It is a bitterly cold morning at 9300 feet elevation in the Wet Mountains. I have to get up before the sun to feed wolves. I am sore, and exhausted. As I reluctantly get up to stretch, I check the stove to discover some embers still burning. I exhale happily and leave the door open to warm me while I get dressed. As I grab my gloves, I look down at the palms of my hands only to remember they are covered in blisters and tiny lacerations. The day before, I painstakingly helped dig a wolf’s grave. I battled for hours with feet of clay and rocks, as I hacked away, maddeningly at some points, with a pickaxe in order to prepare a secure resting place on the mountainside. The wolf’s name was Max. He was the fifth wolf to die in as many months.
When you work in animal welfare, especially in sanctuaries, you end up dealing with a lot of death. That comes with the territory though; ultimately it is a byproduct of you being good at your job. You want the animals, or the “residents,” to live long, healthy, fulfilling lives. Consequently, that means you want to see them grow old.
The other side of that is you have to deal with them passing away. You watch the energy of the animals wax and wane, as they progress from the physical peak of their youth, to the tempered, seasoned middle years. Then, as they become geriatric, you may see them lose their eyesight, or hearing, or lose their grip on reality entirely. You witness these intelligent, emotional, sentient beings–whose care you are charged with, whose lives are intricately woven into your own–wither away and die.
These experiences are not exclusive to animal sanctuaries, of course. Anyone who has raised or helped care for an animal in any context understands this in at least some small way. My family at Mission: Wolf and I have endured the loss of many friends this year, five wolves and two horses. Three of the wolves, sisters Magpie and Raven, and Orion, were elders. Their deaths were difficult. We cried, mourned, and grieved. Still, they were ancient in canine years. I had been preparing myself on some subconscious level for their departure. It’s those unexpected deaths that really destroy you emotionally. The horses killed each other in a tragic accident while they were roughhousing in the pasture. Max had spleen cancer that metastasized to his lungs; he never showed any signs of ailing until we found him dead that morning during feeding time.
I want to speak about the fifth wolf. An animal that wasn’t feeble, senile, or ill when he died, but young, lean and fierce. He had a lustrous, jet-black coat, with subtle flecks of charcoal and sunburnt red that would reveal themselves only in the right lighting. He had long, spindly legs that enabled him to bound across his mountainside enclosure at breakneck speeds. He would snarl and bare his teeth before voraciously devouring pounds of raw meat, organs and bones. He was powerful, often volatile, even dangerous at times.
His name was Ash. He was my friend.
Like many wolf-dogs, Ash had a sort of Jekyll and Hyde complex. Being neither truly wild nor tame, he oscillated between a feral aversion to humans and a need for affirmation from them. The bravado he projected at first seemed almost like an overcompensation for a side of him that was highly sensitive, thoughtful and vulnerable. This juxtaposition of polar opposites inherent in wolf-dogs always fascinated me, and Ash personified that more than any canine I’ve worked with.
Ash came to the sanctuary as a yearling. Again, like many wolf-dog crosses, his former owners bought him with good intentions, without understanding the pragmatics of caring for a wild animal. They didn’t anticipate the erratic and unpredictable tendencies of Ash. It only makes sense that when you try to keep an animal that is designed by nature to roam hundreds of square miles within the tiny confines of your suburban home, it simply doesn’t go well. These sorts of scenarios are common in a society that is increasingly isolated from wildness and nature.
His owners encountered numerous problems, chiefly that Ash was an escape artist. A wolf, while not as physically gifted as many other predators, is still an exceptional athlete, and doggedly determined (no pun intended). Ash liked to scale the backyard fence, and explore the surrounding neighborhoods. He would be roaming around for hours, sometimes days, without his owners knowing his whereabouts. This is a common occurrence for captive wolves and wolf-dogs when they are kept in private homes. Most of them end up getting shot by people who are scared due to the sensationalism and stigma about wolves, or they’re picked up by animal control and euthanized. It is a small miracle that Ash eluded capture during his excursions. Although, it was Ash, and he never let anyone get over on him.
