As you may have already noticed, I’m a big fan of wolves. I’ve always loved dogs, and my interest in wolves really came about through my partner, who had been interested in them long before I was.
I really think they get a raw deal – often portrayed as the big bad wolf, or bad guys in fairytales, which gives people the idea that they are something to be feared. They are definitely something to be respected, but rather than seeing them as the villain, as I started to read and find out more about them, I understood that there is a lot we can learn from their behaviour, ways of communicating and pack structures.
I wanted to do something with my partner that would allow us to learn more about these wonderful creatures. As the charities and organisations in the UK work with captive wolves, I began to wonder whether I would actually be able to touch one. The first place that I tried said that none of their wolves were accustomed enough to people for interaction to be possible, so I tried further afield and came across Wolfwatch UK, a non-profit organisation that works with displaced captive wolves. According to their website:
“Wolf Watch UK is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the rescue, welfare, and conservation of displaced wolves from captive situations across Europe. Aiming to set the standard for the care of captive wolves, and provide them with as close to natural a habitat as is possible. Whilst providing the opportunity to study, educate, and offer factual information to our visitors, allowing them to form their own opinions regarding this magnificent animal, and hopefully expel some of the myths and misconceptions that still exists around them.”
As visiting Wolfwatch would be quite a long drive, I organised a two-night stay in the cottage, a renovated barn close to the main house, and a private visit with two of the wolves. I was very excited. Initially it was going to be a surprise for my partner, but as it would involve him driving quite a long way, I let him in on it before we booked! I thought this would be better than just producing the postcode on the day and telling the sat nav to get us there.
Last Friday, , we drove to Wolfwatch and were greeted at the door by Tony, who runs the sanctuary, and his two very friendly dogs. After deerhound and spaniel hugs, we were shown to the cottage, where we would stay for the next two nights. It does have a kitchen with a fridge, hob, and microwave, so you could cook there if you wanted. We just bought snacks for lunchtime and went out to a local town for our evening meals.
The cottage is surrounded by beautiful hills and countryside and it’s an ideal place to get away from it all. If you’re lucky, you hear the wolves howling. I made this recording whilst leaning as far as I could out of an upstairs window, so the birds and background noise are quite loud, but I didn’t want to miss the howls all together by running downstairs to go outside! I think this is Anja howling:
On Saturday morning, we met Tony, and Helen, who also works at Wolfwatch, and went to the enclose where Madadh and Kgosi live. They are Canadian wolves, brother and sister, and both in their senior years. I had already adopted Madadh on the website (see below for ways that you can help the wolves), and I was very keen to meet her. There was also a special link with visual impairment, because as Kgosi lost his sight, Madadh helped him out, both in terms of getting around the enclosure and finding food. So in a way, she was his guide wolf, and later that day, she became mine, too.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I went in (apart from a lot of mud because it had been raining!) I didn’t know how big they would be, what their fur would be like, how keen they would be on interacting with people or how they would respond to us. I imagined them to be something like very big German Shepherds, which wasn’t far wrong, but as they live outside and still had their thick winter coats, it wasn’t like the German Shepherd coats I’d felt before. I felt really privileged to have the opportunity to get so clos to what, despite the familiarity with people that these two wolves have developed after being hand-reared as puppies, is still a wild animal.
Madadh (also known as Maddy) was the first to the gate and she was definitely interested in the dog kibble that we’d brought for her. The first part I felt of her was the big, gentle snout coming in for the biscuits. I was amazed how gently she took them. She then allowed me to stroke her head, her pointy ears, her silky (if a bit wet) coat, and to feel the length of her body. After she had sussed us out, her brother Kgosi came to join us as well. He is much bigger, like a stately old man, and he too was partial to the scooby snacks! He let me touch his strong body, his massive paws and his thick, powerful tail. If he dropped a snack, Maddy was quick to help tidy up!
We spent the next hour or so with them – walking around their enclosure, taking photos, giving them treats and learning about their history, their lives and about the other wolves who live at Wolfwatch. Kgosi couldn’t see the treats, but his keen sense of smell didn’t let him down. He usually allows his sister to go and check out new sights and sounds, but if she needs him, he is ready to defend her.
Madadh is accustomed to being on a lead when she needs to be moved somewhere, and when we took her into the field, I held her lead and she led me along. The sighted members of the party were there to make sure that she didn’t guide mi into the lake, but there was something magical about being guided along by a wolf!
I felt a sense of awe that these powerful, independent animals had developed such trust for Tony, and as we came in with him, they accepted us as well. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to get close to these fascinating creatures.
As I was lying in bed on the morning that we left, I woke to the sounds of howls. I was in no state to be leaning out of windows, so I just stayed there and listened. Du to the direction of the howls, it was unlikely to be Maddy and Kgosi, but even though the other wolves are not socialized and would not welcome us in their enclosures, mainly due to less than positive experiences with humans, they still need our help.
What can you do to help?
There are a number of ways that you can help wolves like Maddy and Kgosi. Buying any of the products on the Wolfwatch website supports the wolves directly – they need to be fed, vet bills need to be paid and their enclosures need to be kept in good condition. Things that you can do include arranging a visit, as we did, adopting a wolf, which gives you access to additional information and resources on the website, visiting the cottage, or gifting membership to someone else. If you can’t afford to do any of these things, you can still learn about them, or share social media updates from organisations that help wolves, and in doing so convey the message that they are not some terrible enemy to be feared, but a smart and intelligent wild animal that deserves our help and respect.
Some of the stories I have heard about the conditions in which wolves have been kept are truly awful. Despite the similarities to dogs, they are not pets. They are not dogs. They are wild animals and need to be kept in an environment that is appropriate for them.