Magpie "Maggie" greets visitors at Mission: Wolf
Fall break was drawing to a close, and the kids had spent way too much time in front of electronics. We needed get away and see why the Great Outdoors is so great. Fortunately, I had relatives I could contact on rather short notice to see if they'd mind if we visited.
My aunt and uncle live in Westcliffe, CO, which is a beautiful place nestled in the Wet Mountain Valley. The Sangre de Cristo mountains had dressed up for our visit in their fresh-powder finery, making a picture-perfect view.
Uncle Paul and Aunt Marty wanted to know if the kids would be interested in visiting Mission: Wolf. We thought this was a grand idea, so we ventured up the hill to an even more remote spot.
Upon our arrival, we bundled up for the cold weather and took in the scenery. There were visitors that had camped overnight to hear the wolves howl as the sun went down. They had spent the day chopping and hauling wood to help out the mission. I hoped my young boys had taken note of the 10-year-old girl operating the full wheelbarrow of wood ready to be stacked for the winter.
Next, we were invited to sit and listen as Kent Weber, co-founder and executive director of Mission: Wolf. He explained the mindset of the wolf and how we needed to behave since our body language is our only means to communicate with them. We were given strict instructions for having confident posture, not making eye contact and this communicating leadership with a wolf. He also explained how not communicating leadership to our domestic dogs creates anxiety and unwanted behaviors.
He explained how wolves greet those they respect and want to get to know. Apparently wolves use their mouths as their hands, therefore, the universal wolf handshake is touching teeth and giving eye contact. Giggling and closing our eyes would indicate to the wolf that we are more like a wolf pup, which would then entice a mature wolf to start pawing and licking the human "pup," and possibly knocking them over.
Also, unlike dogs, wolves do not tolerate over-the-head touches. We were to keep our hands beneath the wolves chins.
There were several other body-language gems I tucked away for use with my domesticated dogs (and with humans.) I told my aunt I'd learned more about interpersonal conflict solving and relationships in these few moments than I had in months of counseling!
Thus armed and quivering with excitement and nervousness, I escorted my offspring into the pen with the ambassador wolves and wolf-dog mixes, wondering if I'd made some terrible maternal error.
Photo of my family visiting wolves taken by Kent Weber
Fortunately, my children took the instructions and admonitions to heart and displayed confident body language. They were quiet and waited patiently for the wolves to decide if we were worth meeting. Soon, Valley Spirit, a graying black wolf took the lead and investigated us. I even received the official greeting. So with teeth bared, I knocked teeth and locked eyes with the golden-eyed girl and got a kiss. I hope my minty-fresh breath passed inspection from Valley and her ambassador friends who all had very fresh, clean teeth. This is due to their bone-eating regimen that keeps their mouths clean and surprisingly free of bacteria.
Next, Magpie, or Maggie, as she's nicknamed, came to investigate us. She also kissed me full on the mouth. She used to be dark grey but has aged gracefully to a stunning silver. I'll never forget her yellow eyes staring into my soul. She had a particular fondness for my son Michael, age 10.
As beautiful and memorable as these moments were, the goal of Mission: Wolf is actually to run themselves out of business through education. Kent Weber and his team have been doing this faithfully for over 20 years. As proof, here is my rather sorry snapshot of a photo of him on the Mr. Roger's Neighborhood show!
Mission: Wolf believes that the wolf should be kept wild because they are not designed to be born in cages as all of the wolf residents at the rescue were. The 38 residents that they serve all have stories of being bought or sold to knowing or unsuspecting persons who thought they could handle owning a wild creature. But wolves don't act like dogs do, which are perpetually stuck in puppy/submissive mode. In contrast, wolves are cunning and more intelligent with their much-larger heads with brain power that has been honed to fear man for thousands of years.
Inevitably, conflict arises as their wild programming doesn't mesh with the maturing wolf's sense of pack order challenges. Most of the quarter of a million captive-bred wolves in this country don't reach their first birthday as they are put down because they are "unmanageable." Mission: Wolf has had to turn down over 9,000 requests for help and relinquishments. For this reason, they tour the country, visiting schools with their wolf and wolf-dog ambassadors to teach us to respect these creatures and to take care of the 100,000 wild wolves residing in the U.S.
Mission: Wolf has done a remarkable job of working to be self sustaining with solar power, gardening, rainwater capture, and using recycled materials for building. In spite of this, they still rely on the support of volunteers and financial help from donors.
Additionally, Mission: Wolf has a unique relationship with area ranchers who donate meat, with Kent himself voting to continue to allow free-range cattle in their area despite damage sustained to their property from marauding cows. The troublesome bovines ate their horses' hay and frequently damage their vehicles (knocking off mirrors, etc.). They are leading by example, envisioning wolves somehow finding a balance and coexisting with ranchers and hunters, even if the journey is a little bumpy.
I'm barely skimming the surface of all of the wonderful information that was shared at our once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you're in the area, it's definitely worth the trip, and their mission is worthy of support. Please visit their educational website to learn more about the plight of both captive-bred wolves and their wild counterparts. It's a great resource for teachers and those who want to help wolves.
A special thank you to Mike, who gave us the tour. It was inspiring and informative!
As dog lovers, do you think it's important to support the wild ancestors of man's best friend?