When, sometime in 2018, a stray comment on social media alerted me to the presence of a wildlife sanctuary in Anacortes, WA – a mere hour’s drive for me – and the fact that this place offered wolf encounters… I raced upstairs to where my husband’s office is, in tears, and I said, “I want nothing else for Christmas. I want this. Only this.”
I booked my Wolf Experience online as soon as I was able to do it. For April. My little pile of Christmas presents (the others were mostly books…) included an envelope with my booking information inside, sealed with a photo of a wolf in that iconic howling pose, snout pointed at the sky. That thing sat on the coffee table in the living room – where I could look at it any time I chose – for months. I could all but hear that wolf’s silent howl, calling me.
April 9 finally came, after several days of cold temps and rain, and I packed an extra bag to take along with me in case I got soaked out in the woods – but something smiled on us, myself and my friend Gordana who came with me, and the clouds ripped as we drove to Anacortes. Strips of blue sky appeared. Sun spilled through. The day was still not warm – but the light was with us as we walked into the Predators of the Heart sanctuary, together with six other people, to begin our tour at 10 AM.
They have other animals there, so let’s start with all that. They have a cage of brightly coloured macaws right out front, one whom has a party trick of imitating car alarms (I’m sure THAT gets old fairly fast… ) – they have a couple of marmoset monkeys inside the reception area (“Don’t touch them, they can catch the common cold… also, they pee all over themselves to help groom themselves…”) – they have an Eagle Owl who was hiding in a closed-in area so we never saw it, only got treated to a running commentary of “who-HOOOOs” as we walked by. There’s a carefully climate-controlled enclosure where a bunch of sloths with paperwork difficulties now reside (their permanent status depends on their permits being straightened out in a tangle of administrivia); this is the first time I’ve actually seen a real living sloth up close and personal and God are they EVER as slow as advertised, I watched one scratching behind the place where normal animals might have an ear (there is no real hint at one on the sloth) with a slow slow slow motion, and it was almost easy to read his mind: damn but I have… an itch… right there… right there… right there… if I keep on… scratching… at it… it might even stop… itching… next year… They have three or four fairly large tortoises (“People get these when they’re just itty bitty but they GROW, and they’re burrowing creatures – they can dig several feet underground – and then they become big enough to go through your drywall. So they end up in places like this…”). They have three small alligators, pressed against the glass of their enclosure as if they were asking to be hugged as well as the pretty fluffy creatures out there. They have a porcupine whom we never quite saw, huddled in the back of his hutch (we could smell him and apparently the musky smell is something they give out when they’re upset or stressed so I guess all these people peering at him were REALLY stressing him out); beyond him there was an enclosure with an emu, but to him we were not introduced. They have a groundhog (who was apparently in the doghouse for having predicted spring all wrong…) They have a small-mammal enclosure, of which the people running the place spoke in the semi past tense because they were in the process of redoing all of that and literally quadrupling the living space of the residents – which currently included an ancient (in fox years) little silver fox who was completely blind and living out her geriatric years here in care, a couple of coatimundis, and two (de-scented) skunks who were brought out to be scritched and oohed and aaahed at – they really do have the most precious little faces. In the back, they have a couple or three cougars (lordy, those feet… and these big cats PURR, at a level that resembles a small train coming…)
But all that. All that was interesting, and cute, and fun, and amazing. But all that was not why I was there.
All the time we were elsewhere, looking at different beasts, admiring and learning and sometimes being permitted to pet them (the skunks are surprisingly pettable)… THEY were there, pressing at the back of my mind, their presence filling the air and overflowing in my heart.
They have two members of the pack whom they call their ambassadors, Max and Kakoa. I have no idea what was going on with anyone else in that group of visitors as we waited for these two to appear, whether they felt anxiety, or wariness, or even fear, but when the handlers left to get the two wolves we were to be allowed to meet all I could feel was a quivering anticipation. The handlers went back into the enclosure and they returned with these two beasts on long leashes and as they came padding into the courtyard where we waited I felt my eyes fill with tears.
Before we go any further, there’s something I have to tell you.
The concept of a ‘spirit animal’ is a Native American thing, although similar relationships do occur with other indigenous peoples elsewhere, and Whitey, which I am one, is not supposed to claim a ‘spirit animal’ because we can’t have one not being part of the indigenous culture to which those belong. But when it comes to the wolf… I don’t know what to call it, if I am not allowed to call it that, but the connection between me and the wolf is something real, and strong, and vivid. Something shifts inside me when I look at those eyes, even just in photographs – a great space opens up and I can fall deep inside it, out to where the stars start glimmering in the outer darkness. I am connected, in a strange way, to these creatures. They may not be permitted to be my ‘spirit animals’ but I am connected to them, and they to me. And the fact that I was now for the first time in the presence of a living breathing wolf was taking my own breath away.
We were split into two groups, four of us taken to meet the male, Max, while the other four went to cluster around the female, Kakoa (we would switch later). Max was huge, a solid mass of muscle and very dense and oddly coarse (it felt more like long horse hair than soft dog pelt) fur… and yes, the eyes, the eyes I had come here to see, the golden eyes that looked into my soul. I don’t know what he saw, but it must have been everything because there was nothing between us but love. They had told us not to touch the wolves’ feet because they didn’t like that, but I could look at them, the strong legs, the huge semi-webbed paws that looked like they were easily the size of my own hand. The massive muzzle with the gigantic canines revealed as the snout opened into a feral little grin. At one point the female, Kakoa, who had some sort of issue with another female safely behind the enclosure fence, let out this low throaty growl while glaring over in that direction in a golden side-eye – it was not the sort of noise you wanted to be the focus of. This was WOLF. This was *WOLF*. This was the spirit of the wilderness, right here beside me, with my hand wrist-deep in the fur at their necks, scratching behind the ears where they like being scratched, looking into those eyes.
