How I Pledged Myself to a Wolf

And gained the freedom to be me

The local paper was open to the classifieds on my lap as I sat in the lotus position on a round Papasan chair, the kind so popular among college students. I wasn’t actually looking for anything, considering that my life in Tucson was coming to an end, but I’d scanned the rest of the paper and just ended up in the classifieds out of habit. Within the next ten days, I would graduate from the University of Arizona, get into my ’74 pea soup-green GMC pickup and drive ten hours due north to begin a different life in Telluride, Colorado, so I didn’t need any more possessions to burden myself with. But as I started to turn the page, one of the ads caught my eye:

Wolf Pups for sale. 5th litter. $200 ea.
Must provide references. Sabino Canyon. Call XXX-XXXX.

“Jim!” I said to my housemate across the room. “I think Jere had more wolf pups! Wanna go see them?”

Jim had raised a wolf, and I guessed that this was the same breeder he’d gotten his from. How many wolf breeders could there be in Sabino Canyon?

I read him the phone number.

“Yup, that’s Jere,” he said. “Wow. So the fifth litter? Isa was from the third litter. I didn’t know there was one in between. Yeah, let’s go!”

Jim’s wolf, Isa, had been a wanderer, a beautiful spirit who had a hard time living in the city, even as relatively mellow a city as Tucson. One day the previous September, she was running alone on one of her regular forays through the arroyos while Jim was at work and she was killed by a car while crossing a six-lane road. Jim had raised Isa for two years since she was a cub, and the loss was devastating to him. He was still in mourning these four months later.

I’d loved Isa, too. When Jim had spent a month in Alaska two summers before, I looked after her. I was living in Telluride at the time, waiting tables at a restaurant and sleeping in my tent in the national forest above town to save money to travel and study in France. I mostly let Isa go free, and she mostly stuck near me. When I wasn’t working, I was doing something that Isa wanted to come along for, like hiking or biking up mountains. When she ran off on her own, though, she was prone to encountering porcupines and getting a face full of quills, which I had to learn to pull out because I couldn’t afford a veterinarian, not to mention that owning a wolf is illegal in Colorado and I wasn’t sure how I’d explain the situation. All in all, Isa was an exhausting amount of responsibility, and I was happy to hand her over to Jim when he came back.

Isa’s death had made it very clear to both of us how hard it is on a wild animal to live in domesticity, even a bohemian outdoorsy type of domesticity. It’s just not fair to the animal.

When we got to Jere’s house, she ushered us to a backyard enclosed by a seven-foot chain-link fence. As we sat on the rocky soil in front of an oversize doghouse, an enormous wolf came up to greet us.

“This is the father, Alf, as in alpha,” Jere said. “The mama, Nikita, and the pups are inside. Take a look — they’re nursing!”

I peered inside at the tiny, seven-day-old animals clambering over each other in an olfactory-driven search for an empty nipple. Wolves’ eyes and ears open sometime between two and three weeks of age, like with all canines.

The father sat on his haunches just two feet away, watching our every move. He was seventy-eight percent Minnesota timber wolf, mixed with some Siberian husky and German shepherd, and Jere had raised both him and the mother, who was one hundred percent timber wolf. Only mildly cautious with the wolves, Jere stuck her hand into the den and pulled out a couple of pups at a time and set them on the ground in front of us. Alf’s attention never wavered, but he also never became aggressive, and I trusted that as long as Jere was there Jim and I would be safe.

I studied the pups’ little black noses and the milky covering on their eyes that resembled cataracts. Their midsections were so round and bloated from their just-finished meal of mother’s milk that they looked more like hamsters than wolves. One was pure black, and the others were varying shades of gray flecked with black, white, or auburn and often with a black tip on their tails. They all had unique physical characteristics, and I thought I could already sense their unique personalities.

Lost in reverie — it was hard to believe I was actually touching week-old wolf pups — I was visualizing what they would grow up to be when Jere jarred me out of my dream state.

“Would you like to hold one?” she asked as she held one toward me in her palm.

I smiled. “Sure.” I took the pup with both hands and held it like Jere had, but I soon handed it back because Alf’s close proximity and careful attention were making me uncomfortable.

