Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Thomas Davis takes selfies with wolves.
He lets wolves lick his face.
He stares deeply into their mystical golden eyes and ponders deep thoughts.
He does not dance with wolves. "Their eyes are an intensely piercing, golden color, and it was very surreal being with them," said Davis, 25, of South Glens Falls, who recently returned from 10 days as a volunteer with Mission: Wolf, a wolf sanctuary that offers a hands-on, learning experience in the mountains of southern Colorado.
Davis is a canine educator and pet tech who runs Adirondack Animal Services, a pet sitting and dog walking service that also offers obedience training. He's also a former animal control officer for the town of Moreau. "These were the most beautiful creatures I've ever met," said Davis, who took hours of video footage of his interactions with the wolves with a GoPro high-definition camera. "When you hear them all howling, it's breathtaking."
A captive wolf enters a traveling container. (Courtesy of Thomas Davis)
After several years building up his pet service business and gaining experience as a canine educator, Davis decided he needed to increase his knowledge of the alpha dog, Canis lupus, also known as the gray wolf. "I felt like I needed to spend time with wolves to get that peak experience that goes beyond what you can get from domesticated dogs," said Davis, who has two dogs, Lola, a shepherd mix adopted from a shelter, and Thompson Poe, a 150-pound purebred St. Bernard named for his favorite writers, Hunter S. Thompson and Edgar Allan Poe. He called his time with wolves "very deep, almost spiritual."
Mission: Wolf was co-founded in 1984 by Kent Weber, who was licensed to take care of a captive wolf in need of shelter. The operation expanded as they took in former pet wolves that the owners could no longer care for, including wolves used in films such as "Twilight." The group of 30 wolves on the remote, rugged 350-acre sanctuary includes a pack of "ambassador wolves" that live in pens and travel regularly to college campuses and schools as part of the group's educational outreach. The group's motto is "Education vs. Extinction."
Despite a controversial proposal to reintroduce the eastern timber wolf — a subspecies of the endangered gray wolf that was extirpated a century ago from the Adirondacks and the Northeast by hunting and clear-cut logging that destroyed critical habitat — wolves on their own are expanding their range from Canada into Maine and parts of the Northeast. But they remain beset by a negative image and are commonly dreaded as a fearsome predator. "Wolves have suffered from a lot of misinformation for a long time," Davis said. "The big, bad wolf is a fairy tale. The unknown is the scary aspect of wolves. People forget that man's best friend, the canine, came from wolves."
He thinks people should withhold judgment until they have firsthand knowledge. "Until you've actually locked eyes with a wolf, how can you judge them?" he asked.
Thomas Davis puts his hand next to a wolf's paw to show the animal's size. (Courtesy of Thomas Davis)
Davis grew up with a menagerie of animals, including several dogs, ferrets and injured critters such as frogs and lizards that he took in and raised. "My mom used to say if he brought one more animal into the house, she was kicking him out," said his sister, Kate, 20, who sometimes helps him out as a dog walker. "He didn't stop, though. He has a special gift for dogs and a deeper connection than other people."
Tragedy set him on his career path after his St. Bernard puppy, named Saint, died of a heart failure at 9 months. He became certified as a pet tech and teaches others how to perform CPR and life-saving efforts. He dropped out of Adirondack Community College and heeded his father's advice: "Do what you're passionate about."
He printed company T-shirts that read Team DREAM: Dogs Rule Everything Around Me."
Along with a bleached blond buzz cut tinged with purplish dye, Davis has a lot of tattoos, including color portraits of Thompson and Lola tattooed on his chest. It includes a memorial tattoo to Saint and the words, "All dogs go to heaven."
Davis has been invited to train animal-control officers and cops in pet emergency resuscitation techniques from Florida to California. His next goal is to became America's canine educator, with the help of girlfriend Mallory Stark, who assists him in caring for pets.
Thomas Davis walks a captive wolf. (Courtesy of Thomas Davis)
Davis believes there is no such thing as a bad dog, only bad owners. He concurs with Irish wolfhound owner and Albany political boss Dan O'Connell's assessment: "All dogs are better than most people."
As for his wolf selfies, Davis said he took self-portraits with Tiger, a captive wolf with whom he bonded.
This week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a new state law that prohibits selfies with tigers, lions or other big cats. Animal exhibitors face fines for each violation. The trend had grown among young men hoping to spice up their social media profile photos. Similar laws are on the books in other states, including Mississippi, Arizona and Kansas, where a tiger killed a 17-year-old in 2005 while she posed with it for her senior photos.
Davis appreciates the grace of Canis lupus as well as the power of social media. A tattoo on the underside of his left wrist reads: "All the world's a stage."
To view Davis' video of wolves, go to his Facebook page at http://on.fb.me/1nNrqSe
Thomas Davis pets a captive wolf. (Courtesy of Thomas Davis)