Sunday, August 28, 2011

A sanctuary with something to howl about

Saturday, August 27, 2011
View full sizeWolf Haven International, outside Tenino, Wash.
The gravestones carry the names: Kiowa. Napanee. Kooskia. Jimmy.

Jimmy? Who would name a wolf Jimmy?

"That wasn't a wolf. Jimmy was one of our coyotes," Kim Young said during a tour of the animal cemetery at Wolf Haven, where she works.

Since 1982, the Washington sanctuary in rural Thurston County, south of Olympia, has been the life home for more than 160 wolves, plus a handful of foxes, coyotes and wolf hybrids. All were either born in captivity or had a situation where life at Wolf Haven was a last best option.

And for nearly 30 years, a stream of visitors has been coming to see the wolves of Wolf Haven.

Most leave with the same impression: The wolves look much smaller than they had imagined.

Tours of Wolf Haven are usually led by one of about 70 volunteers who help keep the 82-acre preserve open. Dane Yates had driven to Tenino, where Wolf Haven is located, from his home in Poulsbo, nearly 100 miles to the north, to conduct an afternoon tour.

He met attendees outside the gate of the wolf enclosure, gave a few tips about how to act around wolves, then led the group inside.

Wolves are kept in compatible pairs, inside fenced enclosures of about two-thirds of an acre. These wolves do not breed (males are sterilized) and cannot be released into the wild.

Wolf Haven also has breeding and prerelease programs for federally protected red wolves and Mexican gray wolves, but those wolves are kept out of public view.

Predators of a pest

Visitors do get to see others of both species, along with the more common gray wolves that are making a comeback in the lower 48 states.

Red wolves are rusty in color, almost terra cotta. Wolf Haven's pair on exhibit hid in vegetation in the back of the enclosure until Ruby came to the front to look us over with curiosity. Red wolves are making a comeback along the coast of North Carolina, where appreciative farmers are learning that 300 wolves eat a lot of nutria, a nonnative pest.

Mexican wolves are mottled, with Lorenzo and Noel showing mixes of gray, black, tan and white fur. This subspecies was extirpated long ago from the American Southwest, but the prerelease program at Wolf Haven has helped its reintroduction into the mountains of Arizona and New Mexico.

Gray wolves have a variety of colors, from the white of Pahana to the black of Caedus. This subspecies survived in Minnesota and across Canada and Alaska before an aggressive reintroduction effort brought it back to northern states of the West and Great Lakes.

The gray wolf has a way of bringing out emotions in people, either for or against. Washington is working on a wolf reintroduction plan, while Oregon is learning how to manage wolves that have moved in from Idaho.

It's time to howl

It's safe to say that most of Wolf Haven's 12,000 annual visitors are cheering for the comeback. And on four Saturday evenings of summer, they go beyond cheering by howling.

Wolf Haven's famous Howl-Ins are completed for the season, but keep them in mind for next year. They bring as many as 250 guests for an evening visit to the sanctuary. While people are discouraged from howling during a regular tour, they are positively encouraged to howl at the howl-in site, which is away from the closure. Grownups seem to enjoy it as much as kids, and sometimes the wolves join in.

No visit to Wolf Haven is complete without a stroll on the prairie, where the cemetery takes up but a small part.

Western Washington used to have 150,000 acres of prairie but less than 3 percent remains, so 55 acres at Wolf Haven offer rare public access. The prairie is covered with dozens of Mima mounds, rounded humps of gravel about six feet high most likely left over from the last ice age. The grass-covered mounds have abundant wildflowers, including the federally listed golden paintbrush.

The path through the prairies leads to the Grandfather Tree, an amazing Douglas fir that is not only old and big but also looks like an octopus. Several of its massive branches join the main trunk in reaching for the sky.

The last wild wolf to roam this area must have given a good howl when it saw this tree.

If you go: Wolf Haven is at 3111 Offut Lake Road S.E., three miles north of Tenino, Wash., off Old Highway 99. Take exit 88A from Interstate 5 and follow signs to Tenino. The sanctuary is open daily from April-September (except closed on Tuesdays) and on weekends the rest of the year (except closed in February and winter holidays). Admission is $9. Visiting the prairie is free. Info at 360-264-4695,