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‘Sanctuary Of The Wolf’ Found in Etta, Mississippi

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The wolves are most active in the morning, before the sun cuts through the hills of Etta with its heat. Six wolves, mixtures of Gray, Timber and Arctic sub-species, call the Wolf’s Howl Animal Preserve home.

When visitors see them, they want to touch them. From a distance, they look like loveable huskeys. But a closer inspection yields long shins, big paws, large snouts and strange under bites. They walk with their heads cautiously low. It is then that their guests understand why the USDA’s animal division requires a double layer of fencing between them and the howling carnivores.
There’s nothing tame about them, but for Maria Ferguson, owner and operator of the preserve, her love for the animals is made sincere by her respect for them.

“I don’t try to be part of the pack,” she said. “If I take that position, they’ll eventually challenge me for it. I’ve gotten to where I can really read their body language now.”

The journey of the Wolf Howl Animal Preserve starts with a Siberian Huskey, Niko, whom Maria and her husband, Don, adopted as a pup while living in Wisconsin. She’d had dogs before, but Niko, and the huskey breed, proved to be a different animal.

“Niko wasn’t like a lab or a retriever. He was so independent. Huskeys, they’re kind of aloof. They don’t really need your approval,” she said. “The more I read about the breed, I found wolves were always mentioned. I fell in love.”

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In her research, she found that the original wolf population of the lower 48 states was almost totally eradicated by the 1950s. Now, only 4 percent of their original numbers remain. The Red Wolf, a sub-species a little smaller than the ones at Wolf Howl, is native to Mississippi, and Maria said there are only 100 left in the wild.

“A lot of places in Mississippi are overrun with deer, even with a huge hunting season, because there is no larger predator to moderate them,” she said. “We’ve encroached on their space, put bounties on them. When you see a species dying so quickly, it’s a reflection on us.”

There are a few glimmers of hope. In the mid-1990’s, Yellowstone National Park introduced Canadian wolves as an experimental population to cut down on the mass amount of elks decimating the plant life.

“Predators keep the herbivores on the move, so the plant life has a chance to rejuvenate itself,” she said. “Once the wolves were introduced, those problems sorted themselves out in an amazingly short time.”

But more common are scenarios like the one playing out in North Carolina, where wolves have resorted to mating with coyotes to keep the pack’s numbers strong.

Wolf 3Maria and Don soon found a facility in nearby Indiana that housed wolves and offered tours throughout the day. As dusk rolled in, the wolves came out to play, rough-housing and tail-biting. Maria saw the hierarchy within the pack, the pecking order of the Alpha wolf, the Omega wolf, and the roles in between. But it was her hearing the pack’s howl that gave her chills.

“It’s hard to explain,” she said. “Once I heard them sing, I knew it was the song of the wild. I felt like everyone ought to be able to sit out on their porch at night and listen to it. If you’re one of the ones that can, don’t take it for granted.”

Maria obtained her first three wolves in 2005, after she and Don, moved back to Mississippi where his family is originally from. The couple were met with a slew of regulations from the Mississippi Department of Fish and Wildlife and the USDA’s animal division. The trio were five months old, brought from a pack that had escaped from an Ohio zoo, then recovered and sold. Even being young, Maria said there were tough habits to break. It was six months before she could touch even one of them and eight before the first howl was let loose.

Two years later, one of the original three fathered four pups who were born and socialized at Wolf’s Howl, which proved to be a test of its own. One wolf passed away from illness last year.

“The way you socialize a newborn to humans is pull them from the den before their eyes open and bottle feed them,” Maria said. “They nip, like puppies do, except it’s a little more intense. Had lots of clothes torn to shreds. But they care for me. Once I came in after I had cut my hand. One of them came up to me and before I knew it she had snipped my stitches with her teeth and was licking my cut.”

Weighing between 110 and 130 pounds, the six wolves are an even split: three males named Wa-Ta-Chee, Waya and Niko Akni, and three females named Woha, Chito and Ohoyo.

Over the past seven years, Maria has watched the drama of pack hierarchy unfold in front of her eyes. The position of Alpha has changed paws a few times. One serves as the distress wolf, a kind of lookout role to alert the others to an approaching stranger. The Omega is the runt of the pack, and by Maria’s observations, the most carefree and playful.

“Everything revolves around the hierarchy,” she said. “Wolves are always always always looking for opportunities to better their position.”

Maria has her own profound memories with the pack as well, and while she may not be part of it, she is certainly recognized as an ally.

“A wolf wants a belly rub just like a dog, but they only allow things on their own terms. You have to wait until they come to you,” she said. “Once, one of them was chewing on a stick and started choking on it. Of course, I stepped in to help, but I had to lay on the ground and wait for him to come over. When he was right over me, he let me reach into his mouth and take it out.”

Holidays are especially lively around Wolf’s Howl. At Halloween, they receive their own pumpkins. Come Christmas, she and Don decorate a tree with meaty ornaments and let them unwrap their own boxes of treats.

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“It’s hilarious to see them walk around with these big boxes on their heads because we hide treats and toys in the bottom of the boxes, so they have to really stick their heads in there,” she said. “Did you know wolves love ice cream? When we grill steaks, we give them the scraps. They really act like wolves over that.”

Maria and Don support the pack through item sales in their gift shop. There, t-shirts, mugs, jewelry – anything wolf-related – can be found. The wolves are fed about 20 pounds of human-grade raw meat each day. The mainstay of their diet is chicken, complemented by beef hearts, beef and chicken liver, ribs, roasts and salmon, during the non-hunting season. During hunting season, hunters donate dear carcasses.

“That’s what they truly love,” Maria said. “The hunters help us immensely with our food bills.”

Want to go?

Where: Wolf’s Howl animal preserve, Etta, Miss.
Cost: $3 per child and $5 per adult with a minimum $30 for tours.
Who: Wolf’s Howl accepts tour groups of school children, scouts, churches and other groups.
Contact: (662) 534-8112 or visit www.everythingwolf.com


Written by Riley Manning
Photographed by Marianne Todd
Story courtesy Legends magazine

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