nali and Gandy was a challenge, as they cowered then darted around the cab whenever I got close to either of them. I’ll leave it to the imagination what it was like trying to clean up the truck while desperately holding onto the leashes as they took turns bolting for freedom.
I finally got everyone loaded back into the truck and headed to a local campground – there was no way I could trust Nali and Gandy in a hotel room overnight. We all tumbled out of the cab in a giant knot of nylon leashes, panicked puppy, and overwhelmed girl. The seemingly simple act of going for a short walk around the campground was a comedy of errors. Each pup did their best to stay as far away from me as possible the entire time, often running into each other, trees, and trash cans in the process. At one point Nali tangled her leash around a picnic table leg, and both she and Gandy were convinced I was trying to commit puppy-murder while straightening it all out. When we finally made it back to the truck, I broke out the dog food in hopes of winning them over. Thanks to their conveniently (haha) empty stomachs, the pups were famished. They gobbled down dinner without even a second glance at me… giving me a bit of hope for the next phase of my plan.
As the summer sun set behind the nearby Flatiron Mountains and darkness crept across the thankfully empty campground, it was time for bed. I had a topper on the back of the truck and always traveled with a foam pad and sleeping bag in case I ended up camping out. Now all I needed to do was get Nali and Gandy in there with me. I tied Gandy’s leash to the bumper and attempted to coax Nali into my arms with some beef jerky. She wasn’t about to fall for my tricks. After 20 minutes, I had to haul her in with the leash, hoist her over the tailgate, and slam the door in her face. Listening to Gandy carry on, you’d think I was the biggest, bad-est monster in the land that had just eaten his sister. And now I faced an interesting dilemma… Nali was inside (barking her head off), Gandy was outside (screaming bloody murder), and somehow I had to get him over the tailgate and through the door without Nali escaping. In the end I swooped in on Gandy and heaved him into the back of the truck so quickly that I caught Nali off guard. They were so ecstatic to be reunited (even though they’d been separated for less than a minute) that they hardly noticed me climbing in with them.
As I crawled into my sleeping bag and watched the giant pups settle into the far corner of the truck bed, wide eyes glowing in the moonlight, I couldn’t help but wonder how our society had come to this. Here were Nali and Gandy, two beautiful shepherd/ collie puppies, who should have grown up with a loving family and had long and peaceful lives ahead of them. Instead, they had spent their short lives chained to a porch swing, suffering from some sort of abuse, and not trusting another living soul beyond each other. To top it all off, they were under a death sentence and essentially on the run from the law just because someone claimed that they were wolf-dogs in order to make some extra money off their sale. Closing my eyes that night, the world seemed an awfully bleak place.
Early the next morning, the sun’s first rays fell on my eyelids. I slowly came out of my dreams and tried to sit up, but a heavy weight on my chest and legs kept me pinned to the floor. Groggy and confused, I looked up to find myself eye to eye with Nali. Her warm breath swept over my face as I realized she and Gandy were both lying on top of me. I still don’t know exactly why or how it happened, but sometime in the night Nali and Gandy gave into their loneliness and decided to take a chance on me. The world suddenly seemed like a brighter place. In short order we were headed up into the mountains and into a new life for the two lost pups. Whether it was the food, the country music, or that they somehow knew I’d saved their lives, from that moment on Nali and Gandy gave me their trust and their hearts.
To learn more about Nali and Gandy, take a look at the April 2010 Weekly Wolf page.
February 18, 2013
Have you ever tried to spot a wolf hiding in the sagebrush during a blizzard? Turns out, even when it’s in captivity and you know she has to be there somewhere, it’s no easy task. Better known for sprinting around her 13 acre enclosure for fun, hitting speeds of 35 mph and seeming to fly with all four feet off the ground, Kestrel also had a particular penchant for playing hide-and-go-seek. As the animal caretaker of the refuge, it was my job to walk around all of the enclosure each morning, checking on the wolves. As two of the shyest wolves at Mission:Wolf, Kestrel and her mate, Zephyr, never made my job easy. They’d always high-tail it into the trees and brush as soon as anyone got too close. And then, just to prove that she was indeed a big, brave wolf (and a cheeky one at that) Kestrel would quietly sneak up behind me whenever I entered her enclosure to clean the water tub until I felt a puff of warm breath on my back. As soon as I’d start to turn around, she’d be off again, living up to the speed and agility of her namesake.
Then suddenly, in the middle of a cool spring night, everything changed. It must have been two or three o’clock in the morning when I was startled out of my sleeping bag by a heart-wrenching scream. I stumbled out into the night and tried to get my bearing as another high-pitched scream shook the air. Standing in the silvery moonlight, I recognized the screams for what they were… the calls of a terrified wolf. There’s no other sound in the world to compare. Remembering it today still brings tears to my eyes and a panicked beating to my heart. Looking up to the top of the ridge, I could see Kestrel sitting stalk-still, her head tilted to the sky.
Still in my pajamas and slippers, I climbed the steep path past the other wolves and felt my way up the rocky incline to Kestrel’s enclosure, all the while listening to her cries. Instead of running away as I reached the fence, Kestrel barreled toward me. She pressed against the fence, whining and trying to get as close to me as she could. In the dim light I couldn’t spot Zephyr anywhere. In and of itself, this wasn’t surprising… but Zephyr’s age and Kestrel’s erratic behavior had me worried. I couldn’t start the search for Zephyr until sunrise, so as Kestrel calmed down I decided try getting a few more hours of sleep. Only a few steps down the path, Kestrel pawed at the fence and screamed again. I quickly came back and spent the rest of the long night huddled with Kestrel through the chain link trying to comfort the distraught wolf.
