I love adventure. I love animals. I love learning. Mix the three and I am in heaven. So naturally when I came across the “Sleeping with the Wolves” adventure I was thrilled. The thought of wolves howling as I slept in a tent nearby had my adrenaline flowing.
I immediately ran into my son’s room, “Spencer! I know what I want to do to celebrate my birthday. I want us to sleep with wolves!”
“Mom, I’ll pay for you to do it, but I’m not taking a chance.”
“Spencer, it’s not like they are going to be spooning with us in the tents. It’ll be safe.”
“Really? You do you know that a wolf has 42 teeth and the gray wolf has about 1500 pounds of bite pressure per inch, twice that of a German Shepard, which means that it could snap your thigh bone in two and not even break a tooth!”
I stared at him, smiled, walked out of his room, then did some research.
It turns out that that in South Salem, New York, just one hour north of Manhattan, is the Wolf Conservation Center or WCC for short. The center is “devoted to teaching people about wolves, their relationship to the environment, and the Human role in protecting their future.” Thus the program was born.
Now in general wolves do not have a great reputation. You got the “Big Bad Wolf in Red Riding Hood, the pig eating wolf in ‘The Three Little Pigs,“ and the evil wolves in the recent movie, “The Grey” that sent chills down everyone’s spine. But the simple truth is, wolves are not the evil creatures that Hollywood and fairy tales portrays them to be. They just have bad PR people.
So let’s set the record straight. Wolves are afraid of humans and usually try to avoid contact with people, to the point of even abandoning their kills when an approaching human is detected. The rare attack that happens on humans is usually a rabid wolf, or a wolf-hybrid, (a known-dangerous combination of a wild wolf and a domestic dog.) Wolves are intelligent, but fearful animals, and wolf attacks are highly unlikely. Compared to other carnivorous mammals known to attack humans in general, the frequency with which wolves have been reported to kill or prey on people, is much lower, indicating that though potentially dangerous, wolves are among the least threatening for their size and predatory potential.
People who work with wolves are not afraid of them, and say that you have nothing to fear if they are in the woods with you, unless you provoke them. “In fact, researchers have noted that wolves will not harm them, or even give indication of attempts to do so, when the researchers retrieve pups from dens!” Another words, you are more likely to get bit by your neighbor’s angry dog than a wolf.
Now I’m not saying that you should walk up to a wolf and start snuggling it or ask to take photos of their kids. (Although some people do have wolves as pets, and in fact, I have petted two wolves on different occasions; Recently, in Italy when the guy teaching me how to be a Gladiator had a pet wolf who sat around in the sun as we sparred, looking rather bored, and the other time at a biker rally in Nevada where the wolf, “Dakota” from the Disney movie, “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was on hand. He was on his Union break :))
With basic research done, I called up the WCC, and spoke to Alex Spitzer, the top educator at the center to get the scoop. He explained the center was founded by Helene Grimaud in 1999. (So I imagine they have learned a few things about wolves in their 14 years of existence and interaction.) They house 22 wolves on 26 acres of land. They participate in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the two main critically endangered wolves: The Mexican gray and the Red Wolf. These animals are the rarest mammals in North America and both species at one point were extinct in the wild.
Today there are only 400 Mexican Gray and 300 Red wolves left in the world. (That’s smaller than a NYC city block of people on a normal day!) It is their mission to raise and release the wolves so that the ecosystem can be brought back to balance. They are usually released in places like Yellowstone Park, and the wolves are collared so their progress can be tracked. (Some wolves are pulled back in from the wild if they have den failure, and are then released again later)
I asked how safe this sleeping arrangement was. After all it’s good to know if we’ll be doused in meat cologne the night before or asked to wear a lamb skin coat to bed.” Alex assured me that this program was safe. That the wolves were in enclosures, and that although we will have close encounters with the socialized wolves, (their ambassador wolves that will never be released into the wild); we would not be near the un-socialized wolves that are due for release.
Of course liking close contact, I wanted to know if we would be able to touch the ambassador wolves. Alex replied, “Sorry. No. Even though our ambassador wolves like our Arctic Gray Wolf, Atka, are socialized, and go to schools for programs and places like the Museum of Natural History, we don’t allow people to touch them because we still want people to respect that they are wild animals.”