“Why don’t you go over there and sit down with him?” Jere said, gesturing toward the chaise lounges by the pool. “You’ll really feel what it’s like to hold one if you aren’t half-lying on the ground and nervous about the den.”

I wanted to hold a different one, though. Something had captivated me about the one with subtle patches of auburn in his coat. When Jere had pulled him from the den and put him on display, he seemed content to be where he was, and I sensed a gentle strength and peace emanating from him.

“I’d rather hold that one,” I said, pointing.

Jere smiled. “Are you sure? Can you tell the differences between them? He’s not as big, I guess.” She reached for him and handed him to me.

I found myself wrapping my forearms around the pup’s two-pound body in a protective embrace. “They’re all beautiful. I didn’t notice much size difference, actually, but there’s just something about this one that I liked from the moment I saw him.” I carried him to the chaise lounge, where we cuddled while Jim and Jere played with the other pups. Alf cast me an occasional glance, but he stayed put, concentrating on the activity closer at hand.

Within minutes, a previously unknown place in the center of my body began to pulse. The spot was a hand’s width above my bellybutton, and it felt warm, like how fresh blood from a wound can be surprisingly warm to the touch. The sensation spread through my body until I found myself inhaling a deep breath and smiling involuntarily. I’d never felt anything like it before. Is this love? I thought I’d loved before, but this is bigger… Amazing.

I became frightened of the intensity of my emotions, and from out of nowhere a voice spoke up.

Kit, you’d better stand up and go give this animal back to Jere. You’re about to graduate from college and move to Telluride. You have only a few hundred dollars to your name and you want to travel around the world.
You have no business holding this wolf.

Guided by the voice, I stood up and began walking back toward the den with the wolf in my arms, and Jere met me halfway.

“I’ve never done this before and I’ll never do it again, since this is the last litter I’ll let these animals have,” she said. “I can see you’re very connected already. If you want to take him home to live with you, you can come back and get him in a week when he’s fourteen days old.”

She’d broken whatever spell I’d been under. The voice had been silenced.

Jere went on. “I say fourteen days because with the fourth litter, the mom developed mastitis and we discovered it when the pups were fourteen days old. They couldn’t nurse, so I consulted a breeder of large canines and a vet and came up with a formula that I mixed by hand and fed them myself. And the socialization of those pups was incredible.” She smiled at the obviously fond memory. “I couldn’t bring myself to sell them. I gave one to my son and I kept one. You’re the only other person I’ll ever offer this to, but like I said, I see you have a special connection already.”

In the absence of the voice, the truth flowed from me before I could consider the words.

“I’ll never live anywhere that a wolf doesn’t want to live.”

Jere smiled and waited, seeming to know I had more to say.

“I promise I will do everything I can so that he doesn’t die for being a wolf in a human’s world.” I fought back tears and brought the pup up to my lips to kiss the fur of his neck. He nuzzled his head into the nape of my own neck, and the sensation of being fur-to-skin with this beautiful creature was earth-moving.

We walked to the den and Jere put him back in with his mother, Nikita, and the rest of the litter.

On the way inside the house, Jere told me she’d get me the recipe for feeding the pup by next week, and Jim looked questioningly at both of us. I shrugged, barely believing it myself. Did I really just say I’d love and care for a wolf for the rest of his life? I only have $250 to my name — what am I doing taking on a dependent?

“I’m thinking of bringing one home with me next week after finals,” I said to Jim.

“I told Kit she could take one home at two weeks old and wean him from his mother,” Jere said. “I had the most amazing experience doing that with the two pups of the last litter. Like you know, wolves have their social hierarchy established by the time they’re three to four weeks old, so I think it’s the best way possible if they’re going to live with humans…I trust her.”

Jim was my roommate, my best friend, and my sometime lover. He’d seen me care for Isa and care for him during his grief. He knew I hadn’t had the slightest intention of bringing a wolf home with me today. He knew I didn’t have the money to buy a wolf. And he also knew what boundless love of all things wild lay ahead for me if I chose to live with a wolf. He laughed like he always did when he loved an idea.

