Working at a wolf sanctuary became part of my identity. Leaving the pack was harder than I expected.
Howls ripple across the hillside as I pass beneath the arms of scrubby pinyons and wind-worn junipers. The wolves track me from both sides, fluorescent eyes peering through the dark. Though I know they are behind fences, my heart still races at their stalking silhouettes, claws clicking, fur shifting, guard hairs long and bristling.
Of Wolves and Men
The sanctuary was a thorough teacher, testing my every limit. Blisters bloomed across my feet from the miles I put in each day simply walking through the compound in my stiff new hiking boots, trailing staff through hours of chores. In my off time I studied the sanctuary’s handbook, memorizing the animals’ names and backstories, how to tell them apart, what medications they took and why, and how to safely administer them directly into a wolf’s mouth. Then, after nearly fourteen nonstop days, I passed the requisite exams to officially become an animal caretaker.
Most of the rescues were out of their element too, hailing from all corners of the country where they were surrendered from private homes, failing zoos, and animal shelters. Ecologically speaking, the unforgiving sun and arid conditions typical of the high desert was an unusual climate for the Arctic, timber, and tundra wolves and wolf dogs housed on site, while wolf dogs themselves—any mix between a wolf and dog—are predominantly bred and very rarely occur in nature.
Wolves and wolf dogs generally don’t make good human companions. They are expert escape artists and incredibly destructive, requiring large swaths of land, huge amounts of meat, and fellow canines to thrive. Not surprisingly, once those cuddly pups turn into challenging adolescents, owners may start seeking other arrangements. Sadly, facilities offering lifetime refuge are often near capacity, and many of these “failed pets” end up abused, abandoned, or ultimately euthanized. That made the sanctuary’s rescues some of the lucky ones.
Like all new caregivers, my training started with the animals that posed virtually no threat. Greebo was as entry-level as you could get. A fifteen-year-old wolf dog who had arrived at the sanctuary after killing a neighbor’s cat, he was once quite mischievous. Now his rear legs slumped. His teeth bore streaks of brown. But he still enjoyed a good scratch around his telltale malamute mane and delighted in trying to push his way through the enclosure gate.
My first few supervised caretaking sessions with Greebo went well. On only my second day caring for him alone, he nipped me in the stomach, breaking skin. The mark was miniscule. I was nonetheless mortified and equally filled with doubt. What business did I have here, a city girl who was scared of the dark, worn out by the basic terrain, unable to build a fire, and, apparently, not even savvy enough to avoid the bite of an ancient wolf dog?
Though I hated to share the incident, I confided in a senior staffer. Allison cared for some of the sanctuary’s most fearsome wolves, and her reply was simple.
“Don’t let him do that. You have to be in charge.”
I felt both empowered and daunted by the advice. Upholding personal boundaries wasn’t my strength, yet it was clear I needed to adjust. The next day when Greebo attempted to challenge me again, I was ready. He lunged and I blocked, my counterforce knocking him onto his rump. I felt bad about his stumble. Yet I was also proud. I’d stood my ground.
Greebo and I became good friends after that, and with newfound resilience I immersed myself in my purpose: communing with and observing nature and wolves. My aptitude for reading them increased quickly. I was able to take on higher-maintenance habitats and rescues that routinely tested caregivers. By then I’d learned that wolves have an innate fear of humans. I also understood that each animal had a unique personality. Some were gregarious, even affectionate. Others wanted no contact at all. That’s why volunteers were advised to let go of our desire for the rescues to like us. But as a lifelong people pleaser, I was admittedly thrilled when a pack of tundra wolves took to me.
Recently rescued from a zoo that had shut its doors, the Iowa Trio had been on full display in their former home, resulting in high stress, constant pacing, and spats. Yet Brutus was surprisingly friendly. The alpha male and the sanctuary’s tallest wolf, he was white and gangly with a black spot across his back and another that stretched halfway up his snout. Each morning I’d find him waiting for me at the gate, where he expected me to pet him before carrying out my chores.
Learning from his brother, Navar took an interest in me too. A black phased wolf bearing the silvery signs of middle age, Navar slowly gained the courage to sniff my back if I was seated or tentatively accept a scratch from a full arm’s length away. Their sister, Akela, was the shyest of the bunch, sandy colored with a scar on her muzzle in the shape of an X. She kept her distance.