Beyond his Houdini antics, I will not go into great detail about Ash’s life before Mission: Wolf, suffice to say that people hurt him. He was bought by a woman who was married to a veteran with severe PTSD. Her husband physically abused her, and Ash, who would often come to her defense, was beaten and abused by him as well. Unsurprisingly, Ash grew up being nervous around men and sometimes hostile towards them. I can’t speak to the severity of his abuse, or how long it lasted. Regardless, the damage that was done to him was reflected in his behavior. Abuse of any kind, whether it be physical or emotional, often creates a vicious cycle. Much like us humans, Ash carried the trauma he experienced in his youth with him for the rest of his life, and it effected his relationships with others.
His owner eventually realized that she could not provide Ash with the type of home he needed, and she contacted Mission: Wolf for help. Not long after he was surrendered to the sanctuary, he was placed in a special enclosure designed specifically to prevent him from escaping. When I would give tours to visitors, I sometimes referred to him as the “Michael Jordan” of the M:W residents, as he could jump and scale a six-foot fence with relative ease.
I met Ash in the summer of 2016, when I first arrived at Mission: Wolf as a volunteer. At the time I was living in a tent down the hill from his enclosure, and didn’t often go see him. Although he didn’t seem threatened by my presence, Ash certainly showed no special interest in me at first. And although I liked Ash, I felt no special affinity towards him either.
That quickly changed when I became his neighbor. After the crazy summer rush at the sanctuary died down, and the exodus of summer-staff was finished, I moved into a little one room cabin next to the enclosure that Ash inhabited with his mate, a red wolf cross named Cephira. The cabin was formerly home to the founders of the sanctuary, but has since become long-term staff housing. It’s always been a coveted spot because of its proximity to a half-dozen wolves. I lived next to Ash for ten months, and until he left this world.
Ten months may not sound like very long, but for a canine, it’s a good chunk of time. It sure seemed like half a lifetime to me. It is a privilege to live in that cabin, and I continue to make efforts to build strong bonds with all my neighbors. Every morning as I awake to begin preparing the daily feed for the wolves, I make the rounds to each enclosure adjacent to the cabin. Back then, Ash and Cephira were the first thing I saw walking out my door.
Wolves are not quick to trust humans, even captive born ones. Cephira was an exception, however, as she would bolt for the fence as soon as I emerged. She is a true sweetheart, who was also formerly kept as a pet. She doesn’t have as much emotional baggage as Ash, and is generally curious about humans. When Cephira would come over to say good morning to me, Ash would launch into a jealous frenzy. He would see Cephira approaching me from afar and then hastily catch up to her to supervise the situation. At first, I thought Ash was jealous of the attention I was giving his mate, sort of like an insecure boyfriend, you know? He sees his lady getting chatted up by another guy from across the bar and then comes over to “claim his territory” type of thing. I think there was some of that going on for sure. Cephira would sniff and lick my hand, and if she was feeling particularly affectionate she’d lean against the fence and let me scratch her sides, or even give me some kisses. Then Ash would barge in out of nowhere. He’d bare his teeth and snarl at both her and I, and would often place himself between us so we couldn’t make contact. I spoke softly to Ash, attempting to calm his nerves. I tried to gauge his body language to figure out how best to diffuse these situations. In the first couple months as their neighbor, my efforts were futile.
Ash tried to exert dominance over Cephira, to show his disapproval of her behavior. It usually didn’t amount to anything other than growls and hackles, but sometimes it would escalate out of control. When he let his anger get the best of him, Ash would attack her, and the fights that ensued would be so loud and violent that they would get the entire sanctuary in an uproar. The wolves would howl and begin to gossip in excitement. They were like kids at recess; when a fight broke out on the playground, everyone surrounds the combatants and chants “fight, fight, fight!”
These conflicts were always cripplingly sad for me. As their caretaker, I felt guilty for inadvertently inciting violence between two wolves. As I have described before, wolves are not nearly as aggressive and dangerous as they’re made out to be. Still, they can severely injure each other, even in a squabble. I would feel that guilt all day long, and sometimes I thought to myself it’d be better to not interact with them at all–just to let them be alone, and feral.
