Cry of the Wolves

These rescued animals needed protection -- from their own sanctuary

Jigsdwa, a popular alpha female, was rushed to the vet when her condition worsened. The wolf died there, in Hart's arms.

"It's like, shit, this is more than kennel cough," Norwood recalls after that second death. "Somebody needs to do something; this is not working."

By now, the outbreak was draining NAWA's limited funds.

A volunteer kisses her favorite wolf, Amani.
Photo courtesy of Lori Matthews
A volunteer kisses her favorite wolf, Amani.
Ott at her Spring home
Daniel Kramer
Ott at her Spring home

Norwood says that Ott recommended that feeding be limited to alternate days, and she tried putting the animals on a vegetarian diet for a while. Hart continued to feed them every day, spreading the thin resources out evenly. Hart had concerns about where the NAWA money was going, so she asked donors to buy food and medicine directly rather than giving the money to Ott.

Deadly distemper was sweeping through the compound. In addition to causing bloody diarrhea, the virus enters a dog's spinal nervous system, triggering violent seizures. "The whole body stiffens up like chewing gum fits," as one vet describes it. Once a wolf contracts distemper, very little can be done other than trying to treat the symptoms with antibiotics, fluid therapy and pain medication.

"I don't know if you've ever seen an animal suffer from distemper or not, but it's not a pretty sight, and it's a sight that I will always remember in my mind," says Lori Matthews, another volunteer.

Norwood mixed medicine into a meatball paste and held it against the fence of the Arizona pack, an offering to any animal that could straggle over.

"I was so tickled to death when I could get the alpha female to get a few bites," says Norwood. She later came in one morning and found that same wolf lying on its side, lifeless, blood trickling out from its mouth. On another day, Norwood had to watch as a yearling dropped to the ground, unable to get up. Workers dashed to the nearest edge of the fence -- yelling, clapping, trying to elicit any movement from her as a sign "that she was still trying to live," says Norwood.

Volunteers pushed on through their own exhaustion. When a driving thunderstorm pelted the reservation one night, Hart wrapped her body in a makeshift poncho of tied plastic trash bags as she moved through the compound, dispensing medicine.

"You just keep going," she says. "There wasn't anything else you could do."

Retrieving bodies from one pen meant volunteers had to stand guard at the gate against the alpha male, or lure him into a chute with Rice Krispies treats before they could enter.

They all had their favorite wolves, which made the deaths that much more devastating. For Matthews, it was Amani: "He knew me. He knew my voice."

The body count continued to rise. Between October and December, distemper killed 17 of the wolves.

The need to dig graves forced volunteers to grab shovels and try to plow through heavy roots -- roots as impassable as the road into the property. "Sometimes you'd get a foot, foot and a half down, and you'd have to start digging somewhere else. You couldn't go any further," says Norwood. The rain compounded the problem, making the ground too slippery in some areas.

Rigor mortis already had set in by the time volunteers could reach one carcass in a crowded enclosure. Norwood carefully laid the wolf to rest in a burial hole, but its legs stuck straight up "like a person trying to touch her toes." So Norwood had to grab the wolf's paws and bend them downward, using the weight of her body until a haunting snap could be heard. She was forced to break the legs at their lowest joints to fit the animal into the grave.

Farewells flowed even before burials were completed. Norwood says the digging would be punctuated with talk about the attributes of the animals that had passed on -- animals like Jigsdwa, who had been referred to as the "Liz Taylor" of the group; or Amani, the heartbreaker with the brilliant white coat. "They all had personalities -- just like people," says Hart. In a private gesture, she would snip a lock of her hair and bury it with each animal, exchanging it for one of theirs.

The informal eulogies, however, inevitably spiraled back toward fiery second-guessing about the leader of NAWA.

"I remember digging a small mass grave and the whole time I'm thinking, I should not be out here digging a fucking grave," Norwood says. "This shouldn't have happened."

Norwood says she can't even remember Ott lifting "a shovel to dig for none of them." In truth, Ott probably assisted in burying a handful. But she was blamed for a more basic reason: Ott was the one who had refused to vaccinate the animals against distemper.

"I didn't go out to the fence and cry my eyes out and watch all those wolves die," says Ott. "And they assume because I didn't do that, they didn't think I loved those wolves."

Ott says she researched the issue of vaccinations and decided against them. She adds that three of her wolves had been vaccinated during treatment for parvo sickness and died anyway last fall. Tina Hart tells of retrieving veterinary records and discovering that those vaccinations were incomplete.

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