The Romance of Having a Wolf of Your Very Own

Originally published in the fall 2003 issue of International Wolf.

“In all the mountains and valleys of life it is necessary to trust our eyes and instincts and to follow their leads to understanding instead of stopping at the first rest stop of self-delusion. To take the easy path of ignoring them is dangerous and slothful and, in the end, self-defeating.” -Dick Dorworth, Mountain Gazette #88

IT’S HAPPENED AGAIN. KOANI IS LOOSE. It’s always the same scenario: somehow she’s gotten out of the pen or off the leash. She dances just out of reach and I can see the gears in her brain turning, “What’s first: Killing that dog down the road? How about those sheep in the pasture on top of the hill? Ooh, look! What’s that little human doing in the driveway?” Before mayhem ensues, I wake up and relief floods through me. Twelve long years and no disasters. And that is what it’s like to live with a wolf.

To begin with, we never dreamed of ‘owning’ a wolf. Born in captivity, and socialized to humans from the age of two-weeks, a three-month old Koani came to live with us as part of an ABC documentary about wolves that we’d been hired to consult on. The filmmaker had asked us to further socialize Koani and add her to our educational programs so he could film us in a classroom. Upon completion of the film, she was to become part of an educational facility the filmmaker was creating. For a variety of reasons the latter did not happen and we ended up with a wolf, “for better or for worse, till death do us part.” Feeling a moral obligation to give her life in captivity purpose, we founded Wild Sentry, a not-for-profit educational organization, and embarked on a life of traveling ambassador wolf programs. It’s now twelve years, 1,371 programs and 180,248 people later. There’s no question that Koani has succeeded in changing many hearts and minds over the years and that in large part is what has kept us going through some tough and grueling times.

Before embarking on reasons why having a wolf of your very own is not as romantic as you may imagine, let me state unequivocally that we love this animal. We love her like a psychopathic sibling who is in turn charming and frightening. We do not love her like a child. We do not love her like we love our dog, Indy. We love her like you might love an adult being from another planet-a being that is smart, yet utterly amoral to human values, and for whom you have been entrusted with the responsibility to protect from humans and to protect humans from. We would not find it romantic to cage this alien, fasten a collar around its neck, or attach it to us with a leash.

By acquiring a captive wolf one takes on a legal and moral responsibility. The first and primary rule to life with a wolf is that no wolf raised in captivity and socialized to humans can ever be allowed to run uncaged, unleashed or initiate physical contact with humans without supervision by a qualified caretaker. Wild wolves avoid humans. A wolf raised in captivity is less shy and therefore more dangerous to humans and destructive of human property-thus it exposes itself to more danger than a wild wolves encounter.

To ensure the safety of a captive wolf and the safety of others, a ten-foot high fence with a three-foot skirt buried at the bottom and another eight-foot fence placed four feet outside the ten-foot fence is required. Each animal needs a minimum of a quarter acre. Psychologically stable wolves need a canine companion-preferably another wolf of the opposite sex. A dog is a poor substitute but better than nothing. However, if a wolf and dog are kept together, don’t be surprised to come home to a mangled dog. Place more than two wolves in a pen and the chance for injury increases. Wolves have their own rules of engagement and for a variety of reasons they may seriously injure or kill a pen mate. While most people find such actions repellent, to a wolf it has nothing to do with right versus wrong or like versus dislike. A wolf’s morality is not our own.

Wolves need physical and mental exercise. We walk Koani for one to two hours in the morning and early evening, because it mimics a wolf’s crepuscular activity patterns. These walks occur everyday-including Christmas morning, Super Bowl Sunday, or after a hard day of skiing. Due to her walks, Koani doesn’t dig, howl, pace and is less likely to stir up trouble with our dog, Indy. Walks keep her sane and they’re a responsibility we take seriously. She doesn’t, however, walk willingly at our side or at our pace. The leash, connected from Koani to our modified climbing harness, keeps her from attacking dogs, chasing cattle, or running horses. Being attached to her is like being attached to a hundred-pound cat. And while she enjoys these walks, we are constantly reminded that she’d enjoy them more if we’d just let her go..

When a strange dog is encountered, we’re jerked, sometimes to the ground, by 100 pounds of aroused muscle. From Koani’s point-of-view, the dog is in her territory and wolves get rid of intruders. Denying contact with the dog is our responsibility. We’ve both come home with bruised, numb hands and both of us have narrowly escaped serious injury after being pulled off our feet in an unwary moment. Even though we outweigh Koani by 40 pounds or more, she’s amazingly strong and much quicker than we are. A momentary lapse of attention could lead to the death of a neighbor’s pet or worse. While constant vigilance may be good training for “living in the moment” there are cheaper, less dangerous ways to work toward Zen mastery than walking a wolf.

While Koani enjoys the stimulating smells and sounds of a new place (as long as there’s not too much activity), transporting her is hardly worth the energy or effort for her or for us. Koani doesn’t travel well. Wolves don’t possess the “filtering” apparatus that dogs do. What a dog takes for granted is a big deal for a wolf and it always will be. Because Koani is a nervous traveler, she must be confined to a four by six-foot kennel. The kennel doesn’t keep her calm but it prevents her from jumping in our lap and attempting to wrest the steering wheel away when she sees an approaching semi. And when her bowels loosen from stress, it’s in the kennel instead of the upholstery.

