Cry of the Wolves

These rescued animals needed protection -- from their own sanctuary

Ott denies the claims from volunteers that she didn't want to contact the vet, Riccitello, in the early stages of the outbreak. He did not return calls from the Houston Press; an assistant at his clinic says Ott still has $28,850 in unpaid bills.

Dr. Richard Montali, head pathologist at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., says distemper vaccinations are needed for all carnivores, particularly doglike animals. "It's highly efficacious if given at the right time," says Montali, who has studied distemper since the 1970s.

Ott doesn't buy it.

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

"God gives you an immune system. It works if you don't tamper with it," she says. She tells of growing up poor in the 1950s and never having any inoculations. "Vaccinations are -- it's a scam. It's about money."

Others began wondering the same thing about Ott.

Internet message boards within the wolf community swirled with rumors about the problems at NAWA. One of those who saw them was Liz Mahaffey, a Georgia police officer for 18 years before becoming director of The Sanctum Incorporated, a sanctuary with 22 wolves in North Carolina.

With the help of a few others, Mahaffey began informally investigating the complaints. She interviewed volunteers, requested documents from relevant agencies and tried to build a case against Ott.

"Hell, I've worked less on murder cases," she says, adding that she spent most of three months throwing "60-hour weeks" at the project. "Our main thrust in this was to try and get these agencies to act and do their job. And I think there was a huge failure on their part to do that," she says.

"It's not a case of a poor place struggling to get things done. She had the money."

Some volunteers told Mahaffey that, in recent years, Ott had used nonprofit funds to take numerous trips and make questionable purchases, including a vehicle. Office volunteers from five years back report that receipts were rarely organized. Hart states in an e-mail: "There were checks from the NAWA checking account to pay Ms. Ott's maid, her lawn man, the grocer, liquor store and numerous other expenses that did not contribute to the care of the wolves."

A copy of the 2001 profit-and-loss statement for NAWA shows $162,000 in income, the bulk of it from one $120,000 donation. As for her expenses, auto and gas totaled $26,000. She spent $28,000 for "general, office and technical" services and $12,000 for home and office equipment. The phone, utilities and residence rent added up to $17,000.

And the amount of the $162,000 spent specifically on "wolf expenses"? That was $28,000.

The group remains a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. The IRS confirmed that NAWA has never filed the necessary form for nonprofits that have annual gross receipts greater than $25,000. It had also twice forfeited its charter after not filing franchise tax reports and is not in good standing with the state.

At worst, some former volunteers allege malfeasance; at best, incompetence.

"In the whole ten years I've been at this, I never took a salary," says Ott. "The only thing I ever took was what I needed to make everything work."

Ott argues that she used her own money to support NAWA before the volunteers were recruited and contributors were found. "So all of that money is going to go into a promissory note, which means that the organization actually owes me that money."

Ott says that, in fact, she's entitled to back pay for her earlier NAWA work before the organization "got on its feet." She insists she took only "the little bit, the little piddly things what I needed here and there each month to make everything work."

As Mahaffey continued to gather information on NAWA, Floyd Barr, the landlord for the reservation, filed eviction proceedings against Ott. She had been repeatedly late with the $400 monthly rent over the years and never carried the liability insurance required in the contract. Barr said the wolf escapes had made him concerned for the safety of the neighbors -- many of whom leased property from him -- and he considered them to be "like family."

Ott had until January 17 of last year to remove the remaining wolves from Barr's property before the county took possession. She tried to move them to a friend's place in Magnolia. The county found that the site did not meet the requirements of being at least 1,000 feet from any residence. There was nowhere else to take them and time had run out.

At that point, Kelli Copeland recalls, Rae Evening Earth Ott sat down on the back porch of her friend's house and wept.

"It's so easy to sit in the stands and point out where I made all these mistakes, but that's because they're just Monday-morning quarterbacks," says Ott. She adds later that it is easy to criticize "if you don't walk in my shoes -- if you're not in the arena and you don't have a little blood and some sweat and some dirt on your face."

Major improvements weren't done to the reservation wolf pens or fences because she planned to move and didn't want to invest the funds in the rental property.

"We're not from here and I don't want to stay here," she says. "I hate this place. I hate the heat, I hate the miserable bugs, I hate the humidity. I wanted to leave. I wanted to go back to the mountains."

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