I’ve experienced a lot of things, but every now and again an opportunity comes along that makes me sit up – or rather, jump up and down while going “squeeee!” – and take notice. As happened when my dear friend Kerry from Over and Above Africa invited me on a hike with the Apex Protection Project‘s Ambassador Pack in Palmdale.
I was going to hike with a wolves, off the leash.
Once upon a time, wolves roamed free across most of the country when America was as wild as its inhabitants. In fact, wild wolves lived in harmony with many Native American groups and were depicted in their songs, art, and mythology. The bond between man and wolf was stronger than ‘best friend’, it was ‘brother’.
As with many native populations, when the settlers came, they brought with them massive extermination. Wolves were branded in scarlet and the rivers of North America ran crimson. Theodore Roosevelt himself, despite his penchant for national parks and wilderness, called for the decimation of the wolf population and hunters responded with mighty force. By the 1960’s only a handful of these beautiful, intelligent creatures were left, carefully hiding from gun sights in the thick forests of Michigan and upper Minnesota.
In 1974, wolves finally received recognition, although it was of a tragic kind – the Endangered Species Act pronounced the grey wolf as a protected species. Unfortunately the declaration didn’t stop the extinction of the wild Mexican grey wolf which occurred in 1980.
Over the next decade and a half scientists and conservationists scrambled to save what was left of the massacred species, carefully breeding in captivity and planning strategies for reintroduction of wolves into the wild. In 1995 and 1996 the tables began to turn with a decision to introduce wolves back into Idaho and the expansive Yellowstone National Park.
Since the 1990’s, dedicated research and care has revealed the essential place of wolves in the ecosystem as a keystone species. The national population has grown from 300 to around 4,000 wild wolves, and the grey wolf may soon be taken off the ESA’s endangered list.
But just when you thought this story had a happy ending, Game of Thrones comes out and you guessed it, wolves and wolfdogs are a hot-ticket item on the black market. You see, breeding of wolves and wolfdogs is illegal in the USA…except in Texas. As we saw with the failed farce of prohibition and a drinking age of 21, people want what they ‘can’t’ have. This is decidedly true with wolves as pets.
A few things you should know about wolves/wolfdogs before I continue:
- They have a 35% larger brain than any kind of dog
- Wolves feel emotions and exhibit behaviour far closer to that of humans than animals
- It is very, very hard to train a wolf or wolfdog
- The term “wolfdog” relates to an animal that has been bred by crossing wolf and dog genetics in order to garner the characteristics of a wolf but without being classified as a full “wolf” like you would find in the wild
- A wolf or wolfdog will never need a human, though they will accept us as part of their pack and care deeply for us
- A wolfdog that enters the animal shelter system is ordered by law to be executed unless it is adopted by a licensed wolf rescue project
- Most wolfdogs bred for pets are dead within 3 years
I didn’t know any of these things when I pulled up the dirt and gravel driveway of an unassuming house in Palmdale, California, camera at the ready and itching for what I’d been told was “snuggle time with the pack.”
Paula Ficara and Steve Wastell are just about as good as humans get. They have dedicated their lives to the rescue and rehabilitation of their Pack – Taboo, Kona, Sergeant, Thor, Loki, Merlin, Charlotte and their newest adoptee Riggs – in addition to the education of our own species on the importance of wolves and how to live with wild wolves as neighbours.
We were introduced to the pack and the true majesty of these creatures finally hit home. Staring into the eyes of a wolf or wolfdog affords the same soul-provoking grandeur of the ancient as making eye-contact with a shark, or staring into the Aurora Borealis. Rich with insight, intelligence and emotion, I looked 2-year old wolfdog Thor in the eyes and almost cried when he smoothly strode over and licked the whole right side of my face.
I was enchanted, in love, and I was hooked.
Over the next few hours we took a walk to the plateau above Paula and Steve’s house, watched the pack play off leash, took approximately 10 GB of photos, and watched the sun bid the day adieu over the desert. What would this place have been like way back when wolves roamed without fences and roads were far from sheer imagination?
Learning about the Apex Project, we enjoyed a delicious vegetarian BBQ and wine around the fire as the pack serenaded us with melodic howling – wolves tune their vocalizations to chorus in harmony with the others in their pack. As Dr Fred Harrington explains, “The center of a wolf’s universe is its pack, and howling is the glue that keeps the pack together.” Wolves howl for a variety of reasons, to find eachother, to keep others at bay, in aggression, sadness, or unity. They don’t however, howl at the moon just for the sake of it.
The others from our group soon departed and we sat back inside to chat with Paula and Steve. I thank the stars that we did since it resulted in a 45 minute cuddle with Thor, a thorough face-bath from Loki, and even a smooth-tongued smooch from shy Taboo, the pack’s Alpha.
Anyone can organize a hike with the Apex pack, they request no more than 12 participants and a large portion of your ticket cost is tax-deductible.
A moonlit howling chorus, soul connections I will never forget with ancient creatures, new friends made round a fire, and a walk back to a time long past…only 2 hours from Los Angeles!
Paula and Steve are also working heavily in outreach to farming communities in areas like Oregon and Montana where fear of wolves is still prevalent and locals would rather shoot a wild wolf than learn how to live alongside them. Their operation is funded completely by donations and their staff is volunteer.
If you’d like to learn more about the Apex Protection Project, or organize your own hike with the Ambassador Pack, here are the details:
(featured image credit: Kerry David)