I entered the enclosure, perched quietly on a log and the wolf swung wide as it cautiously approached me.
Then it — she, actually, and a real white beauty at that — walked up from behind and gently nuzzled me before licking the back of my neck.
John Knight, co-founder of Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary, had assured me I had nothing to fear before he opened the gate.
If the wolf found a reason not to like me, she would keep her distance, or head in the opposite direction.
If she decided she trusted me, she’d probably find a way to show it.
And let me tell you: That first moment of acceptance by a 135-pound wolf is unforgettable.
Knight, who runs Big Oak with his wife, Debra, is very familiar with such demonstrations of affection.
He’s won the trust of most of the wolves and wolf dogs — which are dogs that have some wolf in their family history — at the sanctuary, which is now in its 10th year. The more social ones run right to him and enthusiastically lick his face. As Knight smiles and laughs to put them at ease, they give him big, sloppy kisses.
Nearly all 60 of the animals were neglected or abused before being brought to Big Oak, or given up by people who were no longer able to care for them.
Knight said he wishes there wasn’t a need for a place like Big Oak.
But as long as people continue to obtain the animals without knowing what they’re getting into, he said, the sanctuary, which is operating at capacity, will continue to exist.
AN UNEXPECTED MISSION
The Knights acquired two wolf pups a decade ago. They sold their home in Mandarin and settled on 5 acres in a wooded area near Green Cove Springs.
They didn’t envision creating a sanctuary, said Knight, 55, who was working in the health and fitness industry at the time. Their original intention was just to care for the pair of young wolves they had.
But they began getting calls from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to take in abused and neglected wolves and wolf dogs. After about a year of saying yes, the couple saw where this was going, and embraced their new mission.
In most cases, people bought the animals “without knowing what they were getting into,” Knight said. “What most people want is a wolf that acts like a dog. They buy it and try to change it.”
In addition, the animal may not get the right food or the proper exercise. The results are never good, he said, and eventually the owners either “turn them over, or they are seized by the authorities.”
Big Oak — named for the hundreds of huge oak trees on the property — has 23 fenced enclosures, averaging 7,500 square feet. Each enclosure has a wooden platform for shelter, an above-ground pool where the animals cool off, and either an underground or above-ground den.
The sanctuary isn’t open to the public, and Knight feels strongly about not exhibiting the wolves and wolf dogs for money.
“We don’t exploit them,” he said. “It’s a sanctuary, and we prioritize their needs.”
A nonprofit, Big Oak operates on donations and the Knights’ personal incomes. “We give donors access to let them know that their money is being well-spent to meet the needs of the wolves and the sanctuary,” Knight said. (One essential need: 3,000 pounds of chicken each month.)
The only people allowed to interact with the animals are trained volunteers, who come to the sanctuary weekly. They also help with projects such as construction and repairs.
“Running this place would be impossible without them,” Knight said.
Sheryl Ulmer is nearing her eighth year as a volunteer at Big Oak. She’s at the sanctuary every Sunday “unless I’m sick or out of town,” she said.
She had just come back from a trip to Yellowstone National Park, where she’d observed wolves in the wild. After a friend called and mentioned a story about Big Oak on a TV station, Ulmer contacted Knight and said she was interested in helping.
She described her work as “whatever it takes” to keep Big Oak operating.
“We help feed the animals,” Ulmer said. “We spend time with the animals. We get a chance to play with and love on the wolves, but there’s a lot of work involved.”
Once she began working with the wolves and wolf dogs, she was surprised “how intuitive they are” in gauging a person’s mood, which affects their willingness to interact with you.
For Ulmer, the interaction with the wolves is “very therapeutic.
“It helps me recharge for the week. I don’t think about any other issues or anything else going on in my life. My focus is on them and taking care of their needs.”
‘WE HUMBLE OURSELVES’
The Knights run Big Oak with a considerable amount of personal sacrifice. Donations to the sanctuary have fluctuated in recent years because of the economy. Knight hopes community support will grow enough to eventually hire a few employees.
He said faith plays a part in the way their selfless views and treatment of the wolves and wolf dogs. “There’s no way I could put my needs aside and help these animals without my faith,” he said.
The Big Oak website includes quotes from Scripture on caring for animals. And the Knights have given all the wolves and wolf dogs biblical names: Elijah. Mary. Solomon. Leah. Damascus.
Though some of them come from Florida, the rescued animals have been brought to Big Oak from all over the country.
Wolves have an inherent fear of people, Knight said. Interacting with them requires a specific mind-set and body language.
“We present ourselves as weaker,” Knight said. “We humble ourselves. We don’t teach them. Everything we do here is a result of them telling us what to do and what not to do.”
They can interact with about 95 percent of the wolves and wolf dogs.
“Fixing the animals physically is not as hard as fixing them emotionally,” he said. “A few were so abused that we can’t touch them.”
But it’s typical to find two or more animals with noses pressed against the fence, waiting for Knight as he walks toward an enclosure.
Once inside, he kneels or lies down on the ground and strokes them gently, or stands and holds their front paws.
“We are most proud of the fact we focus so much on their needs that we never think about our needs,” Knight said. “There’s nothing that we want other than for them to be comfortable and to get better.
“Our only focus is the quality of the lives of the animals.”
For more information on Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary, go to bigoakwolfsanctuary.org. You can also donate through the site.