Despite their trauma, my daily visits yielded increasing collective trust. Sometimes the three would flock around me with curious excitement. Other times Navar would grow bold and grab my shirt or Brutus my hair and I’d swat them away in a jolt of adrenaline. Even the gentlest of rescues could inflict incredible damage, and my bodily instincts frequently surprised me in those moments. Typically, though, the pack would grow bored of me the longer I lingered, each wolf wandering off to their favorite dent in the earth or shady nook beneath a tree while I rested, just being. The ease we found in each other’s presence was a milestone for all of us. Like them, I watched layers of my own anxiety melt away, thoughts, patterns, and hurts built up over a lifetime of domestication.
Being the first person to forge a bond with the pack was an immense privilege. Their acceptance was also hugely validating, guiding my transition from outsider to insider, generating confidence and renewed faith in my ability to see this through.
I found my stride when the cool spring winds blew during long summer days. Somewhere between the crunch of earth beneath my feet; the sun on my cheeks; the fur in my hands; the labor, stillness, and isolation; the caw of ravens; the march of tarantulas; and the lock of golden wolf eyes, I was forged into someone new. Then half a year was up.
It was difficult to reenter society after leaving the refuge. I’d changed, but the world I left behind largely hadn’t. Fast-paced capitalist consumerism still reigned, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had extended, while the economic recession deepened and global warming worsened. Suddenly, my old life didn’t feel much like real living at all. I wandered through the days like a wolf dog, displaced. Neither wild nor domestic. Cut off from nature.
Though I returned to Boston and embarked on a promising career in education, the wolves and their territory were cemented in my thoughts. Unconsciously, they entered almost every conversation with someone new, were channeled through my creative work, and were recycled back to me in dreams. I visited the sanctuary annually, clamoring to get back to them, tearing myself away again and again from the place that had become my haven. Then I’d cling to the memories of clean air and wide-open vistas, the joy of being with wolves and the highs that came with such rare relationships, dragging them onto the subway and into my cubicle, but the bliss was always short-lived.
Writing kept me grounded, and I embarked on a new version of my novel after leaving the sanctuary. I remembered, too, how in captivity the wolves thrived on routine, and I worked fiercely to make room for art in my daily life. While I continued to draft, logging hundreds of hours on a story that was sprawling and boundless, I had never been published and seldom shared a word. Nonetheless, my book, like the sanctuary, had become personally defining as I grappled with proving myself.
The novel and the wolves were my anchors as I struggled against a daily grind that left me feeling more like a passenger than a driver in my own life. Yet the prospect of change was underway. Five years after my initial volunteer term, I visited the sanctuary for the first time with my now husband, Chadley. During the trip we learned of an opening: two new staff positions. The timing was right. A candid conversation with Leyton, an unexpected offer, and a leap of faith sent us home to pack for New Mexico long-term.
We quit our jobs, sold most of our belongings, and left our city life behind for a new beginning as the sanctuary’s program director and event coordinator. I turned thirty on our cross-country road trip. My heart leapt through the final leg of our journey, thumping with the rhythm of our wheels down the familiar stretch of Candy Kitchen Road. The car kicked up gravel dust through the last four miles, clunking over the rusty cattle grate and into our driveway, where we embraced inside the modified shed that would become our home.
As staff, our days quickly filled with the highs and lows of nonprofit conservation work. Long hours spent racing against the clock to care for dozens of wild animals and make ends meet in what could be trying conditions: bad weather, few amenities, scant funding, and little time off. But waking each morning to another painted sunrise sung to life by wolves and coyotes left me feeling more in tune with my soul and with nature than ever before.
Navar was elderly by then, surviving his pack mates. Despite the time that had passed, we remained close. He was joined by Contessa, who had recently moved in after another animal nearly killed her. A vivacious favorite among all who met her, Contessa was previously owned by a radio DJ and was one of the wolf dogs I’d cared for as a volunteer. In her youth, she was said to have mingled with the stars and even famously met Coldplay, but her physical needs confirmed domestic life wasn’t for her. With maturity her body grew round, her hips sore, and her once-black fur turned steely gray.
