On the outskirts of the small, charming mountain town of Golden, British Columbia, Shelley and Casey Black keep around six to eight grey wolves at their Northern Lights Wolf Centre at any given time. All were born in captivity of one form or another (it is virtually impossible to reintroduce wolves into the wild once they get used to cush daily feedings), and most come from zoos across Canada and the United States. From their names alone, and also the nonchalant way the Blacks talk about them, you would think the center’s current pack were ordinary dogs: Mack, Scrappy Dave, Flora, Uno, Murphy, and Farley. And when you see that the Blacks live in a home on the property, and that you’re essentially crossing their driveway and front yard to reach the enclosure, it’s clear that the humans and wolves here are one big family.
Throughout the 1990s, Casey Black was as an animal handler in the Canadian film industry, and had extensive experience working with wolves. In 2002, seeking a change of pace for himself and his partner Shelley, the two of them together opened up a small backyard operation where they would adopt and raise wolves that had retired from the film industry, or been born in captivity. Per their mission statement, the center “promotes wolf conservation throughout the natural environment.” The wolves are kept in a 1.25 acre enclosure, are taken for regular leash-free walks in the wilderness, and are fed a healthy diet of beef, chicken, and—a rare treat—the occasional roadkill. The sign of a happy wolf is when it howls, a handler told me on a recent visit, and the pack here howls almost daily.
“The whole goal is to make people aware of the species,” said Shelley. The center is first and foremost a tourist attraction, offering interactive talks and demonstrations for a nominal fee for tourists passing through on the Trans-Canada Highway. There are some informational displays and the like, but the real attraction that brings animal-lovers, photographers, and thrill-seekers from far and wide is the opportunity to walk with the center’s wolves. Because these wolves are born and raised in captivity, they have become habituated to humans, and do not avoid them or get aggressive toward them the way wolves in the wild would. At $380 for two people, the experience doesn’t come cheap, but the opportunity to be up close and personal with a grey wolf is, according to Shelley, priceless: “There are a handful of similar wolf centers across Canada, but as far as I am aware, we are the only ones that allow walking with the wolves.”
When I experienced one of the center’s wolf walks back in October, it began like any dog walk, almost surprisingly banal. Shelley packs Flora into her sedan, and a group of us follow behind in a second car to a nearby open land parcel. I will admit, it was quite a sight to drive down the Trans-Canada Highway and see the piercing yellow eyes of a grey wolf staring back from the rear window of the car in front of us. And make no mistake about it, once that 100-pound grey wolf hopped out of the car and began trotting circles around our group, I stood up a little straighter. “Be careful,” Shelley deadpans. “She can bite down with a jaw strength of about 1,500 pounds.”
Walking with a fully-grown grey wolf is a singular experience. On one hand, the childlike delight; standing side-by-side with one of nature’s most majestic (and controversial) creatures raised goosebumps in even the most stoic travelers in my group. And on the other, the sheer terror of making yourself physically vulnerable to a wolf is humbling to say the least. Over the course of our walk through the woods it became apparent what an excellent hunter Flora is. She is seen and heard only when she wanted to be, deviating from the path and disappearing from the edges of my periphery only to reappear when least expected. If she disappears to the left, she could very well reappear without a noise on the right. One minute she sprints away from us across a riverbed, the next she springs back towards us from the distance. Epic views of the Columbia River and Purcell mountain range frame the experience—and with the addition of a free-running wolf, this is a photographer’s delight.
At the end of our hour in the woods with Flora, Shelley directs me to stand in front of a fallen tree, and we shuffle into place. Flora has been trained to run up the side of the tree and stand at its apex directly over where we are standing, just long enough for Shelley to snap a picture. But just as I say, “Cheese,” Flora stands her front legs on my shoulders and reaches for a treat that Shelley tosses up to her—and the unmistakable clamp of her canine jaw grabbing the treat just inches above my head is enough to send a shiver through my bones. The nails on her paw dig into my shoulder, and as soon as I perceive what is happening, Flora plants a long, sloppy lick over the side of my face and retreats back into the woods. I’m left breathless and covered in wolf drool. “This is amazing,” I say. (In case you’re wondering, Shelley claims that the only injuries sustained by a tourist at the center have been a couple of twisted ankles).
Beyond the wolf walks and informational talks offered at the center, Shelley says that her and Casey’s larger mission is to advocate and lobby for wolf conservation. “The Canadian government does not protect this animal. They actually pay bounties on these animals, and they are used in the fur industry as well.” There is a stigma around wolves, she explains, that as predators they are often cast as nature’s villains. And because wolves are natural predators of woodland caribou, they are often blamed for caribou’s dwindling numbers in Canada—a phenomenon, according to Shelley, which has much less to do with wolves, and more to do with mass deforestation of Canada’s old-growth forests. She explains: “Canada’s No 1 way it makes money is logging. When we take those old growth trees away, it takes away food, water, shelter and space for caribou. That animal won’t live no matter how many wolves you shoot. Right now it is legal to hunt, bait and trap wolves 12 months a year, and because of that, populations have dropped by 80 percent over the last twenty years… There are less than 40,000 wolves in Canada, but given our land mass and human population, we should have double, maybe even triple that number.”
After our walk, and after hearing Shelley speak, I say goodbye to Flora and start to think about the wolf center. The Blacks are not the first conservationists to use tourism to disseminate activism, but they could very well be some of the best at it, in Canada at least. I walked away from that afternoon with not only a bomb new Instagram pic, but a newfound understanding and appreciation for which of the two creatures in that pic was more vulnerable.