Michelle started volunteering with W.O.L.F. in 2005 and was hired on as staff after her graduation from Colorado State University, with a BS in Zoology, in 2008. She currently is the Director of Animal Care and Educational Programs at the Sanctuary and enjoys all aspects of animal care with a special interest in the rehabilitation of W.O.L.F.’s rescues.
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Hey, Michelle, welcome to the program. It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m really excited to have you and to learn more about what you guys do. So why don’t you kick us off and kind of give us your story and how you got into this? I always wanted to work with animals, a very generalized treat when I was a child. And as I got older, I just basically kept working toward getting involved with animals, volunteering at various organizations. I worked at an animal shelter. I volunteered in an aquarium, and when I got into college, I started actually looking at developing a career. I wanted to basically find organizations and experiences, which would allow me to pad a resume for a job later on. And I ended up discovering Wolf Sanctuary. It was about 20 miles from the university I was going to, so easy to get to volunteer and participate. I started on as a volunteer, and just absolutely fell in love with the organization of the animals. And when I graduated, I was looking for a job. Didn’t have anything going on. So I was volunteering at the sanctuary full time and later I was looking for a job. They basically just said, You want one here. We’re looking to hire somebody, and you’d be great. That was back in 2008. I’ve been doing this full time. So my full-time career since 2008. That’s almost 12 years now. Yeah, a little insane to think about.
Now you’re out in Colorado. Yeah, we’re located just outside of Fort Collins, Colorado, which is roughly 60 miles north of Denver and we’re located in the foothills, in a nice little Canyon Valley, but she’s not terribly convenient for humans, but the wolves love it. It’s a great environment for them. So it’s all about that anyway. I was going to say for the Wolf Sanctuary, we don’t care if it’s convenient for you. No, no, it certainly isn’t. It’s definitely a challenging place to work and we are totally off the grid. We have no electricity except what we generate through a diesel power generator. We have to live off of a well. We use porta-potties. It’s pretty rustic, pretty out there, which could be kind of miserable when you get a bunch of snow in the winter and it’s minus 10 and you’re out using the porta-potty. But it’s wonderful for the wolves. They love it. It’s kind of their niche, their places where they’re designed to be, and so they have a great time with it. Honestly, we’re here for them. They’re not here for us. So we’ll make it work.
Yes, so tell us a little bit more about the sanctuary. I mean, I notice it’s W. O. L. F. right? Like what’s the name of the sanctuary? Give us a little bit of the story, how it came to be. So W.O.L.F is an acronym that stands for Wolves Offer Life and Friendship and we’re an organization that rescues captive-born wolves and wolf dogs that have previously been kept as pets, breeder animals, in some cases, animals being harvested for their fur, and we give them a permanent home at our facility. And we’ve been doing this since 1995. We got started, the founders had a friend, who had a couple of wolf dogs that they met and kind of fell in love with. And unfortunately, these animals, their lives ended very tragically, and that really made an impact from the founders of the Sanctuary. So when another acquaintance of theirs was going to euthanize a 3.5-month-old wolf-dog puppy because they were scared of it, they thought it was a biter, they stepped up and said, No, we’ll take him. Don’t euthanize him, we’ll go ahead and adopt him. Started to do some research about what you need to do, the kind of environment you need, the kind of nutritional care or veterinary care that you need to be able to take care of a wolf-dog. And by the end of the year, I believe they had at least 12 other people approach them to surrender their wolf dogs to these people because it kind of got out into the community that they had taken this wolf-dog and they were looking into taking care of wolf dogs. And that’s when they realized that this is actually a problem, that there are a lot of animals out there and they intended to just take them as kind of a temporary home, while they found new homes for them and they couldn’t find homes.
So they ended up with 12 wolf dogs and, I think a duplex, down in town, and basically decided this is a problem. And we’re in a position where we can do something about this where we could try to bring awareness to this and help these animals. And they started looking for a property. They incorporated as a nonprofit in 1995 and started bringing in wolves and wolf dogs, trying to find homes for them. Keeping animals at our facility for the duration of their lives, and to really kind of promote education about the issue and promote what’s going on with the captive wildlife crisis. People keeping exotics as pets and the struggles and the problems and the issues that they run into doing that. And we’ve been doing that ever since.
