Anybody who knows me personally figures out pretty quickly that I adore animals. It’s not a walk home from the BART station unless I have stopped to pet and talk to every neighborhood dog and cat I can reach. Even the dog who so vigilantly and vocally guards the erstwhile itinerant squat and crackhouse around the corner from my humble abode gets a thumbs up and encouragement from me—I’m not offended, he’s just doing his job, and a damn fine one.
Animals tend to enjoy my company as well, and it is very rare for a wee beastie to reject my advances (and that usually only lasts for a day at the most). The number of times I have heard, “Whoa, wait a sec, s/he doesn’t let anybody else do that but me” is sufficient to make me think it’s a bit of a thing.
So when, in the days just before the wedding of one of my dearest friends, I had the opportunity to visit the Earthfire Institute and hang out with some beasts who were not especially tame but were deemed unfit (for reasons of health/fitness, usually) to be released back to the wild, I could not have been more excited. Excited enough, in fact, that I was one of three people awake early enough for the morning session (note: excited enough and not so painfully hungover that a morning was required to recover) at the Institute.
My friends Kelly, Ken, and I were warmly received by Susan and Jean, who gave us some quick background on the Institute, introduced us to their dog, Boychuk, and then took us into a brand new enclosure area. There they informed us we were going to meet some wolves.
“Don’t make eye contact,” they admonished gently, “and don’t let them sneak up behind you. These wolves have been around people, but they aren’t tame.”
Being a person of both wit and intelligence, I was sufficiently cowed by that spare warning that it took some effort to remain relaxed and breathing slowly; I did not want the wolves to be put off by tension or anxiety.
They let the wolves in. One male (Wamaka), large and confident, and one female (can’t remember which one she was), diminutive and skittish. Each tried their hand (paw?) at sneaking up behind me, the female several times. Each time I whirled around, looking just to the side of their beautiful faces, wishing I could meet their intelligent, lovely eyes without it being a sign of aggression. Their paws danced on the ground as they nipped in to smell the new humans in their midst, and their tails wagged and brushed my leg and side as they explored and examined the situation.
I left my hand down for them to smell and snuck scritches in when they got close enough. The female rarely got close enough for me to touch her; I was only allowed to get that good spot behind her ears once. Wamaka, however, began spending longer and longer at my side, allowing me to bury my fingers in his thick silvery fur, to feel the muscles shift under fur and skin as he moved, to let me feel just how soft his ears really were. He took to leaning up against me so I could get that spot between his shoulders as I tried not to let him unbalance me. He played with me a little; we were both cautious about that, for I did not want to inadvertently threaten him and he was still unsure of me. I suspect, given a day or so, we might have been running about the enclosure like two pups, but we didn’t have a day.
When we were informed that the wolves were going to go back to their homes outside the enclosure, he was leaning up against me again, so I leaned down and, with the abandon I usually show when faced with a large, particularly friendly dog, put my arms around this wolf and scritched him all over, as if he’d just triumphantly returned a frisbee to me. He huffed in my face, sneezed (but not in my face, for Wamaka is a polite wolf), and ran off with the the female and the two humans who cared for and fed him.
It was one of the best experiences of my life. I have rarely met two people so dedicated to the animals they serve as Susan and Jean (and Jean might as well be half-animal himself, for the way he communicates and bonds with the beasties there, from fox to bear to wild cat), and the few hours I was there fundamentally realigned how I felt about the world around me. I recommend a visit to their website, and think it would be rad if you could make a donation to them so that they can keep doing what they do. And if you ever find yourself heading to Idaho, it’s definitely worth a visit, or more.