Week 1: California Wolf Center
On Saturday, the first Saturday of the new year, my mom and I went to Julian, California, where the California Wolf Center is located.
I have an affinity for wolves and although I had given the entrance tickets to my mom for her birthday...the visit touched me on a deeper level. The entire visit was an hour-and-a-half long and was split into two parts: a Powerpoint presentation and trips to enclosures for both types of wolves onsite: the gray wolf and one of its subspecies, the Mexican gray wolf.
Many wolves at the California Wolf Center are eligible for release into the wild and are kept away from humans, for their own benefit. If they were to become too familiar with humans, they could come in too-close proximity to those of us unfamiliar with them - those of us that want them dead. The enclosures that we were allowed to come near were those containing wolves there for educational purposes; in other words, wolves too acclimatized to be released into the wild.
Wolves occupied 49 of the US's 50 states up until a few hundred years ago, when the government enacted bounty laws and started paying anyone who supplied proof of a wolf carcass acquired through any means possible - poison-bait, neck-snares, and (more contemporary) aerial gunning. Wolves have been portrayed in fables as the Big Bad Wolf: think Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Mainstream media has done little, until recently, to halt this portrayal; Disney and animation director Tex Avery each created popular versions of the BBW in the 1900s. Canadian provinces are still prone to wolf culls - if you look into it on your own, I will warn you that it is pretty devastating to see the images.
All of this contributed to the demise of the wolf in most states. In the early 1970s the US was down to 13 gray wolves, 7 of whom were unrelated. Fortunately, in 1973 the federal government began protecting them and in the 1990s wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park. Since then, the wolves have been making their ways to other western states on their own.
California, a wolfless state since 1924, saw its first wild wolf again in 2011 when a wolf from Oregon, named OR-7 or 'Journey,' migrated to Northern California looking for a mate. His electronic collar shows that he turned around, found his mate in Oregon, and came back down to California with his pack (mate + offspring). I am so happy to say that we now have two packs up near the Oregon border!
With their negative portrayal pervading stories we grew up hearing and reading, it can be difficult to imagine the true nature of wolves. So what are they really like? They are extremely intelligent, curious, and shy creatures that will do what they can to evade humans (unless acclimatized, but even then...they're shy). They are not so interested in livestock; they prefer big game, like elk, and play a huuuuge role in North American biodiversity. Without them, their competitors (coyotes) flourish, as do herds of big game that hurt the ecosystem with too much grazing. With the reintroduction of wolves, we see more greenery, more 'breathing room' for animals like foxes that tend to disappear with higher coyote populations, and more biodiversity in general.
They are one of the only animals that will care for their sick and weak.
The California Wolf Center is working with ranchers, who have a history of not liking wolves so much, to ensure their survival in California and the Southwest in general.
I highly recommend visiting the center if you live in Southern California - nothing beats interacting with these animals up close, and it does leave an emotional impact. The wolves in the enclosures came up the fence to check us out (they are okay coming up as long as the fence boundary is there) and meeting them was fascinating...a true joy.
I only covered a small amount of information, and if you want to learn more, I suggest checking out this website. There are also many books, including memoirs of individual wolves in Yellowstone and other western states, that give insight into these beautiful animals.
The California Wolf Center does offer an annual 3-day Wildlife Handling Course that involves interacting with the wolves, but it has been sold out for this year.
Some reflections: 'progressive' human activities are really the X factor in most disturbing situations, and this is no exception. The government's agenda to exterminate these creatures in the 1800s until the mid-1900s closely mirrored the genocide of their human kin, the Native Americans. It also reminded me of more contemporary culling of animals and of our own species.
The visit to the wolves washed me with the wonder of nature, once again: she has a beautiful way of acting as custodian for all forms of life. When uninterfered with and respected, she gives in abundance and guards the balance of life - birth, growing, dwindling, dying - that we have tampered with so exhaustively. Humans, too, have shown we have our place in this cycle...if we can learn not to resort to exploitation.
This past year I've felt, for the first time, broken in. I don't mean to imply that I'm jaded - although maybe I am, at this young age - but that I have in some deep place acknowledged the harsh underbelly that this world, in this age, sometimes offers us. A collection experiences in the span of 2017 deepened my realization of how painful this world can be, how unfair it can seem. I believe in higher nature, or spirit, or divine guidance, but even then, the pain we experience here is so real and things do happen that we are not ready for - and maybe would never be.
One aspect of my visit to the center deepened this recognition of the force of nature, in pain and in joy, and the grim ramifications of our tampering with her.
Another, lighter aspect was hope. This little place in a desert in the middle of nowhere (although the town of Julian is known for it's apples, especially in the form of cider) serves as a pillar of hope for an entire species on this continent, and knowing that there are humans all over the world dedicating their lives to benevolent or transcendental causes, trying to balance the darker forces of greed and hate, is soothing.