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When owners give up, wolf rescue group steps in

Oct 15, 2012 01:04PM ● By Stacy

Wanagi ambassador Hokshila stands more than 6 feet tall on his hind legs.

Wild About Wolves

They’re beautiful and exotic, but not meant to be pets

 When owners give up, Wanagi steps in

By Sue Isley

Photos by Bart Herbstman and Sue Isley

A century ago, people in the mountains east of Albuquerque were being watched from the forests. Anglo and Hispanic settlers found those peering eyes from shadowy figures frightening; Native Americans found the experience rewarding, even sacred.

Today those figures still exist, just a short drive down an unpaved road near Tijeras. Modern mankind’s perception of the wolf has taken an ironic twist on Stephanie Kaylan’s property – she has many beloved four-legged friends that she now calls family. But if her mission ever comes to complete fruition, wolves and wolf-dogs will no longer live with her. Until that day comes, the “wolf whisperer” keeps pushing her message: wolves in the wild should not be feared, nor should they be bred with domesticated dogs or owned as pets.

Kaylan is founder and president of Wanagi Wolf Fund & Rescue, established in 1994 and registered as a non-profit 501(c)3 organization. Wanagi is zoned to provide a safe haven for rescued wolves and wolf-dogs. The refuge is named after one of her beloved canines that died of lymphoma before his 7th birthday. In the Lakota language, Wanagi means, “the one who guards and protects the spirits of those who have passed onward.”  Kaylan wanted her canine to live on in name and spirit by providing a refuge for wolves and wolf-dogs in need of protection. Since Wanagi’s inception, Kaylan has provided direct care for more than two dozen canines. But she has also helped place hundreds of other abused or neglected animals into loving and responsible homes with the help of a vast nationwide network.

“That is how rescue works,” she says, “Sometimes, all we need are names and phone numbers, then the magic happens.”

For Kaylan, the magic first happened 18 years ago when she was entrusted with the permanent care of two high-content wolf-dogs by a woman who ran Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary near Ramah, NM, (formerly known as Candy Kitchen Rescue Ranch). Word got out, and she quickly became part of the network, receiving calls when canines needed new homes.

Leader of the Pack

Anyone who knows Kaylan must also know of Wanagi. Outside of her paying job as a music teacher and performer, the two are inseparable.

“I do the work of five people, by myself,” Kaylan says. She wouldn’t have it any other way. Although she oversees a core of 12 regular volunteers and still others who provide occasional services, Kaylan insists that she perform all the daily-care activities and responsibilities herself. This arrangement provides her with the much-needed “private time” with each of her animals. Wanagi is her life’s passion, and since much of her work focuses on socialization, it is imperative that she sends the animals the unequivocal message that she is the alpha presence, the pack leader.  “In pack mentality, which occurs in every aspect of their lives, not everyone is meant to be the leader,” she says. “In a wolf pack, everyone takes on a different job. I am their pack leader because they live in my world. It is my responsibility.”

At the heart of successfully caring for any canine is socialization and understanding how the canine mind works.  Like “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan, Kaylan seems to have the ability to “get inside” the minds of her canines. While some experts say captive wolves and wolf-dogs can be unsettlingly anxious, shy and unpredictable, Kaylan’s canines often surprise visitors with their friendliness and appropriate behavior.

She says that teaching them to live successfully with humans is similar to teaching a child in that they learn better when the learning processes are embedded in games. But don’t misunderstand, Kaylan insists: canines are not simply “children with fur.” Wolves, wolf-dogs and domesticated dogs, regardless of size or breed, have the same basic “chip” in their brains, Kaylan maintains. As is the case with domesticated dogs, wolves and wolf-dogs that are bred and raised in captivity, all need to be socialized by humans.  They need to learn to live in the human world; they need to learn what their humans' expectations are of them and how to behave appropriately.  But there are no real differences in how captive wolves and wolf-dogs and domesticated dogs should be treated, other than recognizing individual personalities.  Interviews with professionals who work daily with canines generally agree.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

Unfortunately, people who breed wolves and wolf-dogs rarely socialize them, either because they don't know how or don't want to take the time to do so. Since these animals tend to be larger and stronger than many breeds of domesticated canines, untrained wolves and wolf-dogs can more easily destroy property and even become a threat to humans.

“These animals need to trust and respect their human owners as pack leaders,” says Kaylan. “All canines' brains tell them to move forward. They need purpose, direction and stimulation. And, they need to be taken for regular walks, not only for exercise, but also for necessary brain stimulation and socialization. Simply running around in the backyard all day isn't going to cut it.  People need to step up to the plate and take responsibility.”

Whether wolves and wolf-dogs are treated more abusively by their human owners is anybody’s guess. “Most people who own wolves and wolf-dogs are nice people,” Kaylan says. “Many just don’t know how to socialize their animals correctly.”