Some people around the sanctuary would make jokes, half-seriously, that Ash really was like an abusive boyfriend. They said he was controlling, possessive, and didn’t allow Cephira to have other forms of companionship or be as social as she would like to be. Ash was made out to be this bully with a big temper and short fuse. Maybe at a glance that wasn’t far-fetched. There was a time, when Ash first arrived at Mission: Wolf, that staff were actually able to go into his enclosure and interact with him and Cephira. But, there was an unfortunate incident where Ash injured someone. We speculate it was caused by his jealousy for, and of, Cephira, and also in part due to the abuse he experienced at the hands of humans in his past. From then on, no one was allowed to enter Ash and Cephira’s enclosure under any circumstances. There were very few wolves at the sanctuary, if any, that were “off limits” explicitly due to safety concerns. This decision helped foster Ash’s mysterious, bad boy reputation. Despite this history, people’s opinions, and Ash’s own bellicose aura, his personality intrigued me in a powerful way. I couldn’t stay away from him and Cephira. Deciphering and understanding their complex relationship became a personal quest of mine.
I would never fully bridge the gap between our species. It is worth noting that the ideas and feelings I have about Ash’s ideas and feelings are to no small extent conjecture. Anthropomorphism, or the projection of human emotion and characteristics onto animals, is a complicated and unavoidable influence between homosapiens and other species. This epistemic asymmetry (the communicative disconnect or subjective isolation between humans and non-human animals) has plagued animal studies and environmentalism since their inception. With that stipulation in mind, I can say without a doubt that Ash and I had a real, palpable, and profound influence on each other’s lives.
Every time I interacted with Ash and Cephira, whether it was a good morning greeting or an impromptu visit during a slow day at the sanctuary, I did my best to give them both attention without causing strife in their relationship. I cannot overstate that this was exceedingly difficult at first. I had a sort of personal credo that if they began to fight, or if Ash became even slightly aggressive, I would immediately leave. This was a way to not reinforce his negative behavior, and encourage a calmer, more controlled disposition. Sometimes they would see me walking towards them from afar and start fighting before I even got to the fence, and in those cases I wouldn’t interact with them at all.
As the months passed, this strategy started to take effect. Ash’s insecurities and bouts of rage seemed to stem equally as much from his desire to be loved by humans as his desire to be Cephira’s sole object of affection. Being the intuitive, quick learner that a wolf is, Ash made the connection that the more aggressive he became, the less time he would spend with me or other humans. He began to stifle his jealousy and anger. Of course there were still some outbursts here and there, but they became less frequent. Eventually, they stopped almost entirely. He became more composed, and I would even go so far as to say, gentle. It was an astonishing transformation over a relatively short amount of time.
As Ash normalized this calm disposition, we developed new routines. In the mornings, I would approach the fence and both he and Cephira would rush over. One of them would throw their body at me, parallel against the chainlink fence, and then the other would follow; it is a captive wolf’s way of asking for some side scratches. I would pet them both simultaneously, as they performed an eerily synchronized figure eight motion along the fence, exchanging positions so as to receive my scratches evenly on both sides of their torsos. Ash and Cephira formed a whirlwind of fur, gnashing teeth, lolling tongues and whimpers. They would do this dance for several minutes before trotting off to their next nap. In the summer and fall, when they were shedding their winter coats, they would sit along the fence and let me groom them by picking out the loose tufts of undercoat. I must’ve collected a dozen gallon-sized bags of their fur.
The image of that fur protruding through the chainlink, seemingly begging for touch, affirmation, and connection of any kind, formed a strange mosaic of colors. It was like an artistic rendering of the ethical grey areas that wildlife sanctuaries create by their very existence. The wolf’s coat, emblematic of unbridled wildness and freedom, was framed by the diamond shaped holes in the chainlink fence–a manmade artifice that contained and truncated their beautiful free spirits. This image is indelibly etched into my mind.
It wasn’t just during our morning greetings that Ash showed interest in my presence. Whenever I was working nearby, Ash was observing me. At the sanctuary, it’s usually the humans that are enthralled with watching the wolves; Ash reversed this dynamic. Whether I was chopping firewood, checking rodent traps, repairing the cabin, or simply watching the sunset over the mountains, Ash would be my constant audience. From the loft of my cabin I have a perfect view of his enclosure. Often the first thing I would do upon waking up, especially on the cold mornings, was roll over in bed, open the blinds, and call out to Ash and Cephira. They would look around quizzically before locating the origin of my voice. Ash would give me his patented death stare, and then a low, gruff howl, as if to say “Finally! Get up you lazy ass human.” All of this became part of our routine.
