Wolves: Meeting and spinning with them

Wow, have I been anticipating having time to write up this particular post. I think my responsibilities for The Project have been completed for at least the next few hours, and I don't leave for my teaching time in Scotland until next week, so if I work fast maybe I can get a post written. . . .



At the end of May, fellow spinner Kris Paige found an afternoon when I could tear myself away from The Project and suggested an excursion to the W.O.L.F. sanctuary in the mountains not too far from where I live. The sanctuary is not open to the public, but Kris has provided some volunteer vet-tech work for the animals and I'm a donor/member of the organization, so with advance arrangement we were able to visit.

Here's part of the road to the sanctuary:


I need to note at the start here that, despite the impression given by some of the photos I'll include in a moment, wolves are not just big dogs. They are wild animals. They make lousy pets, although some of them (those who want to) make utterly charming, if strong-minded and independent, acquaintances. My experience at the sanctuary gave me a deeper understanding of the theory of domestication that I first encountered in The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication, by Stephen Budiansky. The misperception that wolves are, or can be, domesticated or treated as dogs is the reason the sanctuary exists. They can't. Even wolf-dog crosses exhibit enough wild characteristics that they don't make good household members. Yet thousands of years ago, according to the theory Budiansky presents, some wolves may have chosen to collaborate with humans and by doing so set in motion the long evolutionary path that gave us dogs.

Wolves themselves are still an entirely different matter.

We met only with the individual animals who wanted to meet with us. The sanctuary enclosures are built into both sides of a steep canyon. The wolves who enjoy contact with humans are in the lower spaces, near the road and the buildings, while the wolves who prefer solitude hang out in the upper spaces. The exceptionally secure enclosures have been built so that they provide the animals with a varied environment that they can (and do) customize for their own comfort, although (as you'll see below) some items for their amusement are also added by the humans.

Here's one of the more reserved wolves—not as hard to find as a few of the others who appeared only as ears poking up from behind, say, a boulder or a down tree:


Their camouflage works quite nicely.

Most of the enclosures contain two wolves who have demonstrated that they enjoy each other's company; in a few cases, three wolves have chosen to "bunk" together. Assigning buddies requires intuitive and practical evaluation by the sanctuary humans. The wolves need company, but they have strong opinions about who they'll hang out with: energy levels, ability to share food and to play together, and likely percentage of wolf genetics (pure or crossed with dogs) all factor into good matches.

The first wolf we met with was Isabeau. She was bred and sold as a pet, but only lasted four months in her original situation before her desperate "owners" were looking for a way out of their commitment. Fortunately, there was space for her at W.O.L.F. (There is nowhere near as much space as is needed for the rescue occasions that arise; the sanctuary is currently full, and all wolf residents, once situated, remain for their entire lives.) Isabeau "earned" her space by being a potentially compatible buddy for a wolf already in residence named Shaman.

As we arrived for our visit, volunteers were finishing modifications on Isabeau's new wading pool. She loves water, but the new pool (a stock tank) was too deep and she was afraid to get into it, so they had been building steps for her inside it. While they worked, she was confined behind a fence in the back part of the enclosure, but as we got there she was released into the front again to check out the new water-access point:



It seemed to meet her approval.

Isabeau is quite sociable with humans, and the space she now shares with Nashoba is right by the caretaker's cabin. (Shaman
unfortunately died last year at the age of ten, having lived at the sanctuary since he was a few weeks old; his spirit continues to infuse the sanctuary in many ways.) Isabeau's current buddy is Nashoba (behind her here), who arrived at just over a year old and initially was in with Shaman (to whom he was submissive) as well as Isabeau (in whom he found a playmate). Isabeau is a little over four years old and Nashoba is now three and a half.


Isabeau (front) and Nashoba (back)

When I first approached Isabeau, I held my hand out for her to sniff in a way that a vet had taught me years ago, a position designed to protect fingers if the dog being approached happens to bite. The sanctuary's founder, Frank Wendling, told me to change positions: palm up, fingers open. He said that Isabeau and the other wolves would see that gesture as friendlier. He continued, "If she wants to take your hand off, it won't matter how you're holding it."

Okay, then. Palm up and fingers open!


