Cry of the Wolves

These rescued animals needed protection -- from their own sanctuary

"I am not telling you what to say, just say that it was a big dog on the side of the road, you stopped to check its collar and it bit you. Don't mention me or this place, or the wolves, or they'll know." In shock, Moore complied. At the hospital, she blamed it on a stray dog.

Four years earlier, a wolfdog bit nine-year-old Miranda Freese while she was visiting the reservation. Her mother filed a negligence lawsuit against Ott, and following a no-show by the defense at the mediation and trial, the family gained a default judgment for $224,391. That has not yet been paid, although David Griffin, the attorney representing Freese, recently was able to wrestle $1,801 from Ott's personal bank account and another $126 from the NAWA account.

An e-mail obtained by the Houston Press from a former volunteer also indicates that he was the victim of a severe bite to the leg, puncturing an artery, but the wound was treated on-site so the authorities would not be alerted.

The pens are now overrun by nature.
Photos by Michael Serazio
The pens are now overrun by nature.

Meanwhile, the county was steaming toward an injunction against Ott for noncompliance.

The facility had no lighting, no running water and no electricity, and the new Arizona wolves had not been documented. Perimeter fences still were not anchored to the ground or braced.

Several of the enclosures appeared to be hazardous to the animals -- plywood sheets leaned up against cages in a way that "a good gust of wind could topple the plywood, injuring the wolf," according to Copeland's report. In multiple pens, the dogs had dug down as far as four feet because there were no reinforcing materials, she noted. Copeland said that explained the escapes. There was overcrowding in some pens, and the scat pond had become an ulcerous breeding ground for mosquitoes.

There were no more delays. Copeland requested a court order to relocate the wolves.

The next month, she was teaching Sunday school when she got a message that a wolf had escaped again from its pen. Copeland was still wearing her yellow church dress when she showed up at the compound.

One of the larger wolves, Little Wakan, was running free inside the perimeter fence, which a group of volunteers was trying to hold down at the base. Copeland picked up a stick to try to ward off the animal, but the wolf snapped it in half with one bite. She knew it would try to make a break underneath the perimeter; Copeland didn't want to use her hand to hold down the fence's base, because that would put her at face level with the wolf. She tamped down the base with her foot -- Little Wakan chomped into her lower leg and began to shake feverishly.

"He was angry," she says. "He was very angry." They eventually subdued -- and quarantined -- the animal.

A week later, a court ordered the removal of nine NAWA wolves -- the ones in the most substandard of pens -- to Montgomery County Animal Control. They were returned after Ott scrambled to get some of the holding areas up to compliance. (According to Copeland, the $1,300 county bill for boarding was never paid.)

"I didn't want to take any more wolves than I absolutely had to," Copeland explains.

Whatever the difficulties with agencies and upset neighbors, the reservation was still fulfilling its role because it was enabling these magnificent creatures to survive -- or so the volunteers thought.

Two weeks after the return of the wolves from animal control, the volunteers began noticing subtle signs within one pack. They heard coughing and sneezing coming from the pens. Up close, the workers detected thickening discharges of mucus from the animals' eyes and noses. Previously robust wolves gradually wound down to a lethargic slow-motion pace; some hardly sniffed at their uneaten meals.

While the concerns were on that pack, reservation director Tina Hart came out to do her regular daily chores for the others, which showed no indication of problems. Then she looked over to see a yearling wolfdog sprawled across the ground. Hart knew the animals curl up to sleep -- this one's body was stretched out, legs askew.

A necropsy gave the cause of death as an aneurysm. "It was hard to notice anything healthwise with them, because they're not socialized so you couldn't get in to notice them," says Sherry Norwood, a volunteer who retrieved fresh water from plastic containers from the fire department.

Hart says that, even at this early stage, she repeatedly asked Ott to contact veterinarian Robert Riccitello. Ott seemed reluctant because of the mounting bills owed him, Hart says, so Hart herself made the call. Volunteers chipped in to cover the antibiotics to treat kennel cough, an upper respiratory illness that is essentially the canine version of bronchitis.

For several days the group stayed calm, waiting for the medications to take effect, Norwood says. Then panic began to grow as the problems persisted. In the stark silence of the deep woods, the volunteers heard the unsettling sound of air hissing inside the wolves' lungs -- a palpable rattle like that of a child with a raspy cough.

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