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.
Shortly after, Copeland issued the first ticket for failing to comply with county regulations. Three weeks later, she issued another. Three weeks later, another. And three weeks after that, another.
"What I did was, when I saw that she was not doing anything with the first citation, I said, 'I'm giving what I consider to be a good amount of time to have accomplished something and you haven't, so I'm going to keep on it,' " says Copeland.
During a spring 2002 visit, Copeland was encouraged that Ott had begun working on a perimeter fence, although this barrier did not appear to be properly anchored and braced to prevent wolves from sneaking under it. Other problems were obvious. Waste was being disposed of in giant "scat pond" pits -- gangrenous holes of feces and water, ten feet wide and six feet deep. They were patching up the primary enclosures with shoddy cement blocks and even a pail. And the bottoms of the pens had not been properly reinforced. Wolves could easily dig their way to freedom, she concluded.
While the problems may sound like the benign stuff of government bureaucracy, they were based instead on practical fears being raised by the surrounding community of Montgomery County.
Ott said she needed more time. Some neighbors felt that she'd already run out of time.
Dena Lewis, a neighbor to the west, recalls waking up on a weekend morning to find a wolf large enough to tower over her Labrador dogs in the yard. "My kids stay outside playing -- that's what's so horrible," says Lewis. She's the mother of two boys, now 12 and seven.
Another nearby resident, Jeff Smith, told of an incident two years ago, when he pulled into his driveway just in time to see a wolf sink its fangs into the back of his dog, pick it up and begin toting it away. He raced after the furry intruder and got it to drop his mutt.
Queenie, one family's toy poodle, was not as fortunate. Two wolves tore Queenie in half several years back. And Tina Irwin says wolf visits to her property were so frequent that her daughter was too scared to go outside alone to play on their jungle gym and swing set. "She had a fear that them wolves were going to come through the window," says Irwin. The neighbors insist that, prior to NAWA's moving into the area, there had been no sightings of wolves in years.
While the complaints from local government and neighbors were piling up about the wolves she already had, Ott was working to establish a reputation nationally as one who could swoop in and save neglected wolves on faraway fronts. In May 2002, she headed out to rescue stranded wolves in Sholo, Arizona.
And yet the NAWA leader seemed to have little regard for governmental requirements for that mission as well. Michael Foley, who runs the Los Angeles-based Global Animal Transport, had met Ott in Sholo and says he helped load 16 emaciated wolves into a refrigerated trailer. However, he learned that she did not have the health certificates required for transporting the wolves across state lines. So he backed out of the project, as it would likely entail snaking through back roads to avoid truck inspection points. Foley says Ott still owes him almost $5,000 for assisting in the Arizona rescue, transporting other animals out of New Mexico and helping to capture two of three escaped wolves at the Conroe reservation.
"There is nothing she has stated or could state at this stage of the game that we would ever believe," says Foley. He's heard several times that the check is on its way, he adds.
Regardless of how the Arizona wolves were transported, the arrival of more than a dozen of them at the Conroe reservation led to a naming ceremony on July 4, 2002.
Tammy Moore, a volunteer at NAWA for two and a half years, cleaned out the poop from the Arizona pack's enclosure, then knelt to pet one of the animals. Another wolf, Akayla, suddenly clamped down on her right arm. Moore buckled to the ground and Akayla tore into her hand, dragging her along the floor. "He basically ripped my hand open," she says. "I'm lucky that I have use of my right hand, apparently."
After pulling Moore from the pen, Ott dunked the bloody, injured hand -- it would swell up to the size of a grapefruit and take four months to heal -- into a bucket of ice. A volunteer asked if someone should call 911. Ott said no. Moore asked for her cell phone to call her husband and Ott continued trying to soothe the frantic Moore, telling her that she didn't need to call him just yet. Six months later, Moore would detail her recollection of the exchange in an affidavit to Montgomery County authorities:
Moore says Ott grew frantic when she asked if Ott needed to call her lawyer to meet them at the hospital for liability reasons.
"No, I can't go with you! They know me there, they'll know I am the wolf lady and see that it was one of my wolves that bit you; they'll call Animal Control, who will come out and kill all these guys.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
As for the $224,000 judgment in the bite case, that was all her attorney's fault because he hadn't made her aware of the trial. Ott blames the distemper outbreak on Montgomery County Animal Control, saying the animals became infected when it temporarily seized them from her in 2002. Shelter officials say the NAWA pack left its facility healthy and that animals would be euthanized if they showed any signs of distemper upon entry.
As for the eviction and the underlying troubles, those were all engineered as revenge by her long-standing enemies -- the breeders, she argues.
The wolves, however, wound up being spread out across the country, with many going to a sanctuary 8,700 feet up in the mountains of Colorado. The rescuers were others in the wolf conservation movement. Representatives giving medical aid said they helped 20 NAWA wolves and one cougar, many suffering from high temperatures, dehydration and anemia. All were treated for parasites (at least one had hookworm), and the facility was a mess.
Animal Planet filmed a portion of the removal of the wolves for its show The Jeff Corwin Experience. Host Corwin noted, "This is a supposed wolf sanctuary, but it's gone awry."
Ott's USDA license has been revoked. She says she's scouting property outside Texas for her next reservation. And she's writing a book to set the record straight, she adds. "I think that I'm entitled to tell my side of the story, but I want to do it in such a way that has so much credibility that it would be impossible for them to stand up," she says about her enemies. "When I come in swinging this time, they won't have a leg to stand on."
Tammy Moore, the volunteer who nearly lost her right hand from the wolf bite, scoffs at claims that Ott has any credibility left. "But she truly did love the wolves. In a screwed-up kind of way, she truly did think she was doing the best for the animals."
Hart, the NAWA reservation director, says Ott was an awful supervisor and bookkeeper in her organization for the wolves. "But did she try to do everything she could to help them? Yes," Hart says.
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Like others, Hart had been promised pay for her services. It never came. She lost her car when she could no longer make payments. Then she gave up her house for the same reason.
Why she stuck around, even as things were falling apart, is not exactly clear. She still has Cikala, the stray wolfdog that led her to NAWA, but these days she works as a receptionist for an international freight company. She's cooped up in a clean office near the airport -- a long way from the muddy quagmire she left behind in Conroe. Her wallet still holds a picture of her favorite wolf, one of those killed by the distemper.
"They weren't a cause for me," she says. "They were just animals I loved." It is a simple explanation in a complicated story.
"I had a choice. The animals didn't have a choice." She leaves it at that.