Monday, June 05, 2006

Wolf sanctuary offers visitors a close encounter with wildlife

Marilyn Chung - The Desert Sun

Tonya Littlewolf clasps her hands around her mouth and lets out a piercing howl. After a few attempts, the calls are answered by a choir of wolves around her, who cry out at the desert sky as visitors snap pictures. But Littlewolf and her guests are not looking in from the other side of a fence. They are with the wolves and, for one day at least, part of the pack.

"There's something spiritual about looking into a wolf's eyes. It touches your soul and it changes you," she says. Littlewolf runs Wolf Mountain Sanctuary in Lucerne Valley, which houses 17 wolves she has rescued through the years.Most come from unfit homes were they were illegally kept as pets and one is a former Hollywood star.

Elite Land Tours, based in Palm Springs, shuttles visitors to the sanctuary, where they are allowed to enter the wolf enclosure and under Littlewolf's watchful eye, interact with the animals. "Most people are surprised by how big they are and how (social) they are," says Mark Farley, owner of the tour company. The visitors sit in a wooden shed as wolves walk up to them and sniff their temporary pack members. Some pet the wolves, others feed them dog biscuits. Most are awed by the experience.

"It's an incredible honor to just be here, to be accepted by them. When you look into their eyes up so close and they stare back at you, it's incredible," says Dolly Marks, an Oregon resident vacationing in Palm Springs who visited the sanctuary with Elite Land Tours. The sanctuary is busy during Marks' visit with a handful of desert visitors and a camera crew from the "Today Show" filming for an upcoming segment.

"It's an amazing experience for people. It's a chance to come face to face with wolves," says Jerry Groven, a driver and guide for the tour company. "People compare it to swimming with dolphins," he says .

Littlewolf opened the sanctuary in 1985 but her experience with wolves goes back much further. "I've been with them my whole life," she says. A mix of Italian and Native American, Littlewolf grew up with her grandfather, an Apache Indian, and her mother in Arizona where the family rescued and rehabilitated wild animals, including wolves. As a little girl, her mother and grandfather told her she had the spirit of the wolf and named her Littlewolf. The wolves also seemed to recognize their kindred spirit and accepted her as part of their pack from an early age.

Littlewolf remembers one of her earliest experiences with the wolves when as a young child her mother dressed her up to go out to visit friends. "I wanted to say goodbye to the wolves so I went out to them," she says. But the wolves didn't take a liking to her new dress and ripped it. Littlewolf worried that she would be in trouble and ran into the wolf den. "I crawled on my knees and did the danger bark. The wolves started barking too and surrounded me for protection," she says.

Now Littlewolf is the one trying to protect her spiritual kindred. "My grandfather told me that was my summons in life," she says. "I've rescued wolves from breeders, homes and the movie industry," she says. Wildlife permits, which cost $3,000 per year, allow her to keep up to 17 wolves. Littlewolf says she spends about $4,000 every month on food for the animals. To help with the costs she began giving the hands-on tours shortly after opening the sanctuary. "In all these years I have never had any problems, never had an incident," she says. "Wolves are social animals, very family oriented."

Littlewolf reads the animals for any signs that indicate they may not want someone inside their enclosure. "They would let me know. They would growl and I watch for those reactions," she says. "She really has a special relationship with the wolves, they respect her," Farley says.

Littlewolf gives visitors specific instructions before they enter the den so that the wolves will respect them as well. "Take off your sunglasses, they (wolves) need to see your eyes, no hats and no things dangling from you, they like to take stuff," she says to Marks and her group of visitors before they enter the wolf pen. She hands visitors dog biscuits to feed the wolves. "Put your hands under and not over their heads when you feed them," she says.

Littlewolf enters the pen first and since she is considered the alpha female by the pack, she is quickly greeted by the excited animals who watch her every move as if waiting for the next set of instructions. Yawto, a Montana tundra wolf, is the alpha male and if he accepts people the rest of the pack will also accept them, Littlewolf says. Yawto sniffs all of the visitors as Wacipi, his sister and the pack's omega wolf, hides in a corner. "She's at the bottom of the pecking order so she's usually in the background," Littlewolf explains.

The wolves quickly accept the new pack of humans and take treats from the visitors. Darlene Otta, Marks' friend from Oregon, leans over and hands Yawto a treat, which he eagerly takes from her hand. "They're amazing, the way they look at you," she says. The wolves are visibly excited, but unlike dogs they don't wag their tails of beg for affection. Instead, most stare at visitors directly in the eyes and they seem more interested in the nearby camera equipment from the TV crew than in being petted. But that is not to say they are not playful.

As the visitors begin to feel more comfortable, Yawto, the pack leader, walks up behind a reporter and slowly pulls a notebook out of his back pocket. As soon as the wolf has hold of the notebook he takes off running, with Littlewolf behind him trying to retrieve the notes. "They do this just for fun, they like to take things," Littlewolf explains.

They also remain wild.As visitors watch, two wolves begin to growl at each other. Noticing the visitors' nervous looks, Littlewolf quickly steps in and takes control. The wolf growls but as the alpha female, Littlewolf raises her body over the wolf, who quickly lies on his back and submits to the pecking order.

The visitors spend about 30 minutes with the wolves and after leaving the den they hang out with the oldest and most famous member of the pack. Apache Moon, a Mackenzie Valley timber wolf, appeared in the Kevin Costner movie "Dances with Wolves," as an extra with Littlewolf. He is the sanctuary ambassador and used to go on educational trips with Littlewolf. But at 20, well past the usual nine years wolves live in captivity, he now spends his days sleeping under the shade of a tree surrounded by three cats that watch over him.

"They're a part of me and I'm a part of them and we need to protect them and keep them safe. That's what we're here to do," Littlewolf says.

  • The Desert Sun