Monday, September 21, 2015

ID wolf keeper, ID state at odds over public’s access to animals

September 21, 2015  
Becky Kramer The Spokesman-Review 
Nancy Taylor pets one of the wolves at her 50-acre property in Cocolalla, Idaho, on Tuesday. She is in a protracted legal battle with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which says she has violated her permit to allow public viewing of her captive wolves. Kathy Plonka photo

COCOLALLA, Idaho – Nancy Taylor says her captive-born wolves enjoy human contact. When she gives paid tours of Wolf People, the wolves come up to the chain-link fence to check out the visitors.
“They want to be petted, and they love to give kisses,” said Taylor, who keeps 24 wolves at the facility.

Allowing people to touch the wolves and get their faces licked is part of Taylor’s business model, but the practice has put her at odds with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The agency has suspended Wolf People’s commercial wildlife license for a year, saying Taylor and her employees repeatedly violated an agreement to keep customers and the wolves at least 3 feet apart.

Taylor appealed the decision to the state district court and lost. Now she’s asking the Idaho Supreme Court to overturn the ruling, which prevents her from giving paid tours and prohibits other moneymaking ventures involving the wolves. “I’ve had Wolf People for 22 years,” Taylor said. “I’ve always let people pet my wolves.”

Fish and Game officials said the license suspension followed a series of problems – including an escape and several bites – at Wolf People, which is about 30 miles north of Coeur d’Alene on U.S. Highway 95.

In 2011, one of Taylor’s wolves escaped from an enclosure on her 50-acre property by digging underneath a fence. She failed to report the escape to Fish and Game, as required, and initially told agency officials the wolf had died, according to court documents. The wolf was never found.

A year later, Fish and Game notified Taylor she was violating provisions of her permit. Through a negotiated consent decree, Taylor agreed to install barriers that would prevent customers from getting close enough to touch the wolves through the fencing.

Taylor and her employees repeatedly ignored that provision, said Kathleen Trever, an Idaho deputy attorney general, who represented Fish and Game. “(It) is an issue of public safety and potential negative impacts for the animals if Wolf People were to continue to put its animals in situations where they may harm the public,” Trever said in court documents. “And we have at least one serious bite stemming from those violations.”

An 89-year-old woman was treated for puncture wounds in 2013 after a wolf grabbed her coat sleeve and pulled her arm into the enclosure through a gap in the fence, according to court documents. The woman’s daughter broke the wolf’s grasp by pulling off the coat, which was shredded by both wolves in the enclosure, according to the women’s statements. The women said Taylor told the 89-year-old not to report the bite to authorities, saying the wolf would be destroyed if word got out.

Two other bites were described in court documents: A 6-year-old was bitten on the hand in 2009, and another child was nipped on the ear in 2013, though the skin wasn’t broken. The court file also contains photos of customers getting their faces licked and petting and crouching next to wolves. Some were taken in Taylor’s “picture pen,” where photographers or film crews can pay to photograph wolves in a wooded, 5-acre enclosure.

Taylor also failed to get a $50,000 surety bond required by the consent decree, which would reimburse the state for cleaning up the facility and possibly euthanizing the wolves if she abandoned them or the wolves escaped.

Taylor is dismissive of the state’s concerns. She bought her first pure-breed wolf after moving to Idaho in 1990, and said her company has expanded the public’s understanding of wolves. “They are beautiful, loving animals, and not the vicious, blood-thirsty killers that the news media makes them out to be,” Taylor said.

Taylor strolled around the enclosures on her property last week, scratching the wolves through a chain-link fence. They reacted like overgrown dogs, whining for attention. “Yes, Mommy loves you,” Taylor told each wolf. Her oldest wolf is 15; the youngest is a 4-month pup. They’re housed in male-female pairs to avoid fights for dominance.

Taylor said the two bites occurred because the customers weren’t following directions, and she denied pressuring the 89-year-old to not report the bite. She described the nip on the ear as an “affectionate greeting” to the child. “If the wolf meant to bite him, he’d be missing part of his ear,” she said.

Taylor also said she has found a company willing to underwrite the surety bond but said the license suspension made the issue moot. As for the picture pen, Taylor said Fish and Game officials were aware of it, but didn’t specifically address it in the consent decree. One of her wolves was filmed in the pen for “OR7 - The Journey,” a documentary about an Oregon wolf that wandered to California in search of a mate. A National Geographic crew also used the pen for shots of her wolf pups.

Taylor’s attorney, Arthur Bistline, of Coeur d’Alene, has filed a motion in district court asking that she be allowed to resume moneymaking activities while Idaho’s Supreme Court considers her appeal. That motion is scheduled for a hearing Sept. 29. “It’s terribly unfair what they’re doing to me,” Taylor said. “They’re cutting off a major part of my revenue.”

During the busy tourist season, she said, she gives tours to about 200 individuals per week, charging $10 for adults and $8 for children and seniors. The money pays for the wolves’ care. “Every day, I have to tell at least 30 people that they can’t see the wolves,” Taylor said last week. “I’d be more than happy to have people sign a waiver, but it’s that person’s right to decide whether they want to pet a wolf.”