I’ve got like 1,000,000 questions running through my head right now, but I wanted to start with you said, I don’t want a common problem. It seems like it’s a bigger problem than what I recognize. It’s actually a fairly extensive problem in the United States and actually global. We’ve gotten contacted by people in Belize. We’ve gotten contacted from people in Tobai wanting to surrender their animals to us. So it’s actually a pretty global problem. The exotic pet trade is in a very profitable industry and because it’s a very profitable industry, a lot of times these breeders will go to extreme lengths to obtain the animals, entertaining them illegally or housing them in areas where it is illegal, and they don’t really do any kind of vetting or education to people who are looking to buy.
So with wolves and wolf dogs in particular, it is estimated that there are around 300,000 currently being kept in homes, in the United States alone. Wow! They think about half that number,150,000 or so are born every year to be sold into the pet industry. And unfortunately, and this is a statistic that’s true for most exotics, not just wolves, but certainly holds true for wolves and dogs. About 80 to 90% of them will be killed before they turn two years old. And that’s because when they’re a cute little puppy, they’re very easy to manage, but then they grow up and they grow away from the expected behaviors that people want. There’s this misconception that wolves are dogs because dogs evolved from wolves. That’s not true. There’s actually an instinct common ancestor that both dogs and wolves diverged from, and there’s been lots of genetic manipulation by humans, when it comes to dogs, which has changed, they’re fundamentally the way they think and the way they interact with people. So while they look similar and there’s less than 1% difference, genetic difference between wolves and dogs or modern wolves and modern dogs, that less than 1% is significant and how they interact with their environment and how they deal with the world. People just aren’t prepared to deal with that.
So right about the time they hit puberty, if you will, 2-3 years old, people just aren’t prepared for the change in behavior that they see with a wolf. And there are not enough places out there, like the sanctuary I work at, that can house these animals and take these animals in. And there’s not enough experienced owners to be able to adopt these animals out. And really, the only option is, you know, to kind of like we’re having problems with the snakes down in the Everglades and people are, “Well, it’s a wolf. It could take care of itself. I’m just gonna let it go.” And that’s not the case or they end up abusing the animal, surrendering into a shelter and shelters, most shelters, cannot adopt out wolves or wolf dogs. They’re kind of like a lot of areas with Pit bulls. They’re deemed a dangerous breed and they don’t want to take on that liability risk, which is fair. But you know, it means that a lot of these animals are getting euthanized at the shelters because we made a mistake and we weren’t able to prepare our homes and our lifestyles to fit their needs. So it’s actually a fairly big problem. We get 2-400 calls a year from people wanting to have us take their animal or help find placement for animals. And we do what we can. We network with wolf sanctuaries and rescues all over the country to try and find places in homes and appropriate settings for these animals. But there is, unfortunately, a very high failure rate in finding the appropriate placement of these animals.
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Now, what are the rules or laws around wolves and wolf dogs? I mean, is there anything that exists that says you can’t keep a wolf captive, or how does all that work? There isn’t anything nationwide. There’s not a federal law or anything that is regulating or prohibiting the ownership and breeding and sale of exotic animals. So it’s really left to a state by state, county by county, city by city, type of legislative process and in some areas it’s illegal. Like in the state of Wyoming, owning wolves and wolf dogs is illegal. There’s never a situation where that’s okay. In Colorado, only pure wolves are illegal unless you’re permanent through the division wildlife. And of course, getting that permit is very challenging. There’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through and a lot of things you have to do, in order to be able to apply and receive that permit. But the state of Colorado considers any wild animal a domestic animal hybrid. So a wolf and a dog or hiding a dog or like a Savannah cat, which is a domestic cat. Or, you know, wild horses, anything, they consider that to be domestic. So there is no statewide legislation on the ownership, and it’s legal to own wolf-dogs in the state of Colorado.
Now there are different cities and ordinances that say, you can’t own it in this city, or you can’t own it in this area. Or you have to have a license for having an animal in this county. There’s really not any kind of over our chain legislation to regulate the ownership of exotics. It varies based on state. It varies based on breed. There are some places where you could legally own an African elephant and a Bengal tiger. There’s no laws or things there. There are other places were even mentioned, you know, wanting to go see one in a zoo, and people are like, “Wait a minute, that’s not okay, right? Right. It’s all over the map when it comes to any kind of regulation on ownership, breeding, sale of exotics, especially when it comes to wolves and wolf dogs. Hence the problem we have, right? Yeah. And, you know, making it illegal is not necessarily or doing something like that is not necessarily the answer to the problem, because we’ve seen this with lots of other things that need regulated. Making smoking illegal for people under the age of 18-21. We have kids smoking all the time. Making it illegal to drink under the age of 21, we’ve got people drinking. So just because it’s made illegal, doesn’t fix the problem.
