I have to say, I think this is one of my favorite day trips so far this year!
Since its founding 30 plus years ago, the Wolf Sanctuary of PA has provided wolves and wolf hybrids a way out of institutionalized lives and deaths.
Today, Wolf Sanctuary of PA has renovated infrastructure, beautifully expanded living and sleeping spaces, and veterinary care. The wolves at the Sanctuary tend to live twice a wolf’s natural life span.
My love of dogs extends naturally to wolves. And it’s sad, in my view, that there are no wolves in the wild on the East Coast. (On the other hand, at the same time I admit I am reasonably glad that the scariest thing I’ll encounter on most hikes are ticks— not sure there’s a way to resolve this cognitive dissonance.) As soon as I heard about the Sanctuary just over a week ago, I knew I’d have to visit and blog about it.
Certainly, man has been horrid to this species — ruthlessly exterminating them throughout our history. Even our fairy tales and myths do them dishonor — the werewolf is portrayed as a malicious creature intent on damning anyone it bites, embodying all our most primal fears of wolves. And it’s mutual: our fear of wolves is as primal as their fear of us. Despite that, we seem to never tire of populating our literature and pop culture with wolves.
For the record, I never liked Dances with Wolves, other than the few scenes Kevin Costner was actually with the wolves. Those were or were meant to be, I believe, grey wolves, which are present as well at the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary also houses wolf-dog hybrids and timber wolves, which are native to the East Coast, a subspecies of the grey wolf, and what I picture in my mind when I think of wolves — not the “dire wolf” depicted on The Game of Thrones or some of the shaggy but magnificent larger grey wolves at the Sanctuary. I also remember White Fang and Call of the Wild, books I loved in my youth. I celebrated with the dog in Call of the Wild, who returned to his wild heritage and evolved back into one of his ancient grey wolf ancestors, in behavior at least, as the story unfolded.
Timber wolves used to be plentiful on the East Coast but steady killing campaigns against them, from as long ago as the early Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colony days, has all but wiped them out. Wolves are still being killed out west, despite efforts to protect them. It seems landowners will always be at odds with this top-of-the-food-chain predator.
Wolves in general were added to the endangered species list in 1974 but after 40 years of population recovery and re-introduction into some parts of the west, removed. They wander wild in about 10 states, none of which are on the U.S. East Coast. I dimly recall the controversy surrounding the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park and the outrage and concern of local farm owners fearing for their livestock.
If you’re looking for timber wolves, then you’d best look in Canada. Currently the largest population of timber wolves can only be found in the wild in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park, which carefully protects the species, including from cross-species breeding with coyotes or grey wolves. The Park also works to improve public opinion of wolves, and holds Public Wolf Howls, where park visitors are led on expeditions into areas where eastern wolves were sighted the night before and listen to them answering the Park staff’s imitation howls. The Park considers the attraction the cornerstone of its wolf education program, and credits it with changing public attitudes towards wolves in Ontario. (I am now thinking of planning a summer vacation up there!)
But back to Lititz, PA and the Wolf Sanctuary of PA.
The tour guides at the Sanctuary howl with the wolves too. It was cool to watch the wolves respond. First the two at the pen in front of us, but then we heard echoing howls from some of the other packs. It was wonderful!
“We try to be as respectful of the wolf nation as we can. We allow them to be themselves, and handle their own matters within reason,” said Dawn Darlington, owner of the Sanctuary.
Our guide, Chuck, a volunteer (as are all the staff at the Sanctuary), led our group — of about 30 — around from pen to pen. The wolves are divided into packs and enclosed in one- to two-acre wooded enclosures fenced as required by the PA Game Commission. Each enclosure offers a water source, shelter (which, being manmade, is seldom actually used by the wolves) and plenty of space to live and exercise. Currently the Sanctuary is adding several new, large pens, with the intent of eventually moving some of the packs so the older enclosures can likewise be enlarged.
The wolves are primarily fed from donated meat from local restaurants, fresh deer roadkill, and hunters who donate excess deer to the Sanctuary — in fact, the Sanctuary has walk-in freezers to accommodate the food donations (although the Sanctuary can always use more meat donations). Although the wolves on the tour — only about half the population at the Sanctuary — crowded around the fences while we were there, I got the sense that they were otherwise rarely near the outer areas of their enclosures.
