Animals as Healers | A Walk with Wolf Connection

by | Jan 14, 2017

A few months ago, I headed up into the mountains of Angeles National Forest for a day of trail clearing and walking with the wolves at the Wolf Connection property, a beautiful escape tucked into the back side of the National Forest. The drive alone was a welcome decompression from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, and I hadn’t even hugged the wolves yet. Wolves have been nearly extinct for almost 100 years in California, but beautiful sanctuaries like Wolf Connection work to ensure our communities know and learn from these majestic criatura (creatures). Wolf Connection was founded in 2009 by Teo Alfero, whose life ambition is to be of service to future generations. It is a unique educational sanctuary and wilderness retreat center in Southern California that brings people together through direct relationship with rescued wolves for the purpose of empowering the next generation to become authentic leaders and stewards of the earth. With the help of the animals, at-risk youth and visitors reconnect with nature, learn to be of service by responsibly caring for another being, and work towards becoming the kind of people they want to be. The animals help them focus on their impulses, feelings and emotions in a constructive way; they learn to forgive and give others (and themselves) a second chance. This unique wolf sanctuary and its bold mission have been featured in The Today Show, The New York Times, Psychology Today, and The Hollywood Reporter, to name a few.

Before I had even departed from the Wolf Connection land, I was already dreaming on a way to get back. Micha and I quickly put our heads together, figuring out how to introduce our Wolf Pack to theirs, and to help raise money for all of the incredible work that is being done at Wolf Connection. On Sunday, February 5th, from 12-4 pm, our Wolf Pack will be heading to Angeles National Forest to meet up with a real pack of wolves.  Our fundraiser will assist them in keeping up their exceptional work, to help expand their current services to include overnight and weekly stays, allowing for more in-depth work, plus a residential facility for youth transitioning into independent living, and a retreat center where people from all walks of life can find healing and hope. Wolf Connection needs our help, dear Wolfies! Come howl with us, sign up here.

Executive Team:
Teo Alfero, CEO & Founder
Cate Salansky – Lead of Donor Relations
Giulia Cappelli – Lead of Programs
Cortney Persiani – Events & Hospitality

How did Wolf Connection begin?
Teo: Looking back, I realize that Wolf Connection is the result of a natural chain of events, an energy line that permeates through my life experiences. When I came across Tala (my first wolfdog), I thought I didn’t have the time or the desire to have a dog. Tala, on the other hand, had a different idea. She was only four weeks old when I first met her, and she was being given away by a friend of mine.  Even though I loved her instantly, I told my friend that I had no intention of becoming a pet owner. Meanwhile, completely unaffected by my rejection, Tala was playing with me. Little did I know, she had picked me right then and there, and she had some long-term plans for me as well! Over the next couple of weeks, all the other puppies were placed except for Tala, and her situation was looking dire, reluctantly I took her in and fell in love with her spirit. Two years later, two things took place simultaneously: first, I was looking for a new edge to my youth coaching and empowerment program. By then, I had been mentoring young men using outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, and rock climbing and was feeling that a new angle was needed. Second, I began looking for a playmate for Tala. I wanted to adopt a young male that would keep her company while I was working. What I did not fathom then was that, once again, events involving Tala would take their own course and the answer to both situations would merge beautifully. After months of looking, I came in contact with Tia Torres at Villalobos Rescue Center. Not only did she have the partner for Tala that I was looking for, but she introduced me to a pack of sixteen wolfdogs that she had just rescued. That was it for me … AGAIN! As soon as I saw those animals, my heart reached out to them so deeply that I immediately knew I could not leave them. I began visiting the wolfdogs several times a week just to brush them, walk them, run with them, and leash-train them. It was exhausting, but I was in absolute heaven. After a month or so of this, Tia suggested that I do a presentation to the public. We put together the first “Full Moon Hike with Wolves and Wolfdogs.” The idea was that people would come to the rescue center, bring some food to enjoy and share, and we gave them a wolf and wolfdog presentation followed by a hike with the animals under the moonlight. As we continued the hikes, I began noticing the effect the animals had on people from all walks of life. Hearts opened, tears and laughter flowed freely, and there was a palpable feeling of peace in the groups. The light bulb went off and I knew that the wolves were the new edge to my youth empowerment and coaching programs. In the presence of these magnificent animals, kids and adults who have experienced trauma, violence and abandonment find a place of hope and freedom from their past. From then on, I was never alone walking and caring for the animals…Wolf Connection was born.

