North of Houston, outside the small town of Montgomery, there is a house where lobos in limbo live, the St. Francis Wolf Sanctuary. The sanctuary, a non-profit organization staffed entirely by volunteers, aims to provide a permanent home to captive-born wolves and wolf-dog hybrids that are too wild to be kept as pets, yet too domesticated to survive in the wild. Many of the animals come from backgrounds of abuse, but under the care of founder and octogenarian Jean LeFevre they're able to live out the rest of their lives in relative comfort and care.
Organizing a trip to the sanctuary took a little perseverance. Their website is full of inaccurate information -- from hours of operation to suggested donation prices -- and the first time I called I left a message that was returned a few days later. The second time I called, the person on the phone tried everything in her power to persuade me not to come -- it was going to rain, it was going to be crowded, it was going to be a long drive. When I persisted in trying to make a reservation (which are required), she caved -- only to tell me "Oh, it's not very busy today. All those tours are scheduled for tomorrow."
Once we arrived at the sanctuary, though, the bad taste had left my mouth. LeFevre lives in a huge, modern house at the end of a country road, and the wolves live in enclosures on her large property. As we pulled into the gate I spotted several signs warning in big letters: WOLVES.
We were greeted by a volunteer who was literally wearing a Three Wolf Moon t-shirt, and not in an ironic way. My sense of adventure was piqued when she asked us to sign a liability form. Another group was there for a tour; a few adults and several children. Volunteers, including two young-looking ones, walked in and out of the enclosures, dragging water hoses, scratching the animals behind the ears, and feeding them raw chicken feet while we looked on from the protection of a double fence and a covered, wooden walkway.
LeFevre, a lifelong animal lover who worked with the spay/neuter organization The Kit Wilson Trust in her native England, started the sanctuary with two wolves, Khan and Mystery. Mystery was rescued after she's been caught in a trap and had nearly chewed her own paw off to get free. She still has a scar from the surgery to repair it.
According to LeFevre, Khan had been tied up by a man who charged kids $5 a pop to poke the wolf with a stick. Khan, who recently died at the sanctuary, was estimated to be 15 years old. The average life span for a wolf in the wild is four to seven years.
Each wolf has a long biography, probably embellished a bit by LeFevre, who claims that she herself was "raised by German shepherds," and that she trained with the Iroquois and Seneca, including a medicine man. But the folklore is part of the fun -- as wolves have been denigrated for centuries by story-tellers like the Grimm Brothers. St. Francis Sanctuary is surrounded by placards featuring thoughtful quotes about the majesty of wolves.
LeFevre starts each tour by greeting and introducing her pack's alpha wolf, Lobo. Wolf pairs mate for life, she says, but in a pack, only the alpha male and female get to mate. Lobo is old, but he has a companion in a wolf/Malamute mix named Bianca. From their enclosure she then leads the group past the rest of the enclosures, sharing each wolf's history, peppered with facts about the species. One wolf was rescued from Minnesota. Another, Spirit, was an immigration drug dog who refused to give up the drugs she found. There are 70 varieties of grey wolf alone. In Texas, there are no more wolves in the wild. Scientists have isolated more than 50 vocalizations unique to wolves. Two of the wolves were brought to her as cubs, from the same litter. Their names are Romulus and Remus.
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Each enclosure has a plaque or two with the wolf's name on it and a list of the donors who have adopted that animal. Small markers lie the walkway honoring wolves who have died at the sanctuary. LeFevre explains that many wolf-dogs are sent to what she calls "death row" because they display very normal wolf-like behaviors. Mystery, for example, is the only wolf at the sanctuary who was once truly wild. LeFevre shows off the index finger on her right hand, which is noticeably shorter than the rest of her digits. Mystery does not like people to stick fingers into her fence. Wolves, even those that have been cross-bred with dogs, do not make very good pets, she says. They are extremely pushy, extremely needy animals. To keep a wolf or wolf/dog as a pet in this state, a person must have both a federal and a state license. This is the red tape that allows LeFevre to take custody over many animals that have mistreated by their previous owners.
At the end of the tour, LeFevre asked if anyone felt a connection with a particular animal and wanted like to meet that animal inside its enclosure. No one in the group said a word. LeFevre then offered to bring Remus out on a leash for everyone to pet. A boy in the group began to cry. LeFevre tried to comfort him, but his mother had to take him away. The other children looked nervous. To be honest after hearing LeFevre's stories, I was nervous too.
The young-looking volunteer grabbed a leash and walked to Remus' gate. Mystery caught a glimpse of the leash and began a full-fledged howl, and within seconds she had the rest of the wolves howling along with her, so that we were surrounded by the mystic late-afternoon howl of wolves. That part was pretty awesome.
Remus behaved no differently than a big dog, even licking one of the kids on the face. Before long the children who had been sitting on their hands for fear of losing a finger were posing with the beast while LeFevre tried to operate their cell phone cameras. The sanctuary often works with outreach programs for senior citizens, Boy Scouts and other groups. Remus seemed like a good ambassadog.