A close encounter with wolves in rural Florida

Courtesy Seacrest Wolf Preserve
Courtesy Seacrest Wolf Preserve

I’m not sure what I expected as I pulled into the gravel driveway leading me to the Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Florida’s rural panhandle. I had been promised a “hands on” wolf encounter but I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to pet one.

“So how hands on is this wolf encounter?” I asked the owner, Wayne Watkins a few days earlier on the phone.

“You can pet them, take pictures with them and we even have a kissing wolf named Forest,” he replied.

The intersection of humans and wild animals has always appealed to me but these experiences have often left me with mixed emotions. When I went on a manatees snorkel tour two years ago, I felt uneasy about joining hoards of divers who were circling manatees like a circus sideshow. At the same time getting that close to those majestic creatures increased my admiration tenfold.

But manatees are vegetarians and wolves are carnivores that could eat my face off with one swift lurch. It’s not that I fear them, it’s that I have the utmost humility for anything that has the capability of ripping me to pieces.

This humility made me think twice when I signed the release to attend the three-hour wolf tour the preserve offers for $25. NO SHORTS, NO SANDALS, NO FLIP-FLOPS OR OPEN TOED SHOES, NO TANK TOPS. NO EXCESSIVE JEWLERY FOR WOMEN the form shouted at me.

Courtesy Seacrest Wolf Preserve
Courtesy Seacrest Wolf Preserve

You are advised not to wear leather (because the wolves are particularly fond of it), and the only cameras allowed inside are the 1990s-era disposable cameras sold in the gift shop. Want to wear sunglasses into the preserve? You’re going to need a prescription. Any cell phone taken into the preserve will be confiscated, a volunteer holding a cardboard box tells us.

Why all the strict rules? Well you see, the biting capacity of a wolf is 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch. And iPhone and camera shards lodged in a wolf’s intestines equals a pricey vet bill, owner Cynthia Watkins tells us.

I’m secretly wondering how much this rule has to do with avoiding vet bills and how much it has to do with preserving my limbs.

Donning a hat that reads “Vietnam Veteran” Wayne starts the tour off with a 15-minute history lesson on the Revolutionary War. A pack of wolves howl in the distance.

I’m anticipating the wolf tie-in but it never comes.

I soon learn that Wayne’s passion for American history is no match for his love of wolves. He will spend the next three hours telling us all we have ever wanted to know about them. But first, we must break some stereotypes.

Wolves are everything that you have ever wanted to be, he says and here’s why:

Wolves are smart. They are beautiful. They are independent (unlike the 50 percent of people in this country getting tax breaks and subsidies). They are loyal (Bill Clinton and John Edwards could learn a lesson or two from wolves). They are better parents than we are (they spend time teaching their kids useful skills like killing prey).

With that said, we pass through a chain-link fence and enter the wolf den. As we sit cross-legged like preschoolers, volunteers use pieces of raw hamburger meet to lure the wolves and weave them through us.

These are not the fang-bearing beasts we learned about in fairy tales. They are docile and keen, just like your dog at home. My hand barely grazes the back of one as he walks by. Most of the participants pet enthusiastically.

Courtesy Seacrest Wolf Preserve
Courtesy Seacrest Wolf Preserve

If you are looking for an encounter with a big bad wolf, you won’t find him at Seacrest. These quasi-domesticated wolves are raised to co-exist with humans. It’s not their parents, but Cynthia and Wayne who have the authority as alpha female and male.

There are 29 wolves at the 430-acre preserve, separated by fences into their appropriate den. Cynthia and Wayne say they follow strict requirements for breeding wolves for educational purposes, which involve taking the pups from their mother when they are 10 days old and raising them in their own home for six weeks. (As alpha mamma Cynthia feeds them and is in charge of bathroom duty).

“Doesn’t that seem kind of sad to take babies away from their mom?” I ask a guy standing next to me who just shrugs.

The barrage of passionate monologues about wolves begin to feel like I’m at an evangelical camp (“Little Red Riding Hood lied,” Cynthia says at one point) When we all are instructed to join in on a group howl with the wolves I’m a bit gun shy.

But the fervor is all for good reason. There’s a controversial battle going on across the U.S. over these creatures, and Seacrest is on the front lines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to delist the grey wolf from the endangered species act in the majority of the U.S. (they have already been delisted in a handful of states). Last May, after heavy flooding, a wolf escaped from Seacrest and was shot and killed by state officials.

Wildlife conservationists fear without protection, wolf packs are going to be disrupted and driven to extinction. Ranchers in the west on the other hand fear that their livestock and profits will be destroyed if too many hungry wolves are on the prowl.

So by exposing humans to wolves, Seacrest aims to increase awareness and greater appreciation for these animals that are no doubt fascinating as hell. But I can’t help but notice traces of primal wildness that are minimized in the name of human-wolf bonding.

Like how the brat pack (three sibling wolves) had to be separated from their parents after ripping their father’s ear off in an attempt to overthrow him. (Wayne likens this to how teenagers try to over throw their parents). Or how hotwire runs along the fences so the wolf packs don’t try to tear each other to shreds. Shouldn’t we have a certain reverence for the powerful wild nature that embodies the wolf?

At the same time, I don’t know if I’d have the heart to tell the 8-year-old boy geeking out beside me that he should be more fearful. Or for the wolf-enamored volunteers to caution us against thinking wolves are cuddly house pets. Wolves already have enough enemies as it is.

 Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Chipley offers tours on Saturdays at 1 p.m. For more information, visit their website.

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