So our belief in the sanctuary is that education is key. We need to educate people that this is happening, that if you want a wolf-dog, if you want to own a wolf, this is what you’re gonna need to do. This is the kind of problem you’re going to face. And hopefully, through education, we can reduce demand for these animals through the pet industry, and we can reduce demand than the animals that are out there, one will be better cared for because people will be better prepared and two fewer people will be impulse buying and leaving these animals in situations which are totally inappropriate for them. Both the animal and the person. So it’s really kind of a tricky balance to figure out, how do you do that? You know, these animals are out there. And how do you regulate? How do you address the issue in a way that’s gonna be the most effective? Very interesting. And I like that perspective of really educating people. I mean, that’s the right way to go, right, so that they understand. And you think it’s cool. As you said, You get aww he’s cute, he’s a little wolf pup, right? And you just don’t really think about what’s gonna happen after they grow up and hit puberty. Yeah, they’re ornery man, they’re ornery. When it comes to growing up they’re a challenge.
You know, a lot of people ask me this question, they’re like, well are they dangerous? You know that’s why people are getting rid of all because they’re attacking you or the dangerous ring. I’m like they’re not any more or less dangerous than any other breed of dog, really. It is all going to entirely depend on how they’re raised. Were they socializing well, where they abused? All these different nurture factors will influence what nature gave them and, you know so that I don’t feel that there anymore or less dangerous than any dog. But they are different from dogs.
The way I try to relate it to people is when you’re thinking about a dog you want to always kind of have this mental picture of a puppy, this really outgoing, curious individual who’s looking to humans, in many respects, for guidance and answers and problem-solving. And when you look at a wolf, you want to kind of mentally picture them as a cat, so they’re very independent. They’re curious and they’re often very skittish. They’re easily startled. Their first reaction to danger or stress is going to to be run away and live to fight another day, basically, is a kind of feral philosophy. They tend to be really good problem solvers, so they’re not looking to us. They’re not looking to humans as a source of survival. They’re looking at themselves. They’re saying, If I need this, I have to figure out how to get this. And a lot of people who want wolves are not cat people, they are dog people, so they end up with a cat in a dog’s body. They’re going, this is not what I wanted. I didn’t want a very independent animal who could care less if I come home or not and they can be social, they can be friendly. They’re social animals and pack animals.
But a lot of times, you know, you will walk into an enclosure at the sanctuary, and Wolf will walk up to me like, I’m so excited you’re here. I’m so excited you’re here. And okay, we’re done, you can leave now. I had my human fix. You didn’t bring me food so work on the socialization and walk off. You’re like, Well, what about me? No, Come back in five minutes and maybe I changed my mind. So they are very mercurial that way. And people aren’t really prepared for that. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are extra dangerous. And a lot of people have that idea. You know, we have Hollywood and lots of myths and stories to kind of blame for this impression that we get that wolves are just these violent, vicious, man-eating monsters. Right? And that’s really not the reality of the situation. I’m not trying to make them seem like they’re safe, cuddly little you know, little fluffy bunnies that couldn’t hurt anybody. They are a canine and all canines are capable of causing injury or harming you or other pets or other people. I don’t want people to come away from this podcast thinking wolves are just this little fluffy bunny who wouldn’t hurt a fly. But I also don’t want them to sit there and continue to have this misconception that the only good wolf is a dead wolf. Certainly, I feel they belong in the wild. That’s their role. That’s what they’re designed to do. They shouldn’t be kept in our homes. But we don’t need to fear wolves. We need to respect them. But we don’t need to fear them. Yeah.