Wolf Connection recently moved onto a new, bigger plot of land in the Angeles National Forest. How has this big move opened up your ability to work with the wolves?
The new Wolf Connection Ranch is truly the ideal sanctuary for our pack and the work that we do with at-risk groups. Not only is it located on 165 gorgeous acres, secluded in the mountains and grandfathered into the Angeles National Forest, it is also at 4,000 foot elevation, which provides an ever-changing landscape of four seasons, lush vegetation and year-round natural streams for the Wolf Connection pack. The increased overall size also allows us to open our doors to hundreds more teens and adults each year and will triple our rescue capacity to over 75 wolves and wolfdogs. Additionally, we have been able to use that space to move away from kennel enclosure model and give each wolf and wolfdog a massive habitat with more expansive enrichment fields where the animals can roam freely and safely in an environment similar to theirs in nature. The animals themselves have also expanded since moving into their new, larger space. We are seeing them present with more confidence, more openness, more curiosity as they now live in habitats that mirror living in the wild with dens, hills, trees and boulders to run and explore. This ultimately means that we are now truly interacting with the wildness and essence of the wolf, not wolves and wolfdogs who are in captivity. As far as programs, we now have access to extensive hiking trails into the Angeles National Forest, where we never run the risk of encountering neighbors, and eventually, we plan to build on-site residential and retreat facilities that will allow more long-term programs like summer camps, corporate retreats and training programs.

When people participate in our Of The Wolves x Wolf Connection walk, what types of projects are they helping to fund at the Wolf Connection?
Partnerships like this help Wolf Connection further develop the new ranch in ways that benefit the wolves and wolfdogs, our programs and participants, and the opportunities and experiences of the guests. Some of our current projects include:

For the wolves and wolfdogs:

  • The addition of 2 more multi-acre compounds with open-air habitats – allowing us to begin additional rescues immediately
  • Increase habitat size from 500sq ft to 3,500sq ft  and increase enrichment field size from half an acre to 5 acres
  • Develop an on-site Veterinary Care Center for surgery and hospitalization – the hardest stress for the wolves is the transport to and from procedures and recovering in an unfamiliar setting

For the kids and education programs:

  • Develop transitional on-site housing for youth aging out of foster care and returning from probation or substance recovery
  • Multi-Purpose Rooms for classrooms, an art studio, science lab, library, and woodworking/metalworking shops – allowing for internships and on-site job training for program participants and graduates in areas like animal husbandry, construction, filmmaking, green technologies, gardening, etc.
  • Additional learning centers with Native American teepees, teaching & fire circles, sweat lodges and labyrinths

For our guests:

  • Becoming a Certified Green Facility, running off of solar energy with recycling and zero landfill output
  • The creation of outdoor spaces for camping, amphitheaters, nature trails & meditation spots
  • Retreat center and cabins for overnight experiences

How many volunteers does it take to run Wolf Connection and what does a typical day look like for them? What do you look for in your volunteers?
We currently have over 40 core and associate volunteers who make the running of the ranch possible – the pack receives the utmost quality of care thanks to these amazing individuals. The day of a volunteer at Wolf Connection would start with rising early that day to make the lengthy drive to the ranch – most of our volunteers come from the Los Angeles area – and arriving to begin morning feeding. Morning feeding has to occur before a certain time, typically around 9:30am, to factor in the heat and length of the day. Before the feeding can happen, however, the volunteer and their team has to prepare 26 individualized raw meat meals with medication and supplements for each animal that consists of raw chicken, beef and fish. Our animals probably have better nutritional care than some of us! Once each bowl is properly prepared and mixed, the volunteer loads them into our transport cart and takes them to the wolf compound. Then the fun begins! Each wolf is individually fed, one at a time, in accordance to their behavior plan that has been established by our Behavior Specialist – no challenging behaviors allowed. This is our training time to help the animals stay calm when a stimulus is presented, in a reminder of their rank with their kennel-mate by who gets fed first, just to name a few examples that we can share more about when you visit. Bowl pickup and washing commences – hand washing 52 bowls for the pack’s twice-a-day meals. The cleaning of every single habitat is required so a volunteer does quite a bit of hiking in each habitat. During this time the volunteer will check to make sure the animals have clean water, that their habitat is in good shape, and the animal does not present any health issues. Throughout the day some of the animals require interaction to help with their socialization, like Mikey who gets “Mikey Medicine” in the form of the volunteer sitting with him for 15 minutes every day. The volunteer then prepares 26 bowls of kibble and supplements for that evening’s feeding. After covering all the needs of the day, the volunteer starts preparing meals for the next day’s volunteer – we all try to take care of each other here – so over 30 pounds of raw meat is sorted, thawed, chopped, and prepared into bowls so tomorrow’s volunteer can hit the ground running. Hiking the animals will take place throughout the day, we keep a log book to make sure that each animal gets enough exercise and enrichment throughout the week. Evening feeding takes place just before sundown and looks very similar to the morning feeding rituals. And that’s a wrap! The volunteer will probably end their day by hitting the pillow pretty hard and get a great night’s sleep.

