Why you should care
Because maybe there’s a toothy, furry fix for being broken.
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Big and bad — that’s the wolf, according to a tale told to children in too many countries and languages to count. You’ll find him and his terrors in silver-screen hits like Liam Neeson’s The Grey and in the haunting songs of indie-rock icon Neko Case. That wolf — he’ll eat your women and steal your livestock. And his image is everywhere, in news and culture. One place you might not expect to find him, though, is on your therapist’s couch. At least, until now.
That’s right: Hopping into the mental-health-care ring with Freud, Lexapro and the self-help section on Amazon is the feared, fearsome, fascinating wolf. New therapy and recreational programs now let humans other than Kevin Costner dance with the wolves — or at least snuggle with them in a supervised environment. Wolf Connection, outside Los Angeles, runs a program for addicts through some rehab centers and also works with veterans. Shadowland Foundation in Lake Hughes, California, which has a wolf-size dog door into the house, specializes in business retreats, veteran services and the occasional wolf wedding. They may sound gimmicky, but such programs are expanding. Wolf Connection, for one, has by its own account doubled in size every year for the past five years and plans to double its wolf pack in 2016.
But … is hanging out with wolves wise? “Before you can even go into where all the wolves are, you have to be pre-checked-out by the zeta and the omega — those two wolves are in charge of sniffing out,” says Bobbi Lee, a telecom sales exec who led her 12-member team through a Shadowland corporate retreat on teamwork. “Once they’re familiar with your scent, you’re allowed to enter the wolf pack.”
Steve Wastell, who leads ranch operations at Wolf Connection, says that after so many generations of coexistence, a connection to wolves is in our DNA. And now that humans have very little to fear from wolves — guns and opposable thumbs have decisively won the battle for territory and chickens — people are free to appreciate the animals’ fuzzier side. Marriage and family therapist Don Lee, Bobbi’s husband, encourages his patients to visit Shadowland, saying the wolves can teach helpful socialization skills. “They get along, but they’re their own entities,” he says. “It’s a good way to look at being interdependent rather than codependent.”
Colette Pondella, who runs Shadowland with her husband, says wolves survived the Ice Age only by working as a team. So she brings in corporate office teams, lets them hang with the pack of wolf dogs on the ranch and then asks them to learn from the wolves, who must work together to survive — all at prices that start around $125 per person, though the wolves’ work with veterans is donation-funded.
There are no reliable numbers on how many wolf dogs — wolves bred with dogs to get around state bans on owning wild creatures — exist in the U.S., since big shaggy dogs are often marketed as wolves to gullible would-be owners. Actual wolves are problematic pets: They’re difficult to train and are so huge and strong that many owners give up on them. And Pondella estimates that 85 percent of wolf dogs wind up in sanctuaries or being euthanized. All the dogs at Shadowland were either born there or were adopted before they could see or hear, while the Wolf Connection dogs are full-grown rescues. (Several other states have wolf sanctuaries, many of which allow you to hike in the wolves’ territory or take photos with the animals, but they are by and large not as interactive as Wolf Connection and Shadowland.)
Therapy animals are nothing new. Pet Partners, a nonprofit that trains volunteer therapy animals, will register llamas, rabbits, birds, mini horses and other animals, but it draws the line at the “wild or exotic,” even though researchers often cite the coexistence of wolves and ancient man as very early human-animal bonding. “There’s something so calming about sitting with a wolf, this animal that’s so ferocious,” says Bobbi Lee. It’s a reflection of mental health care today: As we continually search for new means of treating anxiety and depression, hanging out with a wild animal doesn’t seem all that crazy.
Though the leaders of Wolf Connection and Shadowland see their work as a way to fight back against negative stereotypes, other conservationists aren’t so sure. Contact with people can be stressful for wild animals, says David Mizejewski, a naturalist for the National Wildlife Federation. “Wolves, more than probably any other species on this planet, are shackled with our myths about them,” he says. “They’re seen as the big bad wolf or as spirit animals, practically angels, and both do a disservice to the living, breathing animals.” And being around wolves may not inspire amity in all humans: A survey in Wisconsin found that people who lived in the same area as wolves were less likely to have favorable feelings toward them than those who don’t have to worry about their pet rabbits disappearing. But if Bobbi Lee’s team is any indication, Shadowland is making converts. “If I lived closer, I would be out there every week,” says Lee.
Back at Wolf Connection, a beautiful beast named Willow surveyed the line of strangers. “She’s not gonna pick me,” said a burly veteran with a prosthetic leg and extensive burn scarring. “Nobody ever picks me.” That’s when Willow trotted over to him and sat in his lap.
“She never does that,” remembers Wastell, who saw the incident. “There were tears in his eyes. He just hugged her,” he says.