Others who work with wolves and wolf dogs agree. Biologists at Wolf Park, a non-profit research and educational facility located in Battle Ground, IN, have studied captive wolves and wolf-dogs for some four decades. They say many who seek to own these animals don’t know how to care for them physically and psychologically, so the safety of people around the animals is often jeopardized.

According to Kaylan, some animal shelters view wolves and wolf-dogs as exotic animals, and therefore, they are among the first to be euthanized. Wolf Park experts and at least one local veterinarian say this may be true because surrendered wolves and wolf-dogs more typically exhibit unmanageable behaviors, so are more difficult to place.

Does this make animal shelters less likely to accept wolves and wolf-dogs? Kaylan believes it happens occasionally. On a local level, Albuquerque Humane Society’s Desiree Cawley says that they try to save every animal regardless of its breed, although the society has never had occasion to take in a wolf or wolf-dog.

The nature vs. nurture debate goes beyond just wolves and wolf-dogs. Some communities are banning ownership of the American Staffordshire Terrier (a.k.a., pit bull) for its real or imagined aggressive and unpredictable behavior. Consequently, some vets are refusing to treat the breed. No vets with this attitude toward pit bulls could be found in the Albuquerque area, but Dr. Susan Dicks says she’s heard of some in her profession who have refused to treat wolf-dogs. Although she’s treated many different canines – wolves, dogs and mixtures of the two – Dicks and many of her colleagues discourage people from keeping wolves and wolf-dogs as pets, as they can often be skittish and unpredictable. This observation is consistent with those found by experts at Wolf Park.

Talk, Teach & Touch

In addition to providing around-the-clock care for the animals who live at Wanagi and helping to find permanent homes for others, another principle objective is educating the public about them. Kaylan accomplishes this through participating in a variety of different venues with her “Wanagi Wolf Ambassadors.” From Albuquerque’s Open Space Visitor's Center, to schools and Boy & Girl Scouts' meetings, as well as annual events like Fetch-apalooza and Doggie Dash & Dawdle, Kaylan and her crew allow people to “meet and greet” a real live wolf and wolf-dog. Kaylan is eager to teach anyone who will listen, especially children. Many are invited to participate in hands-on experiences that usually end with genuine wolf-kisses from the gigantic Hokshila. Kids reciprocate with their own hugs and kisses for the big, but not-so “bad wolf.”

Regardless of the venue, Kaylan's primary message remains consistent: to stop the breeding of wolves and wolf-dogs aspets. Such breeding is currently illegal in only 11 states, according to Kaylan. Elsewhere, including New Mexico, laws vary by county. To help stop the captive breeding of wolves and wolf-dogs, people interested in adopting these animals should avoid going to breeders (which are similar to puppy mills in many respects), and instead consider adopting from reputable rescue organizations that work with socializing these animals, and teaching people what to expect when taking one of them into their homes and families. 

Reputable rescue organizations ensure that the animals have been spayed or neutered prior to adoption. Kaylan adheres to this principle and urges all canine-owners to do the same. This practice eliminates the possibility of cancers or other health problems in the reproductive organs and makes the animals more manageable – in Kaylan’s words – allowing them to “truly be who they are.” Since no-cost or low-cost services are available in almost every U.S. county, there is no reason for canine-owners not to take advantage of these options.

It takes some $15,000 a year to operate Wanagi Wolf Rescue. And there are “extra” costs for some of the animals that require special diets, supplements and medications. Costs for shelters, tools, lighting and heated water containers (during winter) add up as well. In years past, Kaylan has used some of her music teacher income to help cover operating costs. Currently, most of the operational costs are covered by donations. But she still takes no compensation for the time and energy she spends maintaining the property and facilities. 

Meet the Family

Some of Kaylan’s animals are available for adoption; others, she considers permanent “family.”  Those ineligible for adoption typically have special needs or behaviors and they will, thus, spend the rest of their lives at Wanagi.  Kaylan reports that, of those animals with which she has come into direct contact over the years, about half of the animals have been adopted by “humans who must first learn to understand the animal.” Fortunately, of those she has adopted out, none have ever been returned to her.

Wanagi’s current roster includes animals of all ages, mixes and dispositions. Most have unusual names, including some based on Native American languages, Spanish and even Sanskrit.  When asked how she chooses names for her animals, Kaylan explains, “they name themselves” based upon how they present themselves to her.

Hokshila, whose name means “a young man who has proven himself” (in Lakota), truly lives up to his name.  He is Wanagi's wolf ambassador, and as such, participates in all public events. At nearly 11 years of age, Hokshila is a magnificent male timber wolf who stands more than six feet tall on his hind legs. Upon meeting Hokshila for the first time, the most commonly expressed sentiment from human observers is:  “My gosh!  He is so big!”  As Kaylan tells the story, years ago a “very kind man” saved Hokshila from certain death and then drove more than 10 hours to personally deliver the young wolf from Oklahoma to New Mexico. A favorite with the children, Hokshila offers free kisses to kids of all ages.  He is truly a “lovable, gentle giant who takes your breath away.”