When morning finally came, Kestrel still wouldn’t leave my side. I walked the perimeter of the fence with her following close behind. A few minutes later my worst fears were confirmed… we found Zephyr lying lifeless under a pine tree. We all mourned his passing, trying hard to find a way to say goodbye, but no one missed Zephyr more than little Kestrel. For weeks she was inconsolable – clinging close to the staff during the days and filling the nights with her lonely, piercing howls.
Kestrel only found peace again once Polar Bear, her closest companion from puppy hood, moved in with her. I’ve never seen a wolf as excited and relieved as Kestrel was on that day. She gamboled around the enclosure, frolicking like a puppy and yipping with pleasure. It was wonderful to see Kestrel feeling safe again, and to get a full night’s sleep. From that day on Kestrel relaxed into a happy-go-lucky girl who, to my great surprise, continued to see me as a friend. For the rest of my time at Mission:Wolf, she’d bound up to me to say hello whenever I climbed the steep path.
For more of Kestrel's story, visit the March 2010 Weekly Wolf page.
February 11, 2013
I never got to know Katimik particularly well. I could recognize her distinctive voice from across the refuge. I admired her pluck in dealing with the two larger male wolves, Ned and Druid, who competed for her affection. And I wanted to become her friend. But we were never close… not like I was with Ned, who’d press his forehead into my hands for a massage whenever he had a headache. I only touched Katimik’s velvety soft coat once – on the day she arrived at Mission:Wolf in 2003. She was already a grown adult and had lived a full life with another pack of wolves at another facility. And that is probably why she never fully accepted any of the staff at Mission:Wolf. Wolf pups happily greet any animal that comes their way, ready to accept them into the family. However, as they grow, maturing wolves slowly loose their willingness to trust newcomers. By the time they’re a year old, most wolves are suspicious of all strangers. So, while Katimik bonded strongly with the people who raised her, by the time she arrived at Mission:Wolf she wasn’t about to accept more humans into her pack.
While I doubt Katimik ever thought of me after I left the refuge, I’ve found myself thinking of her more and more often recently. I just finished shooting and directing a film for the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, the facility where Katimik and her sister, Selway, spent their early years. It was wonderful getting to see where she came from and meeting a few of her old pack mates. Standing next to their enclosure, and listening to the sounds of a Montana winter morning (raven calls, wind whipping through lodge pole pines, and the screech of a golden eagle), I couldn’t help but remember Katimik’s sweet face. I also realized that she probably conversed with the wild wolves in Yellowstone, just a stone’s throw away. If she did, Katimik would be one of the only wolves at Mission:Wolf to have ever heard a wild wolf’s howl. Somehow, knowing this makes it easier for me to accept that Katimik will always remain something of an enigma to me.
To read more about Katimik, see the May 2010 Weekly Wolf page.
February 4, 2013
Mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus), defiers of gravity and mystifiers of us all, are often spotted relaxing on sheer rock walls and scaling vertical cliffs. How do they do it? Why do they risk plummeting to their certain doom? And where do they go when the winter snows pile high and bitter winds rip through the rocks? Native only to the Cascade Range and Rocky Mountains of North America, this heartiest of creatures is a conundrum. Even its name is misleading – mountain goats aren’t goats at all! They’re members of the bovine family… more closely related to antelope, gazelle and cattle than any barnyard Billie goat.
So let’s tackle these questions one at time. How on earth do mountain goats climb the improbable crags? Their cloven hooves hold the secret… spongy, rubbery pads on the hoof’s inner surfaces act like climbing shoes when their toes spread, giving the goats grip as they dance across the mountains. Another bizarre adaptation: they have dewclaws on the back of each hoof for added clinging ability. Add to this the mountain goats’ ability to leap 12 feet in a single bound and they're unstoppable.
Now, maybe a more pertinent question for the goats themselves: why risk it all on the precipitous heights? For the breathtaking views of the valleys below? Maybe. Scientists have been asking this very question for years and the best answer they’ve come up with is: to avoid predators. While mountain goats are the largest mammals found in their high-mountain habitats, and both males and females are equipped with aggressive attitudes and 10 inch long skewer-like horns, they are still vulnerable to attacks from wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines if they’re caught in the trees. Out on the stark cliff faces, mountain goats take refuge where only the occasional intrepid mountain lion or ambitious golden eagle can follow. In fact, to give their kids a leg up in life and a bit of extra protection, nannies give birth on those thin rock ledges and spend the next year standing between their absurdly adorable offspring and the yawning abyss below.
Okay, maybe mountain goats have ample reason to brave the steep cliffs. But where do they disappear to in the winter? Turns out… nowhere. Mountain goats usually spend their whole lives within a relatively tiny home range of 2-17 square miles. Their double thick, wooly coat keeps them toasty warm down to -50 degrees Fahrenheit and they can paw through ice to reach the sedges, lichens and mosses hiding below. While the harshest winter storms can drive them down near tree line, mountain goats often search out the highest, most windswept peaks during the cold months to avoid deep snowdrifts.
I fell head-over-heals for these strange, yet enchanting, alpine mammals when the curious nannie pictured above looked right into my camera.