We meet and interview potential volunteers as a team and one of the most important things that we look for in a person is their willingness to serve. What that looks like can be very different depending on each person and manifests in many different ways. The ultimate question is not ‘what we are receiving by accepting a volunteer?’, for example photography skills, but is ‘how is the gift being given?’ One of the things that our community of volunteers practice here is the wolf principle “Wolves are into Being, not Doing” and we certainly look for those qualities or the potential to have those qualities when we are getting to know potential volunteers.

Wolf Connection serves as a sanctuary for rescued wolves and wolf dogs, but it also serves as a sanctuary for at-risk youth. How do these two energies work together to create deep healing for both?
So many abandoned, abused and neglected young people come to Wolf Connection and find themselves reflected in the many formerly abused, abandoned and neglected wolves and wolf dogs. And while many of these individuals aren’t in a place to open up about themselves, it is much easier for them to open up and share their thoughts and feelings about these animals, which often mirrors how they feel about themselves and their own situation. Additionally, to lovingly assist in the rehabilitation of one of the wolves is to offer that same level of care and intention to some part of oneself.  If one is willing to sit in presence and patience for an animal that has anxiety, then does that also open one up to be willing to offer the same level of care and attention to oneself – hopefully, sooner than later. The choice is there for each individual to make in their own sacred timing.  The wolves inspire one to recreate the experience of connection and apply what is felt towards the wolves and to transfer that to oneself.

We know you’re not supposed to play favorites, but do you have any especially fond memories about a certain member of your pack or a fond memory about one of the wolves in particular?
There are so many! Every day presents us with a magic moment. We usually start each day with a small Council amongst the volunteers of the day and we share with each other a magic moment that occurred for us that week.

Cate: My fond memory – and actually my first memory – of Wolf Connection occurred at a group home for aggressive young men in the foster care system, with a client I was working with in dealing with his anger and behavioral issues that sent him to jail. This young man had grown up in the foster care system, moving from home to home as his aggression and anger increased. He had spent his life being guided by therapists, social workers, teachers, foster parents, who all meant well but eventually failed him or left as he got sent to a new facility. By the time I met him, he was over adults trying to help him – he’d set a path for himself to fail out of school and enter the juvenile detention system. He had completely given up on himself. I worked with him for months on learning coping skills, mindfulness, meditation, and problem solving – the problem was that he already knew all of these things, he didn’t want to use them! Why work at bettering your situation when you’ve given up? His treatment facility enrolled him at Wolf Connection’s youth empowerment program as a last ditch effort. After a few weeks of participating in the program, I was at his group home with him, and I witnessed him get triggered by another boy and this young man. In the past, he would have thrown a computer through a window or busted a door off its hinges, but he stopped, looked at me, and said ‘I’m not in control of my energy right now so I’m going to go to my room, I need to be left alone’. Holy &$%! In my follow-up with him, he revealed that he was learning to control his energy just like the young male wolfdogs at Wolf Connection. What a powerful role the Wolf Connection pack plays! By learning the stories, lessons and struggles of the animals, young men and women see the world through their eyes and begin identifying with another being. This was a life changer for him.

Giulia: I have fond memories of so many…the wolves are so individual and sometimes full of surprises. Take Miko for instance – she was an extremely powerful and large female, who was timid of most people. The Behavior Specialist decided to include her in a program hike. After announcing to all guests that Miko would be hiked at the back of the line and that no one was to approach so the Behavior Specialist could assess Miko’s response to the stimulation, upon leaving for the hike, Miko walked near some guests and lay down, offering belly, before we could exit the compound. It was ridiculous! After all those instructions were given- it was clear that Miko had plans of her own.