After visiting a bit with Lakota, an optimistic eleven-year-old who has been in sanctuary since he was just over a year old and is in treatment for mouth cancer (I was too close to him to get any photos), we went across the road to see Rajan, a wolf-dog who is about four years old, and has been at the sanctuary since he was just under two. He's shown here with Michelle, whom my daughter and I know from our work at a local independent bookstore. Michelle is now full-time at the sanctuary and was kind enough to show us around and introduce us to a number of the residents. Rajan is the perfect companion for Kiki, an Alaskan wolf who chooses to keep her distance from humans she doesn't know. Like Lakota, she's eleven and has been at W.O.L.F. since she was a little over a year old. We saw a hint of Kiki way up in the enclosure, while Rajan came right up to us for rubs.



The sanctuary trains the most willing animals to act as ambassadors, going out in public to help with educational and fundraising programs. Shaman, Isabeau's former companion, was one of the best ambassadors. Rajan has been stepping forward to do some of the ambassador jobs, as has Sigmund, whom we met shortly thereafter:



Sigmund is another wolf-dog. He's part collie, and mostly wolf. (Like our Border collie, Ariel, was part something else—probably spaniel—but, as we always said, 100 percent Border collie in personality and brain.) He doesn't like riding in the car, but he's pretty much okay with the other ambassador responsibilities.

Sigmund came from California, and went through a number of homes (from which he repeatedly escaped) and a couple of periods of determinedly uncatchable independence in the mountains. He is almost five and has been at the sanctuary since he was two and a half. At W.O.L.F., the initial thought was that Sigmund would join Isabeau and Shaman, but that didn't work. Shaman would have none of it, and the two males even fought through a fence.

However, it turned out that Sigmund and Tunyan, a full wolf, began playing through another fence. It turns out they were meant to be best buds.



Both Sigmund and Tunyan (TOO-yawn) have strong inclinations to be sociable with humans. Tunyan is eight years old and has been at W.O.L.F. since she was one month old. At the time, she was described as "a typical wolf pup. In other words she was a holy terror." We were warned that Tunyan, whose name means "brat" in Lakota, steals things. Like cameras.

I asked what she does with them.

The answer was, "Takes them into her space and chews them to bits and buries them."

Doesn't sound like a good dietary supplement for a wolf, plus I like my camera, so I kept it especially well secured while visiting with Tunyan.



She apparently also likes shoelaces.

Big paws. . . .



Sigmund and Tunyan live near the cabin, and are occasionally given access to the deck, in alternation with another wolf who doesn't get to be there at the same time that they are prowling around.


Sigmund and Tunyan

Two at once, starting to tussle, is a lot of critter in a small space:


Tunyan and Sigmund

Sigmund has long, soft fur: his probable collie heritage shows up in the fiber.


I was also fortunate enough to be given a sample of Shaman's fiber to spin; Shaman was pure wolf.

 Shaman's fur was mostly very soft, with some quite flexible and delicate guard hairs that could be pulled out of the finished yarn, or left in to add texture.


W.O.L.F. is looking for ways to use the fiber to support fundraising efforts for the animals' care, which is top-notch and requires significant amounts of resources. We're talking with the sanctuary organizers about the feasibility of making sample quantities of fiber available to spinners. There may also be opportunities for spinners to have access to fiber and make items that they would donate back to W.O.L.F. to be auctioned off at special events, like the recent Waltz for the Wolves. I was out of town at the time or I would have been there; my daughter attended.

The two scarves that Kris spun and knitted from Shaman's brushings, mixed with silk, topped the evening's auction results, earning $600 each for the wolves' benefit. That's spinning a whole lot of good.


17 thoughts on “Wolves: Meeting and spinning with them”

  1. Wow! That sounds like an amazing experience. Thanks for letting me in on it. I once dogsat for a dog/wolf hybrid. Yes, in retrospect, I’m thinking that is not an ideal pet!

    Two thoughts–one is that I am overscheduled right now, but perhaps keep me on a list for later this year in case you need some spinning support for this wolf fiber. It’s a great cause!

    Second thing–did you get my email the other day thanking you for your beautiful editing job at Spin-Off? That old issue kept me happy and thoughtful for days while I juggled a busy workschedule. Thank you.