“Right on! I’ll buy him for you, Kit.”

I spent the next week in a daze, going through the motions of taking my exams like a puppet in a play. All I could concentrate on was moving to the mountains with my wolf. Luckily, I’d prepared well throughout the semester, and my finals didn’t spring any surprises on me, so that step of my journey was an easy one.

When December 20 arrived, Jim drove me to Jere’s house and paid her $200 in cash. She wrote a receipt on a green-lined sheet of paper torn out of a 6-by-8 spiral notebook: “Paid $200 cash for one black and white male wolf cub born on Dec. 6th 1991.” It was really happening — I was adopting a wolf. I had his birth certificate in my hand.

Then she wrote the feeding formula on another sheet of paper and handed it to me: one jar beef baby food, one can condensed milk, a cup of plain whole-milk yogurt, and an egg yolk.

“Are you ready?” she asked with a serious smile.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

When we went to the den, the same story played out, with Alf walking out from his spot under the paloverde trees and settling onto his haunches a few feet from the den. Jere reached in and pulled the wolf pup out and handed him to me. Feeling like a first-time mother, I wrapped my arms around him and cried over the enormity of it all.

As I sat in the passenger seat on the ride home, the tears turned to sobs of sadness for having taken him from his family, sadness that he couldn’t be a wild wolf, sadness that people actually breed these animals for a life in captivity. But then came the tears of love, the tears for the commitment I’d made to care for him the way I’d want to be cared for if the tables were turned.

Back home, I dove into my new role with complete dedication. My first task was to find something to wear that the pup could snuggle into for the next three weeks until he could generate his own body heat. From my closet I picked an old, gray wool sweater with the image of a cabin with smoke curling from its chimney stitched into the front. The weave was a little loose, and the collar was stretched out — perfect. I pulled it on, put the pup inside and held a bent arm against the sweater to give him something to sit on.

Then it was time to feed him. I put the formula ingredients in the blender, and when they reached a good consistency, I poured the mixture into a bottle designed for kid goats that I picked up at a feed store. I heated it over a pot of water on the stove until it was wrist temperature and then settled into the Papasan chair and pulled him out of the sweater. Instinctively, he reached for the bottle and suckled the warm formula until he’d had enough. When he was done, I put him on my thigh, stomach down and facing away from me, and gently stroked his back in the direction of his head until he burped. His mother wouldn’t have needed to burp him in the wild, of course, but he wouldn’t have sucked from a bottle filled with air bubbles in the wild either.

Almost immediately, I discovered his need to urinate after a feeding and rushed him outside. The tricky part was, his legs couldn’t support his body weight yet, so I held him upright until he was done. Back inside, I turned him onto his back to clean him with a baby wipe. Again, not something his mother would have done, but I wasn’t into her way of cleaning him.

And then came the precious hour and a half before I had to start the process all over again. I set up a sleeping bag on the floor of the living room, next to the door so we could get outside quickly when he started to pee, and we cuddled and napped together. I was tired as I got up to feed him every two hours throughout the night, but I loved every minute of it, and Jim helped as much as I’d let him.

The next day I would attend my commencement ceremony, but it was clear that my new life had already commenced.

Two days later, the pup opened his eyes and began exploring his surroundings with newly sturdy legs and the curiosity of a toddler. He explored me, too, crawling up my body inside our sweater, popping out the neck and clawing his way up my long hair to sit on top of my head — five feet and nine inches off the ground and fearless. He seemed to know he belonged in high places, and I named him Alta, Spanish for high.

Fortunately, where we were bound was a high place. The next day — Alta’s seventeenth day — I packed up and moved us to Telluride, elevation 8,750 feet. I didn’t have any money to rent a room, so I parked my truck at the base of the ski resort and set up camp in the back.

At night I would run a power cord from a small ceramic space heater in my uninsulated aluminum camper shell to the nearby condominium building where my parents happened to work as part-time managers to offset their rent. Alta and I slept together in a sleeping bag on the plywood bed I’d made in the back of the truck.

