Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary

Candy Kitchen Rescue Ranch

Text and Photos by Stephen Ausherman

Update from the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary website:

We couldn’t be more thrilled to announce that world-famous, award-winning fantasy writer, George R. R. Martin and his wife Parris, have named our Iowa 10 rescues! The Martins took time out of their seriously busy lives to personally name our ten wolf-dogs after the five dire wolves and five main characters from Mr. Martin’s book series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The genius world created in his books has now brilliantly come alive in the HBO series, “Game of Thrones.” This wildly popular series won the British version of the Emmy awards. We can’t tell you how honored we are to have our rescued wolf family become a part of this truly epic creation. The Martins are long time supporters of WSWS, and last year, they raised over $200,000 for us with an exclusive offering from George R. R. Martin.

[DesertUSA Note - This story was originally published when the author visited the sanctuary prior to the reorganization and creation of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary. Some details have been updated.]

Not being the purest of wolves, they howl at the sun. As soon as it crests the continental divide 15 miles to the east, all 69 mouths gape at the sky and let loose the call of the wild. But despite their most sincere efforts to sound like a real pack of wolves, their dawn concerto is off-key, warbled and punctuated with short slobbering barks. In fact, it sounds more like the call of the weird. So begins another day at the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, New Mexico.

This 90-acre homestead between the Ramah Navajo and Zuni reservations provides permanent, lifetime, safe sanctuary to abused and abandoned, displaced, unwanted, and un-releasable captive-bred wolves and wolf dogs, and other related species from as far away as New Jersey, Michigan and Washington. With a mission to educate the public on the wild wolf and wolf dog ownership, and ethical care and treatment of all animals domestic and wild, artist Jacque Evans founded the ranch in 1991, supporting the effort with the sale of her paintings. In 1993, Barbara Berge, a British actress who made a career on Manhattan stages, moved to the area and joined the cause as general manager. Leyton Cougar became a volunteer at the rescue center in 1996. His plan to volunteer only once or twice a week changed as he became more involved in the dream of providing a safe haven for wolves and wolf-dogs. In October 2003, Candy Kitchen Rescue went through reorganization and became Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary. At that time, Leyton Cougar took over the position of Executive Director.

With hybrids of high wolf content, Leyton advised: "You have to work with them for a minimum of two months before they'll let you in their pen, sometimes longer. And it's heartbreaking when they won't."

As he slipped into their pen, they bowed and lowered their tails and ears, maintaining this gesture of submission until one broke rank and lunged for Leyton's face. The others followed suit and soon Leyton was covered with more slobbering kisses than a DiCaprio glossy in a girls' dormitory.

Leyton sensed a good rapport between Brett and a pack of high wolf content hybrids. I sensed it too: The hyper hybrids piled up at the gate and shoved their noses through the chain link whenever Brett came near, and he showed no hesitancy when Leyton asked if he was ready to go into the pen.

Before they entered, Leyton issued this final warning about the alpha male: "Just hold on to your groin 'cause he'll nail you." Brett shuffled into the pen, one hand out for greeting, the other ready to fend off ballistic paws. They clamored at his legs, stomach and chest, each vying for that envious position of being close enough to lick at his face.

"Watch his dew claws," Leyton continued. "He punctured my scrotum and stripped the skin off another guy's groin."

Their welcoming frenzy escalated into a snarling shoving match, a kind of mini mosh pit. Brett held up solidly, but it was clear they could have leveled him with one coordinated push. He tried to calm them with an even distribution of affection, scratching behind ears and stroking muzzles, but they just got more worked up.

"There's no wearing them out," Leyton said, fending off the affectionate assaults that sailed his way. "They've bloodied me quite a bit, but there's no ill intent." He signaled Brett back to the gate, indicating that the first inside meeting was over, but Brett didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave.

The next morning, Brett asked me if I would like to go with him into Nayati's pen. Before deciding, I consulted Nayati's bio sheets, which reported that he "came to Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary when he was 11 months old on Earth Day. He had initially been raised in a furniture factory and then was sold at 10 weeks of age to a woman who raised llamas... Nayati is socialized, loves everyone, including all children. He is mellow and gentle and weighs in at about 130 lbs. He is a timber/tundra cross." Reading this, I thought of a line from King Lear: "He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf."

Nayati also had a part in John Carpenter's Vampires. "It wasn't a big role," Brett said. "He just walked up to a corpse and ate its guts."