So tell me a little bit more about the sanctuary. How big is it? How many residents do you have? How does it work? And I know you said you don’t have running water or electricity, so I’m just picturing this wide-open space. A lot of people kind of get that. I had some people go. I was thinking of Jurassic Park. We have, our animals are kept in small groups of two, maybe three individuals per group. Like I said before, they’re social animals. But whenever you keep a social animal in captivity, if you overcrowd, you’re gonna get fighting and you’re gonna get problems occurring. We see this in chicken coops. We see this in human prisons. We see this all over the place. So the sweet spot for wolves tends to be about 2 to 3. That’s where they’re most comfortable, most happy, and they get along the best. Our groups are generally male and female pairs, or we will do male-male pairs. It’s very rare that we’ll do a female-female pair, it tends to be a little bit more catty with each other, interested in fighting. They each have their own habitat, which ranges from about 1/4 of an acre to a full acre in size, depending on the group, depending on kind of their physical needs and mental needs for where they need to be the most comfortable. And right now we have 30 animals. That is the maximum number we can care for at any one time. That’s what we’re physically capable of doing. We love, in the future, to be able to care for more. There are so many more out there that need our help. But at this point, 30 is what we’re comfortable caring for any one time, and we keep them until they pass away.
We don’t do any kind of adoptions. We’re not a rehabilitation and release program. The animals that come to us are pretty much all wolf dogs. And you see, a lot of people are like, Well, couldn’t you release them into the wild? You know, wolf populations are recovering and sort of wouldn’t this be a good idea? It is really not. These animals have been raised by people, they have been bred in captivity, so they don’t understand how to live in the wild. Yes, there are a certain set of instincts which come with the package. You know, this chase, fight, kill pathway is kind of built-in. You see that in dogs. We see that in wolves. We see that a lot of those predator animals, however, is a lot of learning that goes on, that people don’t really think about because chase, fight, kill squirrel is very different from chase, fight, kill elk. They don’t use the same strategy, for both of those different animals. So there’s a very good chance that these animals would not be capable of surviving very well on their own.
There’s also the very good chance wolves are extremely territorial. When you think about it, their territory, their home, it’s their job, it’s the amusement park. It’s the grocery store, all of it all wrapped into one of their territories. And if you have some random stranger walking into your territory that threatens your livelihood. It’s the same as if you were to go home and find a stranger in your house. That’s a direct threat to your safety and your livelihood and your ability to survive. And unfortunately, you know, wolves don’t have a police force that they could call. Somebody that could deal with this problem. They have to deal with that themselves. So it’s very unlikely that if you were to release one of these animals into a wild area, that they would be accepted into a pack. They would most likely be chased off or killed, which it would again impact their survival.
And if they were accepted into a pack, there is the problem with genetics. A lot of these animals are wolf dogs, and if we were to allow them to go out into the wild population. Certainly, we allowed them to grow up in packs in a wild population, we could actually be genetically colluding wolves, and that would be ecologically and ethically unsound. So there’s a number of reasons why we don’t participate in reintroduction with any of our animals. All of our animals are from captivity. We don’t take the animals from the wild and do the rehabilitation and release. We’re not licensed for that. That’s not kind of our focus. So we’re focused on those captive animals that need a place to live. They never asked to be born into captivity, they never asked to be kept as a pet, and they never asked to be put in a situation where that failed. But because they’re here, they deserve a decent and good life. And that’s what we try to provide for them. No, that’s really interesting. And I appreciate that perspective. As you said, you could be polluting the genealogy, right? And that’s not the goal. So that’s something. Yeah. Obviously we don’t want to do so.
How many sanctuaries like yours are there across the country? A lot. I actually don’t have a number for how many sanctuaries there are. I know that in Colorado, I know of five wolf sanctuaries that just specialize in wolves. There are other sanctuaries. There’s a reptile sanctuary that deals with live reptile exotics kept as pets. Alligators, crocodiles, boa constrictors, these types of animals. There’s another sanctuary that deals with pretty much any exotic animal you can think of. They’ve got over 400 or 500 animals that they’ve taken from all over the world. Bears, tigers, lions, camels. You name it. They probably have it. So there’s lots of them, and that’s just in Colorado. So we work with probably 35 or 40 different sanctuaries across the nation that we try to network with and to find placements and help save these animals. And I’m sure there are many more that we are unaware of, that we have yet to meet or reach out to out there.