In the morning, I’d use the blender in my parents’ kitchen to make Alta’s toddler meal of formula mixed with ground-up dry kibble and set down his food bowl on the easy-to-clean linoleum floor. Once he’d finished and we’d gone outside so he could do his business, we would always play, which consisted of a mix of learning about snow, stopping to smell anything interesting we encountered on a walk, and chasing each other. Alta would tire quickly, so around nine I’d put him down for a nap in the closet that my parents let me use and I’d go skiing for an hour or two. When I’d come back at eleven, I’d feed him again, play with him some more, and put him back down for a nap while I went to wait tables at Eddie’s Pizzeria for the lunch crowd. It was a good thing that my parents were at their office jobs at the time, because I’d often come back to the condo at two-thirty to find Alta chewing on the corner of the carpet or pulling a lamp off a table by its cord.

As the weeks passed, it became obvious that the arrangement couldn’t last. My parents grew increasingly unhappy about my leaving Alta at the condo, and justifiably so, since dogs were prohibited there. And even though it was only play, Alta’s needle-sharp milk teeth had begun to leave puncture marks on my hands, which were hard to hide while waiting tables.

I didn’t know what to do with myself, my freedom, or my wolf, and I worried that I was losing control over Alta’s upbringing. I needed to steer his behavior so that he wouldn’t be killed for being a wolf in a human’s world, but I could see that steering him in any way was going to be a challenge. I’d tried to discipline him, but a firm “no” was rarely enough. At the end of January, I took a week off work and went back to Tucson to visit Jim and see if he could help me train my footlong baby who sometimes seemed to be all teeth.

As a graduation gift, Jim had bought me the book Of Wolves and Men, by Barry Lopez, and I’d studied it intently. In it, Lopez tells many stories about the wolf through the eyes of biologists, Native Americans, Alaskan trappers, and observers, and what I took most to heart was the concept threaded through all of them: The wolf is a social animal and depends on cooperation for its survival. The social structure of a wolf pack is dynamic, and the term alpha is a bit misleading because during times of travel or breeding or hunting or play, the subordinate members of the pack may occasionally take the lead. Regardless, the designation of alpha is earned by displaying superior physical prowess or by being socially savvy and forging alliances in the group. In other words, the alpha is the one in the best position to protect the others, and I realized that was exactly what Alta needed from me — I would have to teach myself how to be dominant over a wolf.

When we got back to Tucson, Jim confirmed it for me. “Remember, Kit, wolves are establishing the hierarchy in their pack right about now, and you have to teach him that you’re alpha.”

“But how?”

“You have to be able to take food away from him. In a pack, a wolf only gets to eat when the alpha lets him eat. So put a bone in front of him, and when he starts eating it, take it away.”

Though this sounded logical, it also sounded a little scary, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice. So I bought a meaty bone at the grocery store and headed out to the small fenced yard of Jim’s new home with Alta following closely and sniffing away. In the shade of the acacia trees lining the yard, I gave Alta the bone.

By now he was seven weeks old and had been weaned, and his meals consisted of dry kibble with some blocks of frozen lamb and rice dog food mixed in because I thought he needed to have meat in his life. I’d never thought about taking Alta’s food away from him before and it made me nervous. What if I can’t do it?

Jim stood watch a few yards away, and while Alta was lost in concentration on the bone, I took a step forward and reached my hand in to grab it. In a flash, his mouth curled back to reveal his puppy teeth and he bit me. With a gasp, I instinctively released my grip on the bone and recoiled in pain and shock. All my previous marks from his sharp teeth had been delivered in play, but this time was different.

I’d failed.

“You have to believe you can do it,” Jim said. “Try again.”

I tried again. And again and again. Sometimes I moved fast, sometimes slowly, and sometimes I sneaked up on Alta from behind, but the result was always the same: He’d snap at me and I couldn’t do it. After ten tries, I turned away from Alta and cried.

“Don’t break down in front of him,” Jim said. “You can’t show him that he’s won. Let’s go inside.”

In the kitchen I sobbed into Jim’s embrace. “I suck! I can’t believe I can’t do this! Now what’s going to happen to us?”

“You can do this, Kit. You have to. Just take a break and you can try again later.”