Max tried to eat my braid. Twice. Apparently it intrigued him mightily. At one point – and I was really not expecting it – the snout pointed in my direction opened without warning and a wet sloppy tongue the size of a small Chihuahua uncurled and landed squarely on my nose, and the wolf washed my face thoroughly for a moment (the photo of this instant has my face all scrunched up – but it wasn’t because of a recoil, it was pure surprise). A wolf kissed me that day. A wolf KISSED me. I was ready to cry all over again.
Then they took us eight and the two of them into the woods – for more photos, with Kakoa posing like the queen that she is on the platform behind and Max, with his massive presence, and that huge head, and the enormous feet, and the endearingly scrunched up ears, brought up to pose with the visitors.
“And now you get to do what you all came here to do,” one of the tour leaders said, grinning. “But to get them to howl… here’s the catch… you have to howl. It’s a pack response. Go on, let rip.”
So the eight of us stood there in the woods, and howled. I did, I let out one yip, but after that I was just laughing for the joy of it – a bunch of human beings howling enthusiastically, the rest of the pack back in the enclosure well within hearing range joining in with gusto, and our two, finally, lifting their faces into that iconic wolf-howl pose, curling their snouts around a howl lifted into the dappled shadows of the sunlit treetops. It was just… something… extraordinary.
And then they let the wolves loose in the forest. Max immediately went to a ladder somebody had left behind in there, to investigate (“you can’t leave anything in here they know when something doesn’t belong, and they’ll go straight there to find out what it’s doing there…”) and Kakoa dived into a hole and started digging energetically, sending fist-sized clods of dirt flying and people ducking for cover if they were in range. At some point Max took off with that long, easy, lupine lope that we have all heard about and that I have now seen… and I promise you, the earth responded to the touch of those big paws, sending vibrations along the ground, echoes into the air. We saw wolf run; we heard wilderness respond. It was heartbreaking in the best possible way that it could be. Max found the coat that my friend had taken off and put aside and began to make off with it and got chased until he dropped it – comic relief – they are funny, the wolves, they just act like large furry kids, bounding around energetically, getting upset if one of them is getting more attention than the other (“My humans! Mine! Go get your own humans!”), falling over for belly rubs, pushing at you with those huge heads, and still, and always, those eyes, those eyes.
We left them there, to run, and re-emerged to go greet “the puppies”, of which there were apparently eight. But the “puppies” were yearlings and two year olds and they were damn near as big as the adults, and we were given instructions – don’t rough-house with them (you’ll lose); don’t go down to their level in any position you can’t quickly get up and out of (because they’ll flatten you); tuck in loose stuff like shoelaces (because they’ll go for it); feel free to set your own boundaries firmly… and by all means, if it all gets too much, duck out of the “puppy” den. I went into a mob of eight young wolves, and it was an utter joy. They were a bunch of large doofuses, still ungainly and trying to figure out the adult bodies into which they were still growing; they tumbled over one another, trotting from person to person, stuffing snouts into unsanctioned places, another one tried to eat my hair, a third one went for a stray shoe lace or my shoe or my sweatpant leg or something and I felt a distinct pressure of wolf teeth on my leg – and I said, stop that, and one of the handlers dived in to help, but I brought home a definite wolf hickey, a bruise on the side of my leg where I had felt that tooth connect – he didn’t bite or break the skin or anything (or we’d be discussing prospects of interesting times come the next full moon and I started to feel an odd urge to… change…) but the bruise was definitely there when I looked and I’m wearing it like a badge of honor.
When it was time to go I waded past a pack of milling wolves, meeting eyes, saying goodbye, and slipped out through the inner door into the outer holding space and then out into the grounds again. I turned to watch them, and anyone who was watching me must have seen my soul shining from my eyes, because it was all there, the thoughts that spread wings in my mind and flew across the gravel, through the silence, back into the pack I had just left – Beloved, O Beloved, I am grateful for being allowed to walk among you today, I have always belonged to you, thank you for lending your beautiful spirit to me this day, I will never forget you, all that I am I offer to you, the blood and bone and sinew and heart and mind and spirit, the song and the story, the strength and glory and nobility of your limbs and your body and your beloved golden eyes, thank you for sharing the texture of your fur and the sound of your running, thank you for the glimpse into my own soul. Thank you for being, because just by existing you make this world into a better place. Thank you for feeding the flame of my faith. Thank you for letting me love you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
I write this twenty four hours after I left their side and already the encounter is passing into something like legend in my mind, a mythical experience. The feel of their fur under my hand is almost like a racial memory, not my own. It seems sacrilegious to believe that I have touched a wolf. It seems utterly impossible to believe that a wolf wanted to chew on my braid, or that a wolf thought I was worth that big, glorious, sloppy tongue-washing that I was given. I had been looking forward to this for so long – and it’s over, and I don’t know what else the rest of this year can possibly bring that will top the Day of the Wolf.
I still see the golden eyes looking at me, if I close my own for an instant.
Maybe I always will.
(this essay originally appeared in modified form on my website)