Cortney: Oh gosh, it really is so hard to choose just one! We are lucky enough to see the profound effect the wolves have on each other, the program participants and even the volunteers on a daily basis and each one leaves a lasting impact. For me, the power of the pack is the one thing that never ceases to amaze me time. One example of this occurred recently after one of our animals, Koda, lost his brother, Chance, to cancer. Koda had spent all his time with and bonded to Chance, never really interacting with any of our other animals. However, once Chance passed away, we knew it was important to integrate Koda in to the pack more fully to give him new playmates and help him overcome the loss of his brother. So two of our other ambassador animals, Nova and Luna, began to work with Koda on how to engage, how to play and essentially how to make new friends. It was a bit rocky at first as Koda stumbled through the typical “new kid” hurdles, but he quickly learned and was soon happily playing with Nova and Luna and more or less showing off his new friendships to all of us who would watch. But, as if the power of the pack and the ability of Nova and Luna to “teach” Koda wasn’t powerful enough, just a few short weeks later, Koda went from being the student to being the teacher, as we began to integrate our newest wolf, Maggie, in to the pack. Having a great deal of anxiety and fear of other wolves, Maggie had never interacted with any of our other animals when we took her out on her first hike with Koda. However, we had no doubt that Koda’s playful but submissive energy and eagerness to make friends would be a great match for Maggie. They began the hike by moving alongside one another but not really interacting. Slowly, Maggie began to relax and about half way through the hike, they approached one another and began to sniff. After a few sniffs, they moved on and continued hiking, but definitely more aware of one another and even visiting the same bushes. At our next stop, we were all taking a breather when suddenly, Koda began to try to play with Maggie. At first we were unsure how she would respond to this, but knowing the power of the pack, we trusted Koda and within seconds, Maggie was playing too! And not only that, she was playing in the same goofy way that Koda plays! (You can even see it for yourself in the video!) These two began to wrestle and shuffle around like old friends for a few minutes before both decided it was time for another break. It may have been a short spurt, but it was still a profound breakthrough for Maggie and her integration in to the pack! And to think that a few short weeks before, Koda didn’t even know how to make friends and now thanks to Nova and Luna, he was paying it forward! To see this type of natural interaction and learning process take places always blows my mind. Wolves are more like people than you would imagine and it’s never fails to amazing me how much they can teach us if we are open to learning!

Teo: In our second year in business, we visited a residential treatment facility, and, upon arriving, we were told that one of the residents would not come out to the lawn to meet the wolves because she had a phobia of open spaces, of walking on dry leaves, on walking on dirt, on cracks on the ground. In fact she didn’t get out of her room much. We decided to bring one of the wolves into the house, a small gentle one named Ayasha, to see if the resident would get interested in coming out. After meeting Ayasha she immediately decided to come out. Once at the lawn the client met Miko, a magnificent gray wolf that just loved to help people heal.

After introducing the wolves to the residents, we announced we were going on a hike in the mountains surrounding the facility. To everyone’s surprise, this client said she was coming and began marching up the mountain next to the wolves. A mile into the trail, and she was still walking through dirt and dry leaves, with a big smile on her face. At one point, she decided to kneel down to take a picture of Miko. As soon as she did that, Miko came to snuggle her with such passion that the client rolled back on the ground with Miko on top of her. Her laughter of freedom and relief was unforgettable. All she could say was ‘Wait until my therapist finds out!’

After that, she was released from the residential treatment facility early, applied for a therapy dog, and, with the dog’s help, she is now working and back in college.

What is it about wolves…
Many humans will feel the bond to these wise wolf teachers in their bones, which is proving to be more biological than most realize as research is showing that this response is actually at a DNA level. Wolves and humans have an ancient partnership – inspiring one of our taglines “An Ancient Bond for Modern Times”. The connection between wolves and humans is a sacred and revered celebration of 135 thousand plus years of co-evolution. Peer-reviewed research clearly suggests that humans and wolves have been not only collaborating but also bonding and co-evolving from the time of our predecessors, the Neanderthals. What have humans learned from wolf? We owe wolves, among other things, the concept of a dwelling, the know-how and ability to herd, the sense of loyalty and care of family, and, ultimately, how to live in balance with everything around them. This initial bonding with the wolves has evolved over the millennia until the wolf became venerated and regarded as a magical spiritual animal and a teacher by ancient cultures around the world. Wherever there have been wolves in the world, all the native peoples have proclaimed the wolf as a Great Teacher. At Wolf Connection, we go even further by tapping into this ancient bond between wolves and humans in order to reach and engage at-risk persons at a much deeper level. The connection awakens memory of an instinctual self – the type of human that is not reviewing a cognitive checklist of why some things are important. The primal self, fully aware of essentials, has already landed on its destination before the unconscious self can even say “checklist.” How many humans today notice that the wolves are still teaching, and how many of us are open to learning?

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