  2. Did the three wandering boxes ever show up? I keep thinking about them at the strangest times. . .

  3. According to one of my proffs in college (who, at least was, *the* candid behavior expert… he had a Nat Geo special issue devoted to his work around the time he retired) –
    One of the big differences between wolves & dogs is that dogs can be trained their whole lives, whereas wolves cannot be *trained* past puppyhood. However, they are very good at LEARNING things, and have very good problem solving skills (such as opening latches/gates and getting where they want to be, even if thumbs are supposedly required.)

  4. Joanne, I had a wonderful hike with a wolf-dog hybrid (and its person) in Sitka one summer. Lovely. Fortunately for them, the right location and combination of living spirits and living situation. More normal situations, though, don’t work for these critters.

    Thanks for your offer of spinning support! I can let Frank at the sanctuary know. There is no rush on this: it will be an ongoing project.

    And yes, THANK YOU for your note. I started a response, but didn’t get it sent. . . . That’s how it’s been around here. . . .

    Elizabeth, yes, the boxes showed up. With no sign about where they had been, and no damage. Whew.

    Aramati, that’s very interesting about the differences between training and learning. It’s true that our dogs continue to be willing to be trained. And I’ve also observed amazing intelligence in the wolves. Reading about the enclosures at W.O.L.F. gives me an idea of how both smart and determined they can be–as do the individual animals’ stories.

  5. Valerie, I'd read about W.O.L.F., but visiting took me to a whole new level of understanding. The construction diagrams–available on the website–attest to the thought that has gone into planning the facility. Yet despite the security (for both wolves and humans), it feels very open and natural. Plus the wolves are given extremely sensitive care: contact if they want, solitude if they don't, and superb vet care.

  6. I really enjoyed reading about your experiences at W.O.L.F. I have a sort of sentimental attachment to wolves, but I’m very content to admire them from afar. Wild should stay wild, as much as we think we would love a bit of wildness in our lives.

    I think dog down & silk makes a good combination. I did that with some of the first dog hair I spun, from my first Aussie.

  7. Janice, you’re right that wild should stay wild.

    The philosophy of W.O.L.F. is worth reading about on the website. All of the animals there were bred by humans and ended up in situations that were inappropriate for them. The humans crossed the line that you point out when you say “much as we think we would love a bit of wildness in our lives.” None of these wolves or wolf-dogs has been brought in from the wild; that would be contrary to the sanctuary’s mission and purpose. They should not and cannot be released into the wild, and yet by their nature can’t manage domestic life.

    At the same time, some of the animals in the sanctuary (those who enjoy it) can become educational ambassadors for all other wolves, helping people understand more about them.

    And Jennifer, you’re most welcome!

  8. Oh wow, what a fantastic experience. If you have any fibre spare, I’d love to trade for a bit when you get to Scotland. (Lunil’s a tiny, tiny part wolf). And if it’s feasible over the sea, I’d like to get involved in the wolf-spinning project.

    See you soon!

  9. Yes, see you soon, Freyalyn! I have a very limited amount of wolf fiber, and right now what I’ve spun is at the publisher’s to be photographed for the book. It might be feasible over the sea for you to be involved, though. We’ll talk!

  10. Mission Wolf near Gardner is open to the public and does accept visitors. missionwolf.com.

    The time we went there were puppies! (Not a good thing in the refuge world, but we were charmed.)

    Tickled that you spun wolf fiber!

  11. Interesting. Although you're right: puppies are a big problem. There are way too many adults that already need places to be. Same problem as with dogs, only x10.

    We just put in an application with a dog rescue. . . . We'll be finding an adult (dog) who is currently in the wrong place and who's meant to be with us. . . .

  12. Marvelous work they are doing there!
    Thank you so much for sharing it with us. What a fantastic idea, for using the fiber to raise funds. Please let me know if I can help.

  13. Thanks, Diana. Quick reply: very intermittent net access. I'm in Scotland,
    learning more about sheep. Although yesterday I was at Stirling Castle
    doing an interview about the Unicorn tapestry project for an article.
    WONDERFUL! Would give a link, but this public-access terminal has limited
    capacities. I feel fortunate to be checking e-mail.

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