There are a few unique wolves at the sanctuary that think humans are fun and exciting to interact with almost unconditionally. Ash was not one of them. So, the fact that Ash and I seemed to have this bond meant a great deal to me. And yes, it made me feel really good about myself to know that this supposedly unpredictable, troubled animal trusted me to some extent. I didn’t realize just how much it meant, though, until he was gone.
On Sunday, July 16th, 2017, a summer volunteer was walking around taking pictures of several resident wolves. She eventually discovered Ash lying limply in his enclosure, appearing to not be breathing. He died of bloat, which is a gastric dilatation that inhibits respiratory function and causes organ failure if not treated immediately. It is quite common in all large canines, both domestic and wild, regardless of age. I cannot begin to describe the shock and agony that gripped me when I saw him on a stretcher, laying across the tailgate of our pickup truck. I had known him for barely over a year, which equated to some seven odd years in his canine life. It felt like I had lost a childhood friend.
He taught me so much, even in the short time we were together. I’ll never know if he understood, even in his own animalistic way, how special he was to me. I think the not knowing is why I’ve always struggled so mightily with the deaths of animals I love. It is part of our human insecurities, or at least it’s part of mine. He was laid to rest among his brethren in the Mission: Wolf cemetery, and in true Ash fashion, the burial took place during a torrential downpour. By the time it was done, everyone was sopping wet and freezing in the darkness. Nothing was ever easy with him.
So what did Ash teach me, exactly, in the span of those brief few months? Patience, was certainly one big teaching point. You couldn’t get anywhere with him if you weren’t patient. He also was a great educator on the subtleties of body language and how to focus one’s energy when communicating with wild and feral animals. Both Ash and Cephira taught me a great deal about wolves. Yet, in retrospect I realized they taught me much more about myself than they did about their own kind.
Throughout my life, people have told me I am a very sensitive, emotional person. Growing up in a patriarchal world that indoctrinates young men into believing that embracing emotion is a sign of weakness, I sometimes felt ashamed of my natural feelings. Ash taught me, in a way that only a wolf could, that emotions and passion are good things that I shouldn’t be afraid of. On the same token, he taught me that it is potentially dangerous to become a slave to the violent turbulence of emotion, and that loving too intensely can end up hurting the very people you care about.
Ash taught me that being damaged, flawed, and confused about what I want out of life is okay. More so, he taught me that despite these things, I am still worthy of being loved. That’s all Ash really wanted, whether it was from Cephira or me, was to simply know that he was worthy of love.
He taught me that we can always change.
These are all my own projections. None of them indicate how Ash might’ve actually perceived himself or understood his emotions and place in the world. Understanding this does not diminish the lessons he taught me in any way. To think, that he imparted all those lessons through a fence.
This is my absolute favorite photo of Ash:
Why? Because he’s about to get fed, and he looks completely insane. He’s got this crazed, insatiable, bloodthirsty look in his eye. With that huge tongue lolling out and fangs showing, he reminds me of one of those really old, gothic, judeo-christian depictions of wolves–you know, with all the sensationalized, vicious, demonic connotations that go along with it. It’s as if Ash is saying “Yeah, I’m the big bad f*cking wolf. What’re you gonna do about it punk? And yeah, I’ll eat your whole flock of sheep, your grandmother, and I’ll huff and puff and blow your flimsy ass house down while I’m at it too!” This photo captures his essence. Ash knew what he was, and he wasn’t afraid of it.
I take solace in the fact that his life here, alongside Cephira, was filled with love, happiness, and lots of raw meat for him to feast on. And if he hadn’t found his way to M:W, he probably would have died an even earlier, and maybe more painful death. I like to think that before he left, he broke the cycle of abuse he was caught in, and that he was at peace with himself.
He left us at the age of six, living about as long as most wild wolves do. Ash wouldn’t have had it any other way. For better or worse, he was always bursting with a zeal and vivacity for life–a fiery, brilliant light that this dying world could not sustain for long.
Now, he can run wild and free in the great wolf pack in the sky as he always wanted to. I imagine he’s vying for alpha position already.
I still go see Cephira every morning when I get up, Ash, and wherever you are, I bet you’re not jealous anymore.
Rest in peace, Ashes, I love you.
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” – Leonard Cohen