Many animal “experiences” are fleeting. Luckily, I chose a wolf walk at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, which was both the best part of a day and gave me extensive bragging rights. After all, how many of your friends have walked side by side with wolves?
Amongst my hefty membership pack was a list of recommended clothing, and to prepare, my husband and I bought new wellingtons. This will be relevant later.
When we arrived, a silvery silhouette glided up out of the grass behind the fence. It was Mosi, the former alpha female, and thanks to the centre’s picture window and free hot drinks, we could have spent hours watching her and her mate Torak trot among the bushes, their ears pricked like arrowheads. But we weren’t just spectators today: the Beenham pack, Nuka, Tundra and Tala, were to be our canine walking companions. Eventually!
Unlike dogs, wolves – even socialised ones – are not at our beck and call, and need only one experience to adjust to a new situation. Add to that the intelligence of a five year-old child, and you have a group of visitors shivering in a field for twenty minutes while the unruly scamps are rounded up on their leads. Here’s another surprising fact: they were the ones walking us.
Tala, a vision of frosty cinders with sunset eyes, was the most tolerant of her close-ups via heavy lenses or slender camera phones. Nuka, the big male, seemed oblivious to his audience, sticking his head into troughs and rolling rapturously in fox leavings, allowing a fourth, invisible animal to accompany us with its raw gamey smell.
Tundra, the alpha female, hung back out of shyness or for an aura of regal mystery, at least until her younger sister needed scolding. Why? She did what we secretly hoped she would: howl.
Although it was Tundra who first hurled her voice into the air, Nuka and Tala joined in a haunting harmony. The boss lady checked Tala with a reproachful muzzle, but ever the cheeky sibling, she flung the air out of her lungs again later. For his part, Nuka discovered another luxurious smell: brand new wellingtons.
This hulk of North American heritage lolled against my husband’s legs for a full minute, making him lurch backwards. Despite Nuka’s strength, and being told that wolves have almost twice the bite pressure of a pit-bull, we didn’t feel afraid. The wolves were aloof or fleetingly interested, inspiring respect but none of the boot-shaking fear expected. And, with that understanding, came the request not to touch them – they were still wild animals, and didn’t need humans clamming up their fur as well as getting under their webbed feet.
If their webbed feet weren’t surprising enough, how about this – wolves can squeak. Later we passed the enclosure of Mai, the Beenham mother, who apart from a charcoal nose stripe was glittering blue snow to Tala’s sparkling cinders. She rippled back and forth among the trees, creaking like a gate, aching to join us.
Back at the centre the wolves received their reward – feeding time! – and crunched up meat and bones like biscuits. Kicking off our heavy boots, we felt a weight of sadness: it was time to leave.
Before a pink champagne sunset we headed back to civilisation, where wolves are seen as vicious villains, not animals with quirks and emotions. After an afternoon by their side, I learned that they deserve respect, not fear, and are focused on each other, not human prey.
Just don’t take them perfume-shopping.