Ramon Castellanos joins us today to talk about his start in the animal welfare world. In addition to leading the research and development team at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in New Mexico he also plans and implements habitat modifications. He talks to us about why wolf sanctuaries are necessary and how the wolves end up joining them. They also have a wonderful educational program which allows you to get up close and personal with a few of their star wolves!
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Ramon is currently leading the research and development department at the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in New Mexico. In addition to research and development, he also focuses on educational programs and the planning and implementing of habitat modifications.
Hey, Ramon, welcome to the program.
Hey, Chris, Happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me on here.
Yes, we’re so glad to have you. I’m super excited to talk to you because I mean, well, sanctuaries are something that just I don’t know, it’s just got a place in my heart. So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about you and how your path has gotten you to where you are now?
Yes, sure. Well, in relevance to this place, I actually showed up at the Wolf Sanctuary pretty much completely by accident. So, for your audience, who probably don’t know where we’re located. We’re out about two and a half hours away from any major city out here, so it’s very, very rural, and we’re out in the wilderness. So I came out here with my wife about eight years ago now because my father actually built a store across the street and I come out here to try to get to know him and to work at his store. My wife, she was a dog trainer at the time, and she had a big passion for canines her whole life. So she was excited to come out here and try to, work with wolves. Originally, she actually started in the gift shop working I think about 15 hours a week. Now she’s actually the director of operations. So I got a big, big transformation, so yes, I started working at the store across the street, as I was saying, trying to get to know my father.
I grew up in a situation where he wasn’t really around. I was raised by my grandmother, and so when we didn’t get to know each other a little bit, we did not like each other. Yes, it did not work out at all. So within about three weeks of working at the store, I actually quit there, after some just a really bad day with him and came over here. It happens to be that that day was actually the open house of a yearly open house to this place and I started offering my time to some of the volunteers that were here just to help out.
A couple of months went by and I was just doing construction, just trying to survive. At first, I really didn’t have that much of an interest in working with wolves. Not that I didn’t love animals so that we had – I grew up around animals, but it’s just a weird place in my life, weird time. Over the years of, starting off doing construction, I started to get more and more involved in the animal side of things. Doing animal handling and working with the animals and rescuing animals. I don’t know, I just now, of course, it’s in my heart. I’ve become aware of just a massive need for, especially in the wolf and canine community, exotic canine community. Just a huge need and a lot of exploitation. Yes, that’s how I got started here.
That’s such an interesting story. Like you said, it’s something, it’s not like you planned. So many people you talk to that are in animal rescue or animal welfare, they plan to be a veterinarian when they were a child, they’ve realized their lifelong passion. But it sounds like for you, it wasn’t something that was always just, “This is what I want to do.” but you found your calling now.
Yes. No, absolutely not. It was not a planned at all. Like I said, fell into it by accident, and it’s been quite the adventure, I would say. Yes, with lots, of lots of beautiful experiences, lots of difficult ones as well. I think for anyone seriously in this work, if they’re on it, they’ll realize there’s a lot of sacrifice, a lot of pain involved in it, as well.
So tell us a little bit about the sanctuary there. I mean, maybe just some of the basics how big it is. How many animals live there?
Sure. The sanctuary is currently about 122 acres. The animals live on about 40 acres, and we have between 65 and 75 animals year-round. Generally speaking, at the moment, I believe we are at 68. We have about 37 different habitats that the animals are spread into. We have several different species of wild canine. We have wolves, Wolf dog’s Australian dingoes, red foxes, coyotes and something called a new guinea singing dog, which is one of the rarest canines in the world, strictly speaking, not actually a dog. Apparently, genetics have proven that it’s a dingo, but a very long story of why they’re called the dog. They’re actually more accurately called in New Guinea Singing Dingo. So yes, way actually have a pack of dogs now that I think about it to one pack of five dogs.
So how did the animals come to end up in your care?
Oh, all sorts of ways. Many of them are rescue from people who try to own them as pets. Primarily, what we do here is we take in disenfranchised, exotic canines from the exotic pet industry. So very few of our animals have actually come from the wild. I think there’s only about three that were born in the wild but did not come from a wild situation when they came to us. They came from somewhere else that had rescued them. Most of our animals come from people who try to own them as pets. It doesn’t work out because exotic animals usually make terrible pets, especially a lot of canine, wolves in particular, are extremely difficult to own, probably more so than the exotic cats. The big cats.
Okay, why is that? Share with our listeners a little bit why they’re so difficult to own as pets.
Yes, there are a lot of reasons for that. Some would say that the wolf is the epitome of the wild spirit, some would say in that they are extremely resistant to training, which is amazing because, a dog is in essence, the best evidence that we have today is that the dog is the domesticated wolf and dogs are pretty well suited to be trained. But wolves, not so much. They also are extremely high energy animals. Extremely curious. Meant to run 100 miles a day at times. A regular easy day for them is 20 miles a day. So they have a ton of energy. They’re very curious. Very intelligent. Very independent. Not very cuddly. You don’t like – how do you see some people, I’ve never seen that in person, but you’ll see some people like cuddling with a big cat that they’ve raised or something like that, right? That’s extremely uncommon for a wolf. Even if you raised that wolf, it’s maybe one out of 1000 from where we come across, just a general estimate of a wolf that will actually be anytime cuddly with you.
