“… Wolves howl for a variety of reasons. They howl because they’re looking for one another in the woods, because they’re fighting, sometimes during a hunt, or even when the alpha female has a litter, they howl to celebrate.”
The tour guide, Matthew, or Mark, or something, clicked his remote, and an overly rendered painting of a massive wolf howling at the moon was projected on the screen. “While we can’t ever truly figure out what they are saying, what we can say without hesitation is that they are probably not howling at the moon.”
He got a couple of chuckles from the sparse audience of older people. It was a Monday evening tour, so there wasn’t going to be a big crowd of anyone except from the retirement community, and little old me, forced there to get extra credit on my Geology 101 class. And, of course, my little brother, whom my mom forced me to take with me everywhere.
Ricky was 10, and therefore pumped as fuck about wolves. For me, the information was interesting enough, but Matthew/Mark the Tour Guide was a bit more exciting. He was scruffy and bearded and unbearably cute, talking about the wolves like family. I’ll be honest. The thirst was real.
“This one is Keanu, as in Reeves. He’s a real jokester, this one. He likes to drag out the carcasses of whatever we give them out to the gate so the visitors can see. Wolves are very intelligent, very empathetic animals, and I bet you that Keanu does this to show off. Or maybe even to see the grossed out looks on peoples’ faces.
“And this one, this beautiful, lovely creature, is Lila. She’s the alpha female of the pack we have here on the reserve. Now, as you can see, she’s not the largest or scariest female of the pack, but the rest of the pack respects her. What we used to believe about alphas, about them fighting everyone and pushing them back to get the leadership role, is no longer true. It turns out that the Alpha is the most nurturing, the most kind, and one that makes sure that everyone eats and is taken care of.” He clicked his remote and a picture of all of the wolves came up.
“See which one is the Alpha? The others are submissive, look at their ears, the way they’re pulled back, how they put their heads down and try to look smaller. It’s not a sign of fear, but respect for the Alpha.”
Ricky’s hand shot in the air like a bullet. “Ooh…. OOH…”
The Tour Guide, who will henceforth be named Mart to save time, laughed. “What’s up, little man?”
“Can, like, the wolves, like kill each other to become the Alpha?”
“Well, it doesn’t happen often, but it can happen.” Mart was pretty clearly trying to steer clear of saying anything that would paint the wolves in a negative light. The beginning of his presentation about how the wolves nearly went extinct because of hunting, so everything he had been saying about the packs at the reserve have been very humanizing and personal. It’s harder to shoot and skin something when you know its name.
“And what about like, killing people?”
Mart shifted a bit uncomfortably. “It’s very rare. Wolves are extremely shy animals and will not approach any humans. However, there have been some cases of rabid wolves going after people.”
“What about werewolves?” I called to him, giving him an out. He laughed, relaxing. “Should we fear werewolves out in the wild?”
“No, werewolves are fictional; I’m afraid, just like howling at the moon.”
After the presentation ended, it was time to head to the actual tour part of it. The extra credit assignment was stupid; go to some nature reserve thing, take a page of notes, write a paper on it, then turn it in. It would save my grade from being unable to figure out which rocks were minerals or whatever. I chose the Wolf Centre, since then I could have gone to my friend’s college campus and gone to the beach after.
But nooooo, Mom had to make me bring Ricky along. I don’t normally mind Ricky. Good kid, unbearably funny sometimes, but what was the female version of cockblocking? Well, Ricky was it.
But maybe not. Mart the Tour Guide seemed pretty charmed by Ricky, in spite of the uncomfortable questioning. Ricky was attached to his hip, bounding with energy as we walked to the first wolf pen. I took this as an opportunity to talk up the cute tour guide.
“So, is this all you do? Save wolves?”
“Naw, I go to school too. This is just part time while I get my degree. Everyone who works here does this part time and completely voluntarily. They mostly work second jobs unrelated to wolves, but when we come here, it’s all about them.” He beamed. “Yeah, we love these guys and gals.” There was something so fucking charming about this man, someone who loves animals this much. I’ll be honest: sploosh.
I hated going to zoos, seeing the animals all pent up, but the pen for the Mexican Gray Wolves was huge and very natural looking. It seemed like a good place to live. “These Mexican Gray Wolves come from the last 11 wolves we found of their species. They were nearly extinct, and we brought them into captivity to help keep them save from poachers, and we are building for a healthy population before releasing them again.”
There was a wolf fairly close to us. It was mostly unremarkable. It looked like our neighbors dog, just with a narrower snout, yellow eyes instead of blue. It was chilling in the shade, looking pretty relaxed in spite of the people surrounding the gate.
“How do you feed them?” Ricky asked in a hushed whisper. He was very reverent of the wolves, which was nice to see. Kids were usually pretty crazy, but Ricky was always very aware of the situation.
“We start them on some high protein kibble, but don’t always feed them that because that’d get boring. We feed them some raw meat too. When a deer gets hit on the freeway, they bring the carcass over here and we give it to them. The reason why we don’t just put a live deer in there with them is that it would be unfair to the deer, you know? Just staying in the pen, waiting to get killed.” I shuddered, imagining the realization that you were there simply to get eaten and killed.
