It all began on a late Wednesday afternoon – Jake and I piled up the Suburban with all of our goods – prepared and ready for the very cold temperatures ahead. According to those at Mission:Wolf – the weather we were about to encounter over the next three days consisted of sun, snow, rain, and everything in between. But Jake and I considered this an exciting challenge (although I was a bit nervous about our sleeping arrangements at the time), and we set out on the road ahead… It took us about 7 hours to get to Flagstaff where we crashed for about 3 hours at one of Jake’s best friends house before heading back out on through New Mexico and into Colorado. I had been suffering from being quite sick a few days before – so being the trooper that he is – Jake happily drove us all the way there.
Before I continue, I should mention that Jake had his first encounter with Cracker Barrel (one of my favorite restaurