Monday, April 13, 2015

Kissing #Wolves in Norway

Pucker Up! Kissing Wolves in Norway
Brӓga the wolf licking Ellie’s face. (Photo: Ellie Ross)

He’s looking into my eyes, searching my soul. Inches apart, I’m sure he can sense my heart pounding and my trembling legs. We’ve only known each other seconds, but the connection is instant. It’s the most terrifying first kiss of my life.

But that’s the thing about an Arctic encounter with a wolf — it’s just as thrilling as it is unnerving. Brӓga, the alpha male, sniffed me warily before licking my face with his warm, soft tongue. It was his way of saying hello to anyone who dared enter the vast enclosure where he lives with his brothers and sisters.

This remarkable rendezvous took place at Polar Park, the world’s most northerly wildlife park, in Norwegian Lapland. Winter is the best time to visit, when the wolves are most active. Time it right, and you could also be rewarded with a swirling Northern Lights display overhead. As well as wolves, Polar Park is also home to lynx, brown bears, arctic foxes, moose and reindeer.
Polar Park is also home to beautiful Lynx. (Photo: Ellie Ross)

The sun was shining as I left my base in Narvik, a city known for its alpine skiing, and as the place the Allies won their first battle against the Nazis in 1940. Despite the spectacular views of fjords and snowy mountains during the one-hour drive north, my nerves were already on edge.

Then full-blown fear hit as I entered the park’s reception and came face to face with a snarling wolf, charging right at me. OK, it was stuffed — taxidermy eagles, bears and foxes were also dotted around the pine walls — but its fierce expression was a reminder that this was a very wild creature, with very sharp teeth. And I was about to attempt to lock lips with it.

The sound of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” crept into my mind, taunting me about what lay ahead. Then the head animal keeper, Stig Sletten, walked in and told me to remove my jewelry. “We need to discuss how to behave inside the enclosure,” he said, handing me overalls and boots.

Stig explained that you have to be physically fit to meet the wolves — no joint injuries, under-18s or pregnant women are allowed. The wolves can sense if you are pregnant — which, he added, once proved embarrassing for a 16-year-old who was with her mother.
Another guest getting a kiss at Polar Park. (Photo: Ellie Ross)

Next he showed me how to enter the enclosure, with hands flat at chest level, and how to kneel down, leaning forward slightly, to greet the wolves and receive a kiss. “These wolves are 10 months old so, just like excited teenagers, they have lots of energy,” he says.

“Make sure they can always see your hands. If they jump up at you, don’t push them back. If they make you fall, lie still on the ground. The most important thing is to stay calm,” he added, as my naturally high stress levels shot into the stratosphere.

We crunched through the snow, past lynx being fed horse meat, to the wolves’ enclosure. And there they were — five of them trotting up towards us, all wiry fur, piercingly bright eyes and pointed teeth.

“We have all sorts of visitors, and you never know how they will react inside,” Sletten said, unlatching the gate. “A group of soldiers who fought in Iraq were so scared, they only lasted two minutes, but an 85-year-old lady said it was the best thing she’s ever done.”

I took a deep breath and stepped inside. For a moment, they seemed just like dogs, scampering about and rolling in the snow. But then they started snapping and growling at each other, right next to my feet. “Notice that none of that aggression is directed at us,” Stig assured me. “They aren’t even looking at you when they fight. Relax.”
Bucket list moment — taking a wolf selfie! (Photo: Ellie Ross)

Stig explained the reason for running these hourlong wolf encounters, telling me that it is primarily to enrich the lives of the animals in captivity, not ours. “Wolves are inherently afraid of humans, so being in captivity can be stressful,” he said.

“But these wolves have been reared to socialize with humans. They experience different smells on different people, which keeps their minds active and relieves boredom and stress. Being this close also means we can check them for injuries and monitor their condition.”

Heart in mouth, I knelt down and received my surprisingly soft and stink-free kiss from Brӓga. Then Stig asked if I wanted to see something truly special. I gulped and nodded. We crept the length of around four football pitches, past trees heavy with snow, with the wolves weaving between our feet, until we were on a hill overlooking mountains with not a fence in sight.
A wolf howling (Photo: Ellie Ross)

Cupping his hands over his mouth, Stig inhaled deeply, then let out a long, low howl. Within seconds, the wolves responded, until I was standing in the middle of the pack, as they threw their heads back and sang their rallying cry together.

Wolves from the surrounding enclosures joined in, communicating with their pack mates over slopes of snow. Being so close as they performed such a natural instinct, I couldn’t help but feel that I had been accepted by the pack. Hey, I’d even got a kiss.

The canine chorus grew louder and louder until, like my fear, it began to fade, and finally dissolved into the Arctic sky.