The moment I stepped into the cage with Nayati, he backed me into a corner and stood on his hind legs. His paws were pressing down on my shoulders and his eyes were even with mine, but my worst fear was that he'd bite my camera. So when I saw his gaping jaws zeroing in on the lens, I raised my forearm to defend it. Rows of fangs closed down on my flesh, applying less pressure than you would use to hold a pint of beer.

"Vampire wolf's biting my arm," I told Brett.

"Corner's not a good place to stand," he replied.

I pushed Nayati away and approached the center of the pen, only to be assaulted by his partner, Khan, a clumsy dog who, as far as I could tell, hadn't a trace of wolf in him. But both soon lost interest in me as Khan tried to mount Nayati. Nayati wanted no part of it, and fended off Khan with guttural snarling and several warning chomps to the head. When Barbara caught me photographing the fracas, she asked, "Are you trying to get them looking vicious?"

I told her no, they were looking vicious without my help.

Barbara Berge was there the day I visited. Her passion for defending the hybrids was admirable, and I could appreciate her dilemma. Emphasizing the dangerous side of wolves and consequences of irresponsible wolf-dog ownership can add to a climate of fear and lend support to legislation calling for the ban and extermination of wolf dogs -- and that seemed to be her biggest fear.

However, romanticizing these animals can increase the demand for wolf dogs and lead to reckless breeding and ownership. When Kevin Costner danced among them he inadvertently opened a gold mine for wolf-dog breeders, doing for them what Taco Bell did for chihuahua vendors. The difference is that people don't try to beat chihuahuas into submission or abandon them to the wild when they get out of hand. And to date, no one has ever suffered a fatal chihuahua attack that I know of.

I spent the greater part of the afternoon trying to determine where Barbara struck a balance between the joys and hazards of wolf dogs. It wasn't easy. Keeping up with her was like tracking a coyote in bad weather. She was running a shuttle relay between the pens and her computer, hauling bags of feed and cursing her software. I was just another distraction in her busy schedule, and I don't think she was putting a whole lot of thought into the answers she gave me. For example, when I asked her if there's more risk in owning a wolf dog than any other dog, she answered flatly: "No."

"Seriously. I mean, consider dachshunds."

She thought for a moment (appeared to, anyway) and replied, "From what I understand, dachshunds can be nasty creatures. Always nipping at your ankles and such."

She embraced a hybrid named Ghengis and said, "Ghengis has been attacking men lately." Then she approached a black wolf with yellow eyes and said, "But Raven is extremely social, thanks to the care and patience of his previous owner."

Leyton Cougar and Raven

Asked why anyone would give up such a friendly and beautiful animal, she explains the owner suffered a heart attack after losing both his job and his home, and had no choice but to leave Raven to the mercy of Animal Control. Realizing that mercy would expire in 48 hours, the Wolf Ranch launched an Internet campaign to save Raven from being put down. With only an hour remaining, a check for $400 came through, and Raven was theirs.

I asked what happened to the man, the one who lost his job, home, health and beloved pet. Judging by her response, I reckoned this question never came up before. She shrugged and said, "I have no idea." It seemed of little importance considering the victory scored for Raven.

As for the other wolves and wolf-dogs, all seemed healthy despite occasional, yet fierce struggles for dominance. By the end of my week's stay on the ranch, Nayati, the vampire wolf, was the only one that seemed to care about me, leaping like a pronghorn every time I passed his pen. The rest just turned their noses up and howled at the sun.

Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary is an ninety-acre sanctuary in the high desert of southwest New Mexico. At 7,600 feet elevation, the wooded acreage provides a beautiful habitat for the many wolves that spend their lives at the sanctuary.

The rescued wolves and wolf-dog crosses at the sanctuary were all captive bred and were originally sold to be pets. All the animals are spayed and neutered. The sanctuary never breeds or sells animals.

All animals live their lives in compatible pairs or groups of three or four. The sanctuary has different sized enclosures, depending on the number of animals and their specific needs. Each habitat enclosure is made with 9 gauge chain link fence a minimum of eight feet tall, with added fencing at the top that hangs inward to prevent climbing and/or jumping. All posts, top rail, and gates are schedule 40 Steele. They also bury three feet of fencing under the ground along the perimeter of each enclosure to prevent the animals from digging out. Enclosures are equipped with a double gate entry system to prevent gate escapes. They not only keep the animals safe within their enclosures, but also ensure their added safety by preventing unwanted guests from entering the compound unescorted. The sanctuary has perimeter gates, locked building, and nightly 'guard duty'.

Their web site is www.wildspiritwolfsanctuary.org


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