So they just aren’t suited for life inside the house. They also are naturally very fearful and afraid of people in particular, which is the opposite of what you usually hear. Wolves actually have a natural, yes, an absolute fear of humans. Their impulse is to move away from us, not to move towards us because we are their only predator, and we have also been hunting that in particular for a very, very long time. So wolves just have healthy fear. So even when raised by people they are, they can be skittish, and particularly skittish, and then even so once you have a wolf that’s not as afraid of humans as the average wolf because it has a unique personality and has been raised around them. They have an animal that’s an apex predator and isn’t afraid of you. So, it’s just a very dangerous situation in a lot of ways. I hope I answered your question.
Yes. It does because it’s interesting to me. It’s fascinating that the majority, as you said, are actually coming from people that thought they could care for them as pets and not they’ve been rescued or something in the wild and rehabilitated. So that’s an interesting, interesting twist, I guess, that I didn’t really expect.
Another element to this is, one of the biggest differences between the dog and wolf is that between the ages of two and four, a wolf goes through a radical shift in its personality because between that age, between those ages it’s actually becoming an adult, and so a lot of the puppy-like quality that we associate with the dog are actually present in the wolf pup. It’s like a very, very rowdy, very intelligent, really sensitive dog in that it’s playful, it’s trusting, it’s curious. It’ll defer to you as an authority. It might let you actually manhandle it. You put on the back, rub its belly, that thing. Then, yes, between that age gap, which is pretty wide gap two years, that all goes away. Yes, all goes away. They’re more territorial, more predatory, way bigger boundaries, way more independent, way more skittish. And that’s when we get most of our calls to rescue an animal, is between the ages of two and four. Because, the first two years, they were a party in some senses, they were, they were displaying the dog-like those domesticated-like, dog-like qualities. Then all the stuff goes away.
Yes, yes, all of a sudden it turns into what it really is, which is a free-spirited, wild animal.
Yes, exactly, exactly.
So now how do they come to you guys at the sanctuary, and I guess, how do things work there at the sanctuary? What’s different for them about the environment that you’ve built?
So, why do people come here? Well, our sanctuary is unique, I would say among sanctuaries, wolf sanctuary anyway, at least in the United States. One, we are a very high quality sanctuary when it comes to our animal care portion. There’s definitely aspects of our infrastructure that we could improve upon. But when it comes to the quality of life and the quality of care for the animals, we’re certainly one of top three in the United States. No question about it. We are just constantly concerned about what’s going on with the animals. Everything that happens with them get observed and reported. We get medications, we give supplements, we give enrichment and all our choices always go back to what’s best for the animal.
So the animal care piece is really, really dialed in, and then we allow people to work with the wolves, or at least with animals that they wouldn’t be able to work with in a lot of other sanctuaries. So we mix quality care with the ability to interact and learn. What you watch and see with other wolf sanctuaries, are well really crappy care, put it bluntly where you don’t really have a systematized and thought out set of protocols in place for taking care of animals and/or you can’t interact with them as much. So you can work around them perhaps, but you can’t actually go in and play well, play is a strong word, but interact. Most of them don’t play because most of the wolves and wolf dogs as they get older aren’t really playful. The rare ones are. But yes, we get to interact with them, get to pet them. We don’t force interaction, of course, but an animal wants to interact. They get that opportunity. I’ve talked to people at other wolf sanctuary where you’ll see some animals literally like begging in some ways to interact with people and because their policies are in place, they don’t let them then the animals doesn’t get interacted with and people don’t get the interaction. So we combine both.
Yes, that’s really interesting. Now, one of the questions I was wondering is just looking at the rescues that you have it your sanctuary. Talk a little bit about what is a wolf dog? Does that mean that it’s half wolf, half dog? And then I see high content, mid content, low content.
Okay, so, have you ever heard the term hybrid to refer to a wolf dog? Well, there are very common terms around for a wolf dog and it’s technically inaccurate. Wolf dog is not a true hybrid. Hybrid is the result of mixing two completely unrelated species to one another, and the offspring usually has a few defining qualities to make it a hybrid. Often they’re sterile. That appears to be the case most of the time. I know there’s a few examples in nature where they’re not sterile, but usually they are. Also, hybrids tend a have something called hybrid vigor, which means that they’re bigger and or stronger, tougher than either animal. So, like a liger, for example, a true hybrid with a mix, the lion and a tiger is an 1100 pound, 14-foot animal or something like that, right? It’s massive. A mule, which is the mixture of a donkey, and a horse can work really, really hard. And so those are defining characteristics of a hybrid, but a wolf dog is actually a mix of two species that are very closely related. So a wolf and a dog, the only difference in DNA between them is 0.02 to 0.04 percent, in DNA difference. So I mean, it’s almost nothing.
