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Making the Connection: Bonding with Wolves in California

Words by | Photos by Sarah Prikryl
Making the Connection: Bonding with Wolves in California

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I stand outside the fence and take a few deep breaths, trying to remember everything I have been told to prepare myself for what I am about to encounter. Once I enter, I must drop down low to the ground on one knee, palms facing upwards, breathing slowly and steadily, and remaining calm. Then I wait. If they feel my energy settle, they will approach and brush against my hands. Only then am I allowed to touch them. But one thing is clear: they come to me, I do not go to them. After all, though they may appear to resemble the friendly canines with which we routinely cohabit, these are not dogs. These are wolves.

After driving beyond the outskirts of Los Angeles and passing through the sleepy Old West-style town of Acton, I wind my way up a remote hillside to find myself at the Wolf Connection — a youth empowerment educational centre dedicated to rehabilitating wolf and wolf-dog rescues. The compound stretches out over 11 hectares of California desert mountainscape.

As soon as I step outside, a call erupts in the distance that stirs something deep and primal within. Though still far away, the wolves know that I am here and they are announcing my arrival. I follow their hypnotic howls down a path that leads to a large chain-link fence adorned with a yellow ‘wolf crossing’ traffic sign. Here, I catch my first glimpse of the wolves gathered in their various kennels — some white-grey, some jet-black, all with burning gazes that follow my every move. Apparently, they are just as curious about their new visitor as I am about them.

Maya, an original pack member and the quintessential alpha female. Wolf Connection, Acton, California. Photo by Chris Perry
Maya, an original pack member and the quintessential alpha female. Photo by Chris Perry

In just a few minutes, I will be face-to-face with these majestic wild creatures. But first, I need to get a lesson on wolves. I discover that the 29 wolves housed at the sanctuary are all domestic rescues — animals originally kept as pets and surrendered or removed once they became unmanageable. The friendly volunteer staff likens it to keeping an elephant in one’s home: a baby elephant is very cute and everybody wants to play with it, but what happens when that elephant grows up and starts trampling the house? Unfortunately, since breeding and keeping wolves is illegal in most parts of the United States, once a wolf is surrendered to a shelter, it is immediately put on death row to be euthanised. That is where the Wolf Connection steps in.

Each wolf and wolf-dog that passes through the gates of the compound must go through an intensive 6-month rehabilitation process. First, their physical health is attended to. Then they must be socialised with the rest of the pack, which is often done with the help of Maya, the alpha female. An arctic white beauty from the original rescue pack, Maya serenely and confidently trains newcomers in wolf etiquette.

Wolfee. This affectionate animal joined Wolf Connection in Acton, California after being confiscated during a sting operation – he had been traded for drugs. Photo by Sarah Prikryl
Wolfee. This affectionate animal joined Wolf Connection after being confiscated during a sting operation – he had been traded for drugs. Photo by Sarah Prikryl

As the wolves begin to stabilise, they learn to bond with select human handlers. Eventually, more people are added into their sphere until the wolf feels comfortable and safe interacting with humans. Many of the wolves thrive in this environment and become highly adept service animals. But some wolves will never get to the point where they can receive visitors in their kennels, their emotional wounds too deep to ever fully recover. Just like humans, wolves are very emotionally sensitive and many display ‘fear aggression’ from past traumas that can be difficult to overcome.

Enter the at-risk-youth component of the Wolf Connection. Founder Teo Alfero was a youth counsellor when he met his first wolf-dog, a baby girl named Tala. Little did he know that one small pup would change the course of his entire life — and save the lives of dozens of wolves and wolf-dogs across America, while inspiring the growth and empowerment of the next human generation. While volunteering to rehabilitate a pack of 16 wolves at a local shelter, Teo saw an opportunity to merge his two passions. He envisioned bringing his wolf rescues together with at-risk youth groups in the hope that each could help the other on their journey of healing and recovery — and the Wolf Connection was born.

Teo and his pack at Wolf Connection, Acton, California. Photo by Sarah Prikryl
Teo and his pack. Photo by Sarah Prikryl

Five years later, Teo and his team regularly host revolving foster care and youth substance abuse rehabilitation groups for 8 weeks at a time. The kids come to the compound once a week, experiencing first-hand the value of patience, trust and second chances. In learning about the wolves’ recovery from abandonment, neglect and abuse, the program participants are able to hear their own stories echoed back at them — and apply the wolves’ lessons to their own healing process.

Teo explains that the majority of the participants are dealing with confused feelings about love, rejection and what it means to be accepted. Since most of the people who proclaim to love them have actually hurt them, these concepts become very confusing. The same could be said of the Wolf Connection’s wolf rescues. Through bonding, the wolves and youths help each other learn to trust again, breaking down barriers and instilling confidence. As Teo puts it, “In the presence of these magnificent animals, kids who have experienced trauma, violence and abandonment find a place of hope and freedom from their past.”

Wolf and volunteer forming a bond at Wolf Connection, Acton, California. Photo by Sarah Prikryl
Wolf and volunteer forming a bond. Photo by Sarah Prikryl

Although the main focus of the centre is youth rehabilitation and empowerment, the Wolf Connection maintains a larger mission of inspiring all people to discover their full potential by interacting with the wolf rescues and witnessing their resilience. With this in mind, Teo and his team of wolf experts offer community visits for those interested in learning more about these beautiful creatures. Private educational tours by donation can be arranged, where visitors can have face-to-face time with the more social wolves.

On the monthly Community Hike with the Pack, guests pay a donation fee and enjoy a beautiful afternoon hike in the surrounding mountains with the wolves, followed by a potluck, kennel tour and educational talk. Hearing each wolf’s story — how they overcame neglect and abuse to emerge even stronger — is enough to bring tears to the toughest person’s eyes. Many visitors end up bonding with one particular wolf through a mutual recognition of their unique challenges and ultimate triumphs, often feeling motivated to become a ‘sponsor’ of their favourite wolf.

As the popularity of the Wolf Connection’s community outreach has grown, along with the need to rehabilitate more and more rescues, Teo and his team are very busy on their newest project: building a wolf sanctuary and retreat centre. The new property will allow the admission of more rescues, moving them from kennels into natural habitat areas. At the new facility, visitors will be able to lodge on the grounds and attend retreats while participating in wolf education programs. To honour the wolves’ naturally sustainable way of life, the entire compound will be run on green energy. Many levels of sponsorship are available for those who wish to contribute to building the wolves’ new home.

Back outside the kennel fence, now completely prepped and ready to meet my first wolves, I follow my instructions. I step inside, take a deep breath, drop down low, and wait. Then it happens. Suddenly, a giant wolf-dog approaches me. He brushes up against my hands and waits for my reaction as he looms stoically above me. His immense tufts of fur give him the appearance of a mythical creature from a fairy tale. This is Ranger — a strikingly handsome wolf-dog twice my size. He leans in close to my face as I remain perfectly still. Then… he licks me. I am instantly won over as he plops down and gives me his belly to rub.

Sitting with this massive wild animal in my lap, I am touched to the core by the simple truth that all beings just want to be loved. If we can find ways to understand and respect each other, that love becomes our one common language. Here at the Wolf Connection, it is the only language they speak.

For more information on the Wolf Connection, to visit, or to make a contribution, go to Wolf Connection

Published on November 4, 2015
Location: Acton, Los Angeles
Country: United States Of America ›
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