Bindi is a 4-year-old gray wolf/coyote/Husky mix and serves as Wanagi's wolf-dog ambassador.  His name, in Sanskrit, means “the one-pointed energy of God.” Like Hokshila, Bindi participates in all of Wanagi's public events and presentations. Long and lean, Bindi's physical appearance bears witness to his bloodlines. He is a favorite of many Wanagi volunteers and audience members, and often enjoys countless tummy-rubs during public outings.  

Prema, who is Hokshila's “pen-mate,” is a young gray wolf/Husky mix. The two-year-old came to Wanagi after Kaylan was contacted by the Humane Society in Gallup. During her time at Wanagi, Prema has become a healthy, robust wolf-dog who provides wonderful companionship for Hokshila. She’s becoming much more outgoing and friendly toward visitors. Her name means "love" in Sanskrit.

Liberty is an alpha male Malamute/gray wolf that was born on Sept. 11, 2000.  His “people” were repeat animal-abuse offenders who starved and beat him. Despite all his hardships, he is trusting, balanced and loving. Suffering from lupus, Liberty benefitted from daily doses of the B-vitamin Niacinamide. Liberty is also a cancer survivor. Several years ago, Kaylan noticed a ping-pong ball sized nerve-sheath tumor on one of his front legs. The tumor was surgically removed and Liberty received chemotherapy. Although he’s cancer-free today, other health issues have arisen, including severe lower back pain (the result of his having been beaten) and possible renal failure.

Dadyoe, whose name in Iroquois means “the wolf travels around the earth,” is a New Mexican Gray Wolf. Unlike the other Wanagi canines who were born in captivity, Daydoe was born in the wild, but taken by hunters from the Gila Wilderness when still a young pup.  Dadyoe can never be returned to the wild because he would continue to look to humans for food and companionship. He was initially adopted by a family that did not know he was a wild animal, and they were unable to manage his behaviors. According to Kaylan, “his saving grace was that children were allowed to play with him and he learned that the energy of children can be trusted.”  Dadyoe is now almost five years old. Since adopting him, Kaylan has been working diligently to help him become better socialized. 

Shunka & Shadow are father-daughter pen-mates who were rescued by Wanagi on Dec. 26, 2010.  Shunka is a beautiful white Canadian Tundra Wolf, while his daughter, Shadow, is a Canadian Tundra Wolf/gray wolf mix. They were rescued from Colorado when their human owner decided she could no longer care for them. Kaylan learned of the two animals shortly after she had sustained a bite from a dangerous brown recluse spider. Following treatment, she drove more than four hours each way to rescue the pair.  Shunka is now 7; Shadow, 2 ½.

Kola & Wihopa are a brother-sister duo and, like Liberty, are Malamute/gray wolf mixes. Kola (“the wise uncle” in Lakota) and Wihopa (“pretty woman” in Lakota) were rescued by the Humane Society in Flagstaff, AZ, and a volunteer from the facility drove the two wolf-dogs to Wanagi.  The pair was so near starvation that Kaylan thought she was going to lose Kola. Both are available for adoption as a pair. A genetic bond made even stronger by their shared near-death experience should not be broken, Kaylan insists.

Milagro, whose name means “miracle” in Spanish, was rescued just hours before he was to receive “the needle of death.” A high-content dog/wolf mix, Milagro is fully socialized and, like Bindi, is allowed to roam about the Wanagi grounds (both outside and inside the house).  He has been living at Wanagi for just more than a year, and is estimated to be almost 3 years old. He is currently available for adoption to the right home.

Hozho is a 12-year-old pure-bred Australian Shepherd, and as such, is the only purebred domesticated dog on the property.  Her Navajo (Diné) name means “to walk in boundless joy.” According to Kaylan, Hozho has one of the most important jobs at Wanagi:  to keep all the other animals in line.

“This pack, these animals that I live with are not pets . . . they are my family. . . This is why I want people to understand that having any animal is a full-time job ...  a lifetime job.  In this respect [having an animal] is like having a child . . . not that they [the animals] think like a child or should be treated like a child, but that they are family and should be treated with respect.”

Since Wanagi's inception, Kaylan has been nominated for the New Mexico Milagro Award (for Animal Protection) three times. Wanagi welcomes volunteers of all ages, but Kaylan believes that the more young people who volunteer to help the Wanagi Wolf Fund and Rescue, “the more we can educate the next generation about these wonderful animals, the brighter the future will be for them.”

For more information about Wanagi Wolf Fund & Rescue, be sure to visit them on their website at, their blog at, and on Facebook.

–  Six years ago, Sue Isley moved from Southern California to retire in Albuquerque, where she renewed a long-neglected relationship with Nature. She recently combined this interest with amateur photography. Isley became acquainted with Wanagi about a year ago through a fellow photographer, and soon volunteered her skills for Wanagi. In addition to wolves, Sue also has a passion for hummingbirds and horses.  She and husband, Aaron Greenwood (Wanagi’s “webmeister,”) have two rescued dogs, Roxie and Tita.