So there’s a lot of people involved in this issue. There’s a lot of people trying to make a difference in this issue. The problem is, is that it’s bigger than any one of us is capable of dealing with, and unfortunately, the issue is bigger than the number of us out there to be able to deal with it. That is where education is really important, is to help people understand that, you know, it is cute. Yeah, a wolf is cute. Wolf dogs can be. Your friend could have a wolf dog. That’s the best animal they’ve ever had, and it’s an amazing animal. But you really want to realize that that’s the exception most of the time, rather than the rule. The people that go out there and just kind of participate in this industry. They’re not bad people. But a lot of times they’re doing it because my friend had a wolf and it was the prettiest animal I’ve ever seen. I want one. But a lot of this is impulse, they don’t do the research first. They don’t look into the requirements of the animal or the requirements for themselves. And that’s where we end up in the situation that we are at the sanctuary, working with trying to get these animals placed and rescued, you know, dealing with law enforcement, confiscating them in areas where there were illegal or people voluntarily surrendering because they just don’t have the time and energy and finances to take care of the animal anymore. It is a big problem, unfortunately.
So I’m curious. I mean, as you look back, I mean, it’s been 12 years. Is this how you thought things would turn out for you? No. I was going to be a Dolphin trainer. That’s where I was going for a long, long time. I also was really passionate about big cats and I wanted to work with big cats. And I ended up working with wolves, which was not anything that I expected to do. And it was just kind of a serendipitous accident that I ended up here. And like I said before, I love it. I think it’s great, obviously doing it for 12 years. So there’s something keeping me there, and it’s not where I expected to be. It definitely isn’t. But I’m glad I’m there. Sure.
What have you learned about yourself throughout the 12 years working with wolves? That I’m really tolerant of being dirty. Okay. It’s a messy job. And I’ve also learned that I’m capable of achieving a lot more than I originally thought. The roles that I have been placed in working at the sanctuary, the different activities and jobs, and things you know I’ve had to continually grow and learn and expand upon my knowledge of, you know, working with animals, working a business, working a nonprofit. And it had been a total growing and learning experience from the get-go. And it’s never stopped and just kind of that capacity to continue to learn and grow and change and adapt.
That’s something I did not expect to be able to do and don’t even think I ever really thought about it, to be honest. I was gonna go into this career and this is what I was gonna do. And that was the end. And I’m like, wow, I’ve done so much more than I ever thought I would be trying to work in this industry. And there’s still so much I don’t know, so much to learn and experience. Just capacity for growth, I guess, is probably one of the biggest things I’ve taken away and the tolerance of dirt. I definitely love the tolerance of dirt, right? I mean, it’s something that I wouldn’t have expected you to say. As you said when it’s minus 10 in you’re out in a porta-potty, out in the middle of nowhere, right? You’re kind of like, Why am I doing this? There’s some days where you’re like that. You like, Really? I could be comfortable. Yeah, I’m sure that must be really cool to be able to do that.
So this has been really fascinating to talk to you, Michelle, and to learn more about you and what you guys were doing. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up today? I would say if people are interested or they’re intrigued by what we’ve talked about today, please reach out and learn more about the issue. It’s an interesting topic for sure. The biggest thing that’s gonna make a difference and the biggest way people can help, both our sanctuary and wolves and wolf dogs in the wild and in captivity, is to educate yourselves and to educate others. Learn about the issues and start promoting it or being an advocate for it. You don’t have to physically get involved with the sanctuary. You don’t have to go out in minus 10 weather and pick up poop. The biggest thing is to create awareness about the issue and to be an advocate. I would definitely encourage people, if you’re considering getting an exotic animal, whether it’s a snake or a wolf or a tiger, to really think about it hard and really do your research. And ultimately I would love them to come to the conclusion that it’s not for them and they don’t want to do that, but definitely learn about it. Learn what needs to happen, learn what needs to be done to care for these animals and certainly know anybody who’s considering it, help them learn about it, help them become educated about it. That’s how we’re gonna save these animals’ lives. That’s how we’re gonna make a difference in the future of these animals. But certainly, if you want to learn more about W.O.L.F, feel free to check out our website. It’s wolfsanctuary.net, and you can learn about all the animals we have. You can learn about who we are, what we do, how we do it, why we do it. And we’re certainly happy to talk to people. Send us an e-mail at wolfsantuary.net and we’re really happy to try to be there as a resource, for people who might be interested. Well, that’s great. Well, thank you for all that information, and I really enjoyed talking to you, and hopefully we’ll have you on again in the future. It will be fun. Thanks, Michelle.
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