I was sold on the idea anyway. The chance to be with an animal that was almost extinct and get to help it come back through supporting their program was all I needed to hear. “Okay, got it. So how long does this program last?”
“You get here at 6 p.m. Friday night and it ends at 8 a.m. Saturday morning. You can look on our website, http://www.nywolf.org for the calendar of available dates.”
“Last question for now anyway, Alex. What do I need to bring?”
“If you are using one of our tents you would just need a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, pillow, flashlight, camera, toothbrush and toothpaste, washcloth, warm comfortable clothes to sleep in, bug spray. A complete list is on our website.”
‘Okay, I’m sold, sign me up. I want to sleep in tents among several packs of wolves, and have them howl me to sleep.”
The day of our adventure came quick. I picked up Spencer from work. His boss. Marie, thought he was nuts doing this, especially because it was 100 degrees in the shade. Dressed in his suit and tie he made quite a scene heading into the woods in corporate garb. We were greeted by volunteers who suggested Spencer change in the WCC education shed instead of behind a tree. It was a great alternative, so in minutes, he was transformed into outdoorsman, donned in shorts and ready to take on the wolves.
As we headed over to the tent area to set up, Spencer Wilhelm greeted us. (Yes, rare to have two Spencer’s in one location.) Spencer W. was running the program that night. There were about 15 people embarking on this adventure. Most of the people were families with kids under the age of 12. We were packed into 6 (4 people) tents that were lined up side by side. Lucky for us we didn’t have to pitch our tent because an extra pre-set tent was available and Spencer W. offered us that option. (That’s the way to go folks, save yourself the hassle)
After settling our gear in the tents, some mingling, and a pizza party, we gathered in the outdoor enclosed lecture area. Next to a set of benches, on the other side of the fence, were two of the ambassador wolves, Zephyr, a black wolf, and Alawa, a white Canadian/Rocky Mountain Gray wolf. They are litter mates (brother and sister) each weighing between 70 – to 80 pounds. They seemed to want to hang were all the human action was, and in between, they had their little play spats (which sounded more like growling spats- just like human brothers and sisters.) But just like humans they wanted the attention, they really seemed more like dogs and I had to remind myself they were wolves. One blonde wolf took a liking to my son. (She knows how to pick em!)
Meanwhile, Atka, their main ambassador wolf, was at a speaking engagement till later that evening. (Ah, the life of a jet setting wolf!)
After the lecture there was a brief, question and answer period (covering things like how the wolves have arranged marriages to ensure the strongest of the species, that they give birth in 63 days and only breed once a year, and that the are only 2 species of wolves in the North America, the smaller red wolves (Weighing in at 45 to 80 pounds who dine on animals like raccoons, rabbits and rodents, and have a howl higher in pitch) and the gray which are about 70-100 pounds and go after the more robust animals like elk, moose and bison.)
Spencer W. spoke about how the misconception of wolves caused people to kill them. In one recent case, after one red wolf was saved, raised and re-released. A hunter killed her shortly afterwards and her pups in the den died of starvation. Unfortunately, fear, can cause uneducated people to do stupid things. (Just think of all those politicians!)
I asked what to do if you see a wolf in the wild. I mean wolves are extremely smart and you can’t outrun them, the can go up to 35 mph but only for a short period of time. Their main thing is endurance, the can run at a constant 5 mph for days! So basically they exhaust their prey to death! (Just like some people talking.) So even if you know that a wolf normally won’t attack you, your little old legs may say, run baby run…so should you?
Finally, I asked Spencer W. how the WCC makes its money to sustain the wolves and their programs. Basically it’s through sponsorships, donations, the educational programs, the tiny gift shop, veterinarians who donate their medical knowledge, supermarkets that donate food. And the WCC is resourceful, they also feed their un-socialized wolves local fresh road kill in addition to the wolf chow they buy.
After the information from the lecture, we watched a touching wolf flick, and then we were free to roam “most” of the compounds. I say most because in the back part of the compound were the un-socialized wolves, (the wolves that will be rereleased in the wild) .The WCC didn’t want people going back there. They want the wolves to remain afraid of humans, so in the wild they don’t come up to them. (Quite frankly, you wouldn’t want to go back there, the area looks like a the setting of a horror movie.)
