By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Scavengers took what they could haul away from these isolated 26 acres, starting with the gate that had once protected the rutted dirt entrance off Tommy Smith Road.
Now thick barriers of mud and brush are the sentries blocking access to this reclamation project of nature, pushing deeper into these already dense woods of east Montgomery County.
A tall pine has hammered into the perimeter fencing, twisting and ripping at its wire. Leaves and small branches float down to camouflage other evidence of earlier human interference. The mesh tops on animal pens grab the falling debris until they look more like small primitive thatched-roof huts scattered among the trees.
One of the few obvious clues about these previous inhabitants hangs upside down from a nail near one of the enclosures. It is a grease-smudged sign that reads: "Please do not give these wolves any treats! None! They are on a special diet -- some are on medications and any additional food can upset the balance of their systems. Thank you for understanding. : )"
No one worries about treats or medications anymore. There are no growls or even howls on these acres -- the only sound to shatter the silence is that of dead leaves and twigs snapping under the steps of an intruder.
The wolves are gone. More than 40 of them had pawed the ground here. Now, nearly half of those lie buried beneath it. This North American Wolf Association sanctuary once celebrated the rescue of wolves from appalling conditions -- then it became the scene of a rescue effort itself.
About all that is left is the core of that controversy, NAWA director Rae Evening Earth Ott -- the ultimate lone wolf.
Ott, a tall 52-year-old with a shock of long, silvery hair, talks little about her life before the wolves. She says that in the '80s, she was a hard-charging executive at a Houston oil leasing firm, when her future husband suffered brain damage from chemicals while working for an oil company. She was forced to stay home to care for him, she says, and they went from making $15,000 a month to losing everything -- "our home, our rent house, vehicles, stocks, portfolios."
So, she says, she abandoned the material pursuits. "I started to realize that I had come full circle and that I needed to come back to who I really was." That meant forming the North American Wolf Association in the early '90s (see "A Passion for Wolves," by Jennifer Mathieu, May 3, 2001).
"I've always had a lot of heart for them since I was a kid," says Ott, who adds that she's been in the "animal rights trenches" for 18 years. From her perspective, wolves and wolfdogs -- the hybrid offspring -- have been dealt the cruelest fate in terms of human interference and domestication.
"Pound for pound they're in the worst position on the planet," she says. "God gave them the inherent right to live free. They want to stay free, and we don't have any right to steal their lives."
Her crusade focused in large part on breeders, an industry she reviles at a time when the U.S. Humane Society estimates that up to four million animals are killed yearly because they don't have homes.
NAWA's mission statement talks about rescuing wolves, an endangered species, and protecting them at the group's reservation, where they can "live out their lives in peace" or be relocated to other safe areas. She stresses that the crux of her work has been education; the reservation apparently was birthed out of necessity.
"It was not something planned. It was not something I wanted to do," she says. Yet in the mid-'90s, Ott says, she came across a pack of 19 abandoned wolves and wolfdogs, and started the Conroe sanctuary for them in 1998.
Over the years, Ott has lectured about wolves, held $125-a-pop wolf "workshops" at her Spring home, and campaigned against captive breeding programs and the wolfdog trade.
Volunteers pledged their support for NAWA by caring for the wolves on weekends and after work. The bonds grew strong, and people chose their favorites. Tina Hart was drawn to the group after she found a stray wolfdog drifting along the side of the road and contacted NAWA. In late 2001, she took a full-time position as the reservation's director.
Despite the new job and new sense of purpose, Hart shies away from striking a Saint Francis pose: "There was nothing glamorous or dramatic about shoveling shit."
At the Montgomery County Animal Control building, an employee unlocks a back closet and begins dusting off an entire file cabinet that is filled with documents that record the unraveling of NAWA.
"We had tried to work with [Ott] from the beginning to get her into compliance," says Kelli Copeland, the animal control director. "We were fairly new at registering wild and dangerous animals, and we were moving slowly to be as helpful as possible.
"It seems like the nicer we were and the more cooperative we were to assist her, the less cooperative she became."
Ott attempted to register 24 wolves and one cougar in 2001. Animal control returned her application packet, noting that she had failed to provide complete information on nearly every animal. After granting extensions, authorities received another application from Ott. Copeland had to explain to her that the county required at least $250,000 in liability insurance and that the reservation pens weren't big enough and strong enough to adequately hold the wolves.