“One important thing to note is that we don’t feed the wolves here any livestock. No beef, no chicken, no sheep. The reason for that is that we don’t want them to get a taste for livestock and have them going after them when we release the wolves back into the wild. We are purposely trying to keep the wolves as far away from humans as possible, so we can coexist.”
It made sense. I kept watching the wolf hanging out underneath the shade of the tree, stretching out her huge paws and looking very relaxed. It filled me with immense sadness. It was so chill, just living its life, and people out there were killing them for sport. Nearly decimated the species.
We moved onto the next pen, where we saw another worker. She was an older lady wearing the same embroidered polo as Mart. She was finishing up in the pen and was locking it behind her when we arrived. “Eleanor,” Mart greeted testily. The woman smiled and nodded, then sort of tucked herself behind our group to watch the tour.
“Here are the Gray Wolves. The Mexican Gray Wolves are a subspecies, but here is our canis lupus.” The wolves here were much more active, four of them wandering around, sniffing the air and looking more wolfish. “Now, our gray wolves aren’t going to be introduced into the wild at all. For one reason or another, they can’t, so we keep them here for educational purposes. So this group actually gets fed loads of interesting things. We feed them steak, chicken, lamb, and goat, along with deer and kibble. The most interesting thing they’ve been fed is a zebra, donated by the zoo. And because they won’t be reintroduced into the wild, we don’t worry about them getting a taste for anything they can hunt around here.”
A wolf came extremely close to us. “This one is Shelly. She’s super funny, likes to come by and say hi to visitors.” She was close enough that tufts of blonde fur were sticking out of the chain-link fence. She was beautiful, with heterochromia, one golden eye and one brown eye.
Ricky also got extremely close, inching step by step to the wolf with his hand outstretched. I rolled my eyes. He went and saw Jurassic World and wanted pretty desperately to be Chris Pratt when he grew up.
Mart was distracted, looking at Eleanor, the other worker, so I kept an eye on my kid brother, hoping that I could bring him back home with both hands. It would be hard to explain to our mother why he only came back with one.
Shelly started scratching at the dirt in front of the chain link fence, catching Mart’s attention immediately. “That’s very bizarre for the wolves to be doing that.” Shelly was now digging furiously, her massive paws cracking through the hard packed earth.
He called into the headquarters on his walkie-talkie, “Hey, can you send Alex and Jiwon down here? Shelly’s acting a bit funny.”
I could tell that Mart wanted to take us back, in case something happens, but I could also tell that he wanted to stay. He was more than fascinated with wolves; he cared about them, and Shelly was acting very strange. “Should we walk back to the room?” I called out to him.
“You need an escort. Eleanor?” We looked around at the tour group. Eleanor was no longer with us.
Mart let out a frustrated sigh, scrubbing at his face and hair. “Alright. Everyone, there’s nothing to worry about, but you’ll need an escort back to the main room in case of rattlesnakes. Hang tight.”
Alex and Jiwon came roaring over on a jeep. The two hurried over to Mart, who filled them in. Shelly had stopped digging, but was pacing by the gate, watching us carefully. There was so much intelligence in those eyes. I shivered in the dying heat of the day.
“What’s going on?” The wolf had made a dent in the ground, as if she were trying to dig onto the other side of the fence. She sniffed the air, making direct eye contact with Ricky. I reached out and grabbed him, much to his protests.
I wrapped an arm around him to hold him in place. “Nuh uh, hold still, buddy.”
Shelly suddenly froze, her nose twitching, then moved away from the fence quickly. She went straight for the den in the back.
“What the fuck?” I heard Alex murmur. Four fully grown wolves emerged from the den. “That’s impossible, adults don’t go into the den unless there are pups. We didn’t have a litter this year.”
The wolves disappeared into the brush, their grey and brown fur blending into the foliage. “Something’s not right,” Jiwon said quietly to Mart. He nodded, and reached into the back of the jeep, pulling out a gun. Jiwon made her way to the back, where it said Employees only.
“You’re gonna shoot them?” Ricky cried out.
“No, buddy, these are just full of tranqs. We keep them for emergencies. Only had to use them once.” Mart looked at me. “Rabid.”
The tourists and retirees twittered, nervous, scared. I tried staying calm. Ricky would look to me for cues on how to act, and if I lost my shit, then so would he.
“Alex, can you please take everyone back to the main room, offer them some complimentary items from the gift shop?” Mart said loudly with a big fake smile. It was an unnerving image, seeing him with that big gun, even if it was just full of tranquilizers.
Right as Alex was about to respond, Jiwon let out a cry of despair. Alex and Mart ran for her, leaving us behind. Most of the tourists took that as a sign to run back to the main room, back to their cars to get out of here, rattlesnakes be damned. I couldn’t help myself; I wanted to see what was happening. But I had Ricky with me still, and his safety was priority. Unfortunately, my kid brother ran like the wind, and I put on some of the freshman fifteen, so I trailed after him, trying to catch up.
The gate in the back was flung open. I questioned the legitimacy of this place and its workers when I realized that the lock was cut. It had been open before. Ignoring that nauseating feeling roiling in my stomach, I chased after my brother, who was standing perfectly still with the others, looking at something on the ground.
I heard Jiwon choke on a sob, and then I saw it.
Two beautiful wolves, slain. There was blood everywhere. It looked like a goddamned crime scene. I recognized one of them. Lila, the alpha female. I could only assume that the larger wolf lying by her side was her alpha male.