The Sanctuary is located on the former estate/farm of the Darlingtons. Bill Darlington, father of the current owner, was fascinated by wolves, owned several as pets, and founded the Sanctuary 30 years ago when Pennsylvania made it illegal to own wild animals as pets. Darlington and her partner, Darin Tompkins, care for 46 wolves, many of which originally were pets for misguided (read, stupid) humans who thought they could take care of them. Despite it being illegal, many people still try to have wild animals, wolves among them, as pets — a move that usually ends in disaster for the animal. The stories of the wolves’ experiences make my skin crawl: they were caged in small pens, given up, or turned loose in public parks. Without the Sanctuary, they would have been put down.
The Sanctuary offers public tours on weekends as both fundraising and public relations for the wolves, and can accommodate about 200 visitors/day.
We learned that wolves are social, family-oriented animals with distinctly different personalities. They organize into packs (although at the Sanctuary these are carefully determined by the Sanctuary staff) with roles for each member. They play and raise their young (although the Sanctuary now neuters wolves that come to it) — the Sanctuary is a rescue-focused organization, not a breeding program.
The wolves, although superficially curious about humans — mostly for the treats they receive during the tours I’m guessing — don’t especially like to be touched. Chuck carefully kept his fingers and hands out of range of their teeth for all but one, a perky wolf named Chipper. Chipper seemed to enjoy the affection he received from Chuck, although he seemed just as happy to do without. The guides emphasized that despite the affection we humans may feel for them, wolves could pretty much care less about us, other than trying to avoid us. These wolves are not pets, they are not dogs like my beagles, who crave constant affection and closeness with us. Chuck also noted that none of the staff/volunteers have been bitten by a wolf, in all the years that the Sanctuary has operated. They do nip, however, and the bruises left by those nips can last for weeks or months. Visitors are always separated from the enclosures by two rows of fencing, about 3 feet apart.
The Sanctuary will interferes with the packs as little as possible. “Keep in mind that in the wild if a wolf in the pack was rejected and ousted (chased away) there is a place to go,” Darlington said. However, in captivity there is NO place to go, the fence stops the retreat, which could lead to a dangerous situation for the rejected wolf. “We will step in and remove that animal so that he or she may continue in a more harmonious environment.”
I had asked about one of the wolves in
particular, “Thor,” who has cataracts and is blind. “With Thor, we chose to leave him as he is because once you pull a wolf from the pack and keep them out for weeks to recover from surgery they may not get their old spot back when they return, further the surgery itself is dangerous to the wolf,” Darlington said.
She noted that wolves don’t do well with sedatives, and just the initial darting can kill them from the fear and angst of the moment. “There is no explaining to them that what we are doing is for their own good. So we try to allow them to live on their own terms.”
Darlington emphasized the importance — and quality — of the Sanctuary’s volunteer staff. “You will find much love and respect here at the sanctuary,” she said. “We work together, my volunteers are amazing people that give of their time and themselves for the good of the sanctuary.”
My boys had initially complained when I had announced to them several nights before the day trip that we would be going AND, adding insult to injury, would have to get up early to get there by the 10 a.m. tour — the only tour of the day (during the winter months tours are held at 12 noon). But the mystique of the wolves grew on them — my youngest son even invited a friend of his to come along. My eldest son was in awe of the wolves, and I think all three boys came away appreciating their magnificence. I tried to emphasize: you’ll rarely get to see a real live wolf, certainly not as close as we were, and never so many in just one location.
It was incredible to see the wolves, sitting just a few feet away (behind two layers of fencing), and see them nuzzle each other and a couple times the guide as well. Occasionally, one of the wolves would lope off into the middle of the enclosure, shrouded by dense overgrowth that affords them privacy. Unlike black bears, which I could go to my parents’ backyard to see, we cannot see wild wolves anywhere in the East, unfortunately, unless we go to the Sanctuary.
Certainly worth a day trip to visit and support the Sanctuary’s work!
Tip #1: Spray with bug spray before you leave your car. I came away with more than half a dozen bug bites, including a fly bite that was extremely painful.
Tip#2: Eat lunch and browse the shops at nearby Lititz.
Tip#3: Consider going on a Full-Moon Tour, when the Santuary holds a bonfire and tours. See the website for more information.
Getting there: 465 Speedwell Forge Rd, Lititz, PA 17543
Hours: During the summer, public tours only on 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; Winter months tours are 12 noon Saturday and Sunday: plan to arrive around 30 minutes before the tour time and no later than 10 minutes after tour time. Entrance gate opens about 30 minutes before the tour and closes 10 minutes after start of tour. Visitors are not admitted on the grounds after the entrance gate closes. Be sure to check out http://wolfsanctuarypa.org/tours-events-2/ for the most up-to-date information.
Dogs: No — the Sanctuary is strictly for wolves! And the owners’ cats.