Wolves are social animals. Isolation to a pen without stimulation is one of the more cruel fates for captive wolves. But before you allow a wolf into your house, put the garbage up on the refrigerator, place soap, food or any other substances that might smell interesting in the closet (you’ll be surprised at what smells interesting to a wolf), strip the floor of rugs, and exchange heirloom furniture for some junk from the second hand store. Koani’s a good wolf but she’s a really bad dog. Sure all dogs are destructive when they’re puppies and there’ll be occasional “mistakes” on the carpet. You can, however, depend on the fact that after consistent training, your dog won’t wreak havoc when left home alone. At age twelve, Koani is just beginning to reach that point. Maybe when she’s an elderly fifteen, we’ll have a “house wolf.” In order to accommodate her need for social contact, and to keep our home intact, we fenced off part of our living room and dug a 40-foot tunnel from her pen to the living room enclosure so that she can come in to see us at will.

Then there are vacations. We’ve yet to find wolfsitters listed in the yellow pages. Since the Wild Sentry staff consists of two, we are in the same boat as private individuals when it comes to activities that require “going away.” Captive wolves need professional, as in expensive, care. (And don’t forget about liability issues.) In our twelve years with Koani, we have not been away together for more than four nights in a row and that has happened only twice. My nightmares of her running loose really heat up when we’re away.

Well, at the very least, wouldn’t a wolf make a great guard dog? If it did, you wouldn’t want to live with it. In the wild, the Alpha wolves lead the way when it comes to dealing with intruders. Subordinate pack members, the only kind of wolf you could possibly live with, basically say, “I’m behind you one-hundred percent.” When pit bulls attacked Indy, Koani wanted no part of the mêlée. In her attempt to run away, she high-stepped higher than Gene Kelly.

Why do we think we should be able to do this and others shouldn’t? It’s not that we consider ourselves special. We just don’t think most people would make the personal and professional sacrifices we’ve made. Really, I guess, we think most people are smarter. To give us credit though, its not that we’ve wanted to make the sacrifices. Again, we never dreamed of ‘owning’ a wolf. We had one choice and that was whether or not to become involved with the film project. Once we opted in, and given that we are people who take responsibilities seriously, we started down a path of narrowing alternatives.

A decision to make a wolf a part of your life should be an “until death do us part” decision with euthanasia the only opt out. Should life with a wolf prove more demanding than expected, leaving it consigned to perpetual boredom in a pen, or shipping it off to a refuge for ex-pet wolves (good refuges have long waiting lists), or turning it loose are cowardly alternatives and, in the later case, also illegal. Look before you leap and, once you’ve leapt, be prepared to turn your life upside down or admit your mistake and euthanise your “pet.”

Could it be that Koani is an especially difficult wolf and that another might be easier to deal with? Possibly. However, another might be more difficult. Wolves are born with a wide range of personalities, many of which do not become apparent until adulthood. While environment makes a difference, it’s unrealistic to expect a wolf to fit into your life like a dog. Numerous people have asked, “But what if I raised a wolf pup like a dog and loved it like a dog, wouldn’t it act like a dog?” No. No more than providing all the love and attention you could bestow to a Bengal tiger kitten would transform it into a house cat after the tiger grew up.

So are there any reasons for captive wolves? In the best of all possible worlds we at Wild Sentry say, “No.” Unfortunately, we don’t live in such a world. Because of this, we do believe captive wolves can serve important educational purposes. However, in order for these animals to fulfill an educational mission, they should only be part of not-for-profit organizations, exhibited by knowledgeable people, and in a program reviewed and sanctioned by professional educators and biologists.

Educators have an obligation to help their audiences understand that no matter how large and natural-looking an enclosure appears, it cannot provide the space and stimulation to fulfill the prey drive and social interactions that wolves experience in the wild. Their sacrifice is justifiable only in that it sheds light on human ignorance. We owe it to wolves to keep their numbers in captivity to a minimum. Remember, your desire to be “close” to wolves is not their desire. Just because you like a captive animal doesn’t mean it reciprocates your feelings. Responsible, sensitive people understand that our desire for personal contact does not make it right to own a wolf. Caging and chaining wildness is an oxymoron.

We realize that we’ve concentrated on the negative aspects of living with a wolf. That’s because part of Wild Sentry’s mission is to discourage people from obtaining wolves for pets. However, as we stated early on, we love Koani. She has added a dimension to our lives that could not have been achieved otherwise-we’ve been honored with a great privilege and responsibility from which we’ve learned much. Has it been worth it? Neither of us can speak for Koani. But we know that for us, the educational good she’s performed is tinged with sadness. Not a day goes by but what we’re made aware of our shortcomings when it comes to providing Koani with the life of a wolf.

Wolves are wild animals that have evolved over millions of years to take care of themselves. Wolves don’t need us to provide them with food, shelter, or companionship. What they need from us is to leave them space on this increasingly crowded planet so they can provide these things for themselves. If you love wolves, work to ensure that dream remains possible.

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