So, in essence, in some ways they’re almost the same animal except for one really big difference and that is, that the wolf is a wild animal, whereas the dog is a domesticated one. So the domestication is obviously a biological and behavioral process, so you end up removing certain traits out of the animal overtime and fostering others. So the wolf, the wolf dog, is basically an animal, a canine of the same species that has stopped in between a spectrum of being somewhere between wild and domesticated. So the best way we have discovered with currently available tools to define what we’re dealing with is by a content scale. So we start off with pure wolf, and then we have high content, mid content, low content dog. So high content display mostly wolf characteristics in terms of its physical features and behavioral attributes, and a low content is the opposite, it displays mostly dog with a little bit of wolf. And then when you get to high extreme, like an extremely high content, or extremely low content, it’s kind of irrelevant because at that point you’re practically dealing with something that is a wolf or something that is a dog.
So now do the residents that come to the sanctuary, do they ever leave the sanctuary or are they adopted out?
No, generally not. We have adopted out two dogs since I’ve been here that were mistaken for wolf dogs. So, yes, they were living here and then we found them homes because they were Malamutes mixed with Husky or something like that, and there was no real reason for them to be here other than we gave them a home for a while. Yes, we give a lifetime sanctuary to whatever animal comes here.
Okay. Then so obviously taking care of the animals is your top priority. Then education is something that’s really important to you guys as well. Tell us a little bit about that.
Sure. Yes, well, the wolf we like to say, that the wolf is perhaps the most misunderstood animal in the world. There’s so much mythology that surrounds the wolf. There’s so many other animal out there that are misunderstood, but they’re not as enmeshed in popular culture and mythology as the wolf office is, right. The wolf had ton of mythology around it, a ton of history that’s projected onto it. It’s all mostly wrong, and it’s hard to really identify wolves. You’ll see wolves on movies. You’ll see them in art. You’ll see them in paintings and a lot of times you’re seeing is dogs, right. Maybe we’ll stop when you actually get down to the actual characteristics of what you’re looking at. So there’s a lot of misinformation that way. They’ve been demonized, and there’s the big bad wolf idea out there. There’s also the idea that in some way that wolf is like a big dog, something like that. So, there’s just so much misinformation out there that we feel is important to clear up.
So we give educational programs at schools, and we also do educational course on property where we cover some of what we’ve been talking about already. We talked about why it’s a bad idea to own a wolf or wolf dog. We go over how to identify wolves accurately and how to tell them apart from dogs. Yes, we dispel the myth and all that sort of stuff. Like a popular one, for example, is the blue-eyed wolf and you see blue eyes in art, TV, posters, T-shirts, tattoos, and yes, and it’s actually a lot. Wolves never had a blue eyes like that. That blue light thing is a husky trait. The only time that a wolf have blue eyes, perhaps, is when it first opened his eyes. Like even human children, that stain was midnight blue, dark, grayish color, right with great white is totally a husky trait, not a wolf trait.
There’s this one small example, I actually had a detective here at one point. He used to work in New York and he loved wolves and he had a blue-eyed wolf tattoo. He pulled me out of my door. He took off his shirt and showed it to me. Yes, I mean, stuff like that’s definable. You look at a lion and it’s pretty obvious that it’s a lion, right, but if you look at a canine, and you’re not sure or certain if what you’re looking at is a wolf or a dog, without genetic testing or being able to phenotype them. Being able to determine without, so without training, you just don’t really know.
Yes, that is really interesting. As you said it, they’ve got a place in mythology and thousands of years of, stories and things. Some of these myths have now become folklore legend, right? That’s what people actually think is real. So that’s interesting that you chose that one in particular to focus on, because that’s something I’ve heard as well, interesting that it turns out to not be true.
It’s just a lot of stuff that’s not sure about them. That’s why we feel as though they’re just a very, very misunderstood animal. That’s why we feel the education piece is important. Also you can set policy and you can set regulation and you can create laws. That’s just important, no question about it but in the end, education is one of the best ways to get people to alter their behavior. Yes, it’s shedding a light where there was once darkness in a sense and helping people see a little bit clearer what’s actually going on. Hopefully with that they make better decisions down the road.
Yes, absolutely, very, very well stated. Well, Ramon, it’s really been a pleasure to talk with you today. So is there anything else you wanted to share with our listeners before we wrap things up?
Well, we like to say that one of our motto here’s that wild animals are not pets, and I think that if people can take that to heart and share that and not exploit animals for their own personal gain or their own ego and respect the natural world and honor how important it is, then, I think, it will benefit everybody, including the humans.
Yes, now very nicely stated. I appreciate you sharing that with us. So thank you very much, Ramon, for coming on the show today. It was great to have you.
You’re very welcome, Chris. My pleasure.
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