For the most part the wolves stayed out of site. But if you were really quiet, you could catch a glimpse of one. It was eerie seeing just a glint of reflective light off their eyes. At one point we spotted one of the un-socialized wolves. Those wolves don’t have names, they just have numbers like; M31 etc. this is so people don’t get too attached to them.
F1397 caught us looking at her, and let out an eerie howl that sounded more like a evil giggle. Spencer got close and grabbed a shot of him. It was awesome to hear, but I got to be honest, I could still picture movies like, “Were Wolf in London” running through my head. Apparently my new education hadn’t hit my core yet.
After that rush, we were alerted that the celebrity wolf, Atka got back from a hard day of entertaining people and was being brought to her pen. Once in her pen she went from celebrity to “regular wolf”. After some photo shots, most of the guests retired to their tents. It was only around 9:30 p.m.
Spencer and I stayed by the enclosures and hung out with the wolf volunteers. We wanted to take in the night. It was perfect because the moon was almost full. (Talk about the perfect setting for a sleepover!) Spencer took some close up shots of the moon, they were zoomed in so much, I swear I saw the man on the moon giving us the thumbs up on the adventure.
The volunteers were very knowledgeable. There was the evolutionary biologist college student, Christian Giliberto, who has been a volunteer there since December of 2009. He was a self-proclaimed geek, who could spew off facts like Sheldon on “The Big Bang” theory. Christian loved the wolves. He told me he helped with the captures, meaning when the wolves needed their shots or any medical help, he goes into the pens; helps tranquilize them and administer medicines. I asked him if he was scared when he went into the pens. He said, ‘In the beginning I was but then I saw first hand that the wolves get paralyzed with fear when humans approach.” He explained that the volunteers go in as a group, five in a row, and the wolves back away and into this “capture” pen where they can be tranquilized and given whatever medical checkups they need. After that he looked forward to his encounter with them. I asked them when the wolves would really start howling. He smiled, “They like 2 a.m.”
Melissa was another volunteer there. She has been there only a month but is also a wealth of knowledge because she came to WCC from the Mexican Wolf Project out in Arizona. She has written a number of articles on wolf conservation.
Then there was Nury who wants to be a zoologist and Adrianna. Maggie, the executive director, wasn’t there that night but left the WCC in the capable hands of Spencer W. and the volunteers who knew how to run the program. I asked how one becomes a volunteer, just in case I wanted to do it in my spare time. Turns out you just need to be over 16, fill out an application, but no experience is necessary.
Around midnight Spencer and I decided to head to the tent. On that hot muggy night with a tiny battery operated plastic fan hung from our tent ceiling we fell asleep fast. Then as if on cue at 2:03 a.m. I heard a distant cry. Then another and another and soon there was a wolf chorus. I shook Spencer, “Get up, tape this, this is why we are here.”
It was so awesome, and I couldn’t help think about every wolf movie I ever saw. I was happy to know they were in the enclosures, but at the same time I wanted them to be right outside my tent. It was exciting to know only a wire fence was dividing us.
The next morning everyone loaded up their tents, and Spencer and I talked to Alex. He called over Zephyr and Alawa. They came running like well-trained dogs. He got Zephyr, the feisty one, to howl for us one more time.
Finally it was time to go. We packed the car. We were just about to drive off when they all started howling one more time. No one was around except Spencer and myself.
I took that as the goodbye song from the wolves.
On the way out, Spencer bought me a stuffed wolf for my car to remember my adventure.
Later that same day, my boyfriend Steve bought a wood carving of a wolf to put in our front garden.
Whenever I look at the carving, I think about this beautiful creature and how man’s misunderstanding of him, almost wiped it off the face of the planet. Luckily, now with the hard work of dedicated centers like the WCC, man can learn how to inhabit the earth with the creature that hopefully soon, will be understood and respected for its rightful place in the world.
Note: If you are interested in this program, would like to have the wolves come to your school, would like to view them on their live wolf cam or want to donate money or time, you can go to http://nywolf.org. or call 914-763-2373 and ask for Maggie or Alex.
Tell them Fran Capo, the fast talker sent ya!
To find out more about how wolves are released in the wild check out Melissa’s article: http://nywolf.org/home?p=7886
If you do not live in the New York area but would like to see wolves, check out this link: Where to Visit Wolves.