Amber flames of a controlled burn at Wolf Haven International on Wednesday crackled as they licked across the field of golden and sage-green prairie grasses.
Prescribed burns are a vital step in the restoration and management of the prairie, according to Diane Gallegos, executive director of the nonprofit organization north of Tenino.
The practice, which was used by local Native American tribes, helps keep invasive woody plants from taking over the area. Ash from the fire also will provide nutrients to prairie plants, such as camas lily.
“What’s nice is that it’s on the public path, so (next) spring, there will be an explosion of wildflowers,” Gallegos said. “It will just be incredibly beautiful.”
In recent years, the nonprofit’s nearly 50 acres of Mima Mounds prairie has taken on a bigger role as Wolf Haven’s focus has shifted to the “Haven” part of its mission, serving as a permanent home to captive-born and displaced wolves.
“The whole point of sanctuary is to be a peaceful, safe, lifetime home for them,” Gallegos said of the wolves. “So the more that we’ve learned, the more we realized we needed to change our practices.”
The story of the nonprofit and many of its furry, shy and carnivorous residents is chronicled in a new book, “Wolf Haven: Sanctuary and the Future of Wolves in North America,” by photographer Annie Marie Musselman and writer Brenda Peterson, both of Seattle. The book is published by Sasquatch Books and will be available at Wolf Haven’s gift shop and online in a few weeks, Gallegos said.
“It’s an amazing book where you get to see the best that we can do as humans, I think, for an exquisite wild creature who has not been allowed to be wild,” said longtime Wolf Haven supporter Tracey Conway of Seattle. “You feel sort of inside the pen, where you can’t be.”
A change in focus
About a year ago, Wolf Haven became the first wolf sanctuary to meet the rigorous standards of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and become accredited.
As part of the process, Wolf Haven’s staff decided to cut operating hours and significantly reduce the number of people allowed in the sanctuary — a big change for the nonprofit that once attracted tourists with campouts and howl-ins.
Reservations are now required, and a maximum of 20 people are allowed in the sanctuary at a time. During a recent visit, just eight of the 52 animals at Wolf Haven were in enclosures that could be seen by the public.
Wendy Spencer, director of animal care, told visitors about where each of the animals came from, and why people couldn’t successfully keep them as pets.
“Wolves are genetically hard-wired differently,” she said.
Wolf Haven was established as a nonprofit in 1982 and has rescued and provided sanctuary to more than 200 wolves who were born in captivity.
“Once they’re here, they never leave, and we bury them on the property,” Gallegos said.
Some of its animals will probably never interact with the public because it would cause them too much stress, Spencer said. Wolf Haven’s newest resident is Sierra, an 18-month-old North American gray wolf believed to have escaped from a breeder in California. She remains out of the public view.
“Originally, she was picked up as a stray in Hollywood Hills,” Spencer said.
Spencer has worked at Wolf Haven for about 18 years. She said they used to host major events throughout the year including — she shudders as she talks about it — a poker run that brought hundreds of motorcycles onto the property.
“When I first started, we were considered a tourist attraction, almost like a roadside attraction, and I think that was the perception in the community,” Spencer said. “But we were perpetuating that. … We called ourselves a sanctuary, but we weren’t embodying the values of what it means to be a sanctuary.”
But times have changed. Scientists know a lot more about wolves than they did a few decades ago.
During its peak, an average of 12,000 to 18,000 people visited the sanctuary each year, Gallegos said. Now, with the new restrictions, about 10,000 people a year walk through the gates.
“For the most part, I would say the community response has been extremely positive just because the general public, for the most part, understands,” Gallegos said. “They appreciate that the animals come first.”
Supporter Tracey Conway said she appreciates the changes at Wolf Haven because they’re in the animals’ best interest. She said she enjoys the peacefulness of the sanctuary.
“This is not a sad place,” Conway said. “This is a place of reverence and science and celebration, and so I love that.”
Her favorite resident is 6-year-old Shadow, who was bought by two teenage boys for $2,500, and moved to several homes before arriving at Wolf Haven. The energetic gray-black wolf who “always has to have the last howl,” according to Spencer, is Peterson’s favorite wolf, too.
“They raised him in an apartment, and he of course was not a dog, he was a wolf, so when he got more wolf-like, they didn’t know how to handle him and so they beat him and they broke his tail and they punched him in the face,” Peterson said. “You can’t have a wild wolf as a pet. It’s totally a violation of their nature.”
Shadow tends to interact more with humans than any of the other critters at Wolf Haven.
“The fact that he even comes here and looks at us, to me is an act of forgiveness and generosity,” Peterson said.
An important role
In addition to the sanctuary work, Wolf Haven participates in two federally managed captive breeding programs for the endangered Mexican and red wolves. Its staff is also involved in state and federal policy work involving the North American gray wolf, which has returned to the northeast portion of Washington state.
“We think that it’s really important to have all of the different interests at the table to be able to work on creative solutions when there are issues with wolves and livestock,” Gallegos said.
In addition, the organization has boosted its offerings at its educational center and hosts programs that highlight its prairies.
“We actually encourage (visitors) to take the walk through our beautiful prairie and learn about how important prairie species and prairie soils are,” Gallegos said.
Wolf Haven also offers wildflower photography tours, she said.
The nonprofit was prepared to take a financial hit when it cut the number of visitors, Gallegos said. But it has been able to ride that out, thanks to many of its longtime supporters.
About 93 percent of Wolf Haven’s budget is made up of private and in-kind donations, Gallegos said.
“It’s very grass roots; it’s kids doing lemonade fundraisers or a Girls Scout troop donating their cookie sales to us,” she said.
With less time focused on big events and visitors, Wolf Haven staff members have been able to work on other efforts around the sanctuary, too.
“We’re making a lot of improvements in the sanctuary for the animals,” Gallegos said.
For example, some of the sanctuary’s enclosures were recently connected to give the animals more space, she said.
Eventually, Wolf Haven staff would like to have a facility built that would allow people to watch the wolves behind a piece of glass, so that none of the animals would have to deal with the stress of public visits, Spencer said.
They’re also taking advantage of technology and using video cameras in the enclosures, which allow people to observe the wolves on a screen in the gift shop or at home on their computers using social media.
They hope their educational efforts will someday help put an end to the underground and highly lucrative market of pet wolves.
“Our ultimate goal would be to not have to have a sanctuary,” Gallegos said. “We would be so happy if these animals didn’t have to be here.”
Schedule a visit
Wolf Haven International, 3111 Offut Lake Road SE, Tenino, offers 50-minute guided visits through the public portion of the wolf sanctuary by reservation on Saturdays and Sundays after Oct. 1. A self-guided prairie walk is optional. Some wolves may stay in the back of their enclosure and not be visible during a visit. The sanctuary closes during severe wind, rain and snowstorms.
Admission is $8 for children and $12 adults; discounts are offered for seniors, military and AAA members.
To book at visit, call 800-448-9653 ext. 220 or go to wolfhaven.org.