Tending to Navar and Contessa in their golden years was bittersweet. Every day during morning chores I’d seat myself on a rock between them. Navar stood beside me with regal confidence while Contessa barreled into me, commanding my attention. The three of us often howled together. Sometimes I’d laugh; other times I’d weep listening to their once-powerful voices reduced to whispers. Despite their age, they could still start a sanctuary-wide song.
The pair passed within months of each other during our final spring at the sanctuary, their deaths marking the beginning of a year that would take with it several animals dearest to me. Though I missed those wolves, their absence created space for my relationships to flourish with other rescues. Chadley and I grew infinitely closer during our stretch at the sanctuary too. For years we spoke seriously about having children and, in time, an urgency arrived. We got engaged the August before we left New Mexico and announced our resignation shortly after, deciding to move closer to family before starting our own.
I started to become fully aware of my intense attachment to the sanctuary. Who would I be without my wolves?
In the wild, it’s normal for pack dynamics to shift as members are born, join, grow old, leave, die. I wasn’t ready to go, but I knew it was time to move on. That’s when I started to become fully aware of my intense attachment to the sanctuary and what leaving would mean for my inner world. Who would I be without my wolves?
Enmeshment is a term psychologists use to describe an emotional state in which the lines between a person’s identity, self, and work are blurred. Usually applied to high-powered careers, the entanglement can happen to anyone. It certainly happened to me.
In the years that followed, Chadley and I tied the knot, moved to New Hampshire, and started our lives anew. We had two beautiful children, I finished my book, queried agents, published articles, and found a career in agriculture, where the message “grow where you are planted” met me at every turn. At first the mantra truly irked me, pointing to my fears of falling back into the theoretical passenger seat of my life’s journey. But if it was presence I sought at the sanctuary, what could be more wild, gorgeous, even rebellious than thriving right where I am instead of pining for something different?
This gave me the assurance I needed when I heard the sanctuary was looking for a new director shortly after our first child was born. Though I considered applying, I let the opening come and go, shelving my desire to return to the sanctuary along with my novel, which I’d determined needed more work than I had will to give it. Perhaps I’d learned the process was more important than the outcome, that the time had come for new stories, that in wanting to write a book I wrote a life. For once I didn’t grieve.
I’ve often recalled something Contessa’s owner told our team when he visited following her passing. “Once you own a wolf,” he said after we spread her ashes, “you’ll never want to go back to owning a regular dog.”
The comment was a bit crass considering the circumstances, but I understood what he meant. I, too, had been caught up in possessing something special and rare. I’d allowed my relationship with the wolves to become knotted to my self-worth, leading to a host of limiting beliefs that bound my serenity, pride, and success to a single place, profession, and particular way of communing with nature.
In living with wolves, I saw firsthand how the myths we tell about ourselves, this charismatic megafauna, and our relationship to them are undeniably shaping the wild, and that we don’t have to go to such extreme lengths to relate. Connecting with the natural world can be as simple and meaningful as collecting acorns with my toddlers or guiding our hands across an oak tree’s corrugated bark, holding a deer’s gaze, listening to a hummingbird buzz, and inhaling the earthy scent of soil.
Nothing can take away my years of working with wolves, but the policies of today will undoubtedly impact who has access to them tomorrow and where this keystone species exists in the world––whether that’s in the wild, in the crosshairs, or in our homes. Since I left the sanctuary, gray wolves have lost and partially regained endangered species status, allowing states to resume once-outlawed hunting practices that brought the predators to the brink of extinction by the1960s. But wolves belong. They have the right to exist, and as animals are continuously displaced, we must learn to live alongside them, to honor our love of wilderness without having to possess it, and to protect what creatures and habitats remain for future generations.
Sometimes we just need to change the narrative to improve the story.
Though I might dust off my own manuscript or return to the sanctuary in future years, I’ve learned it’s no failing to move on to other dreams. My desires today are appropriately different from my younger cravings: to be the kind of woman who tends a vibrant vegetable garden, who pickles and preserves, who is present with her spouse and children, who sews, saves seeds, and still writes. I may not be there yet, but I’m here now. Where I want to be.
Nikki Kolb is a writer in New Hampshire covering the intersection of wildlife, agriculture, sustainability, and motherhood. She has written for Sierra, Earth Island Journal, Glamour, The Hopper, and The Natural Farmer. Follow her on Twitter (@nikkijkolb) and at www.knowstoneunturned.org.