Between our alpha-training sessions, Alta bore no animosity toward me for trying to take away his bone and acted as if I shouldn’t bear him any for biting me. While Jim was at class, Alta and I played and cuddled like usual, and then when Jim got home it was time to try again.

Knowing what was at stake, I’d stand in the doorway and take several deep breaths. I knew the pain of what lay ahead if I didn’t get this right. And that was on top of the pain I was in right now — the heart that had opened so completely to this animal was hurting from the rejection. How could he do this to me? What if I can’t ever learn to be alpha?

But eventually, a shift occurred. When I became stronger in my resolve, telling myself, “Dammit, this is the way it is — I can do this,” Alta would let me have the bone. He’d stare up at me as if to ask, “What’s next, Mom?” Somehow I’d turned the tide. I’d succeeded.

And then Jim informed me that I wasn’t quite there yet.

“Now let’s do it with a real piece of meat,” he said.

What?! You mean that wasn’t good enough?
That took me three days of hard, scary work.

But instead of arguing, I just rolled with it. I’d come all the way back to Arizona to ask for Jim’s help and there was no sense in doubting him, so we went to the grocery store and picked out a big juicy T-bone.

Back in the yard, it was as if my success with the bones had never happened. When I tried to take the steak away, Alta bit me hard. Maybe the taste of flesh pushed him over the top or maybe I’d just lost my conviction, but whatever the case, my future flashed in front of my eyes. If I can’t consistently do this, then I’ll be no better than the people who lock their wolf-dogs up and leave them alone in a house or a yard because they aren’t socialized and their owners are scared of them. I swore I’d give him the best life possible, and if I fail at this, then I’ve failed at that.

I stomped into the house for a break, and during that cooling-off period I realized I felt a little differently about this latest failed attempt. I understood that this exercise wasn’t a personal exchange between us. It was intrapersonal, not interpersonal. It was about what was going on inside us as individuals, not how we were relating to each other. Alta was driven by instinct, and I had to cultivate the same kind of strong instinct in myself, focusing every bit of my being into the task at hand without a hint of “What if?” anywhere in my energetic bubble. And that’s what I did.

When I went back outside, Alta was halfway through the raw T-bone and barely lifted his eyes to me. Drawing on every cell in my body, mind and spirit, I had to stifle the urge to growl with the ferocity I was feeling as I reached in and grabbed the steak. Alta simply pulled back and looked at me.

Jim clapped. “Yes!”

For the next few days, I practiced this ritual without a trace of doubt in myself. I scanned my being, and if I sensed any distractions, I turned away from the scene and focused on eliminating them before taking the steak from Alta. I envisioned myself succeeding with complete commitment. After all, Alta’s life — and the life I wanted for myself — depended on it. And I never failed again.

Meanwhile, Jim threw himself into his role as Jedi trainer. During a hike in the desert outside Tucson, I wanted to protect Alta from a patch of jumping cholla cactuses that were off the trail, but Jim held me back.

“Let him get stuck, Kit. He has to learn himself. You can’t always be there for him.”

My first reaction was small-picture: Oh yeah? Once we go back to the mountains, he’ll never have to worry about jumping cholla again. But then I realized that Jim was speaking in a broader sense and that he was right. Alta was occupying the human world, and he needed my help in realizing his innate independence.

“Aarrgghh, aarrgghh, aarrgghh!” came Alta’s cries of pain when the cholla needles inevitably became stuck in his belly. While it hurt to hear him squeal like that, it also warmed my heart that he came running to me for help. I opened the pliers on my multitool, a must for desert hiking, and carefully removed the cactus spines. As we finished our hike, Alta didn’t stray from the trail again.

My alpha training would never be entirely over. If I were ever to think I mastered it, that would mean I’d become complacent, and that could bring serious consequences. But we’d achieved the cooperative social dynamic that wolves rely on for their very survival. By the time we went back to Telluride, I’d learned that I can and will fulfill any commitment I make. There was no doubt in my mind that I would succeed in allowing Alta to lead a wolf’s life even though he lived in a human’s world.

Kit is the author of Higher Love: Skiing the Seven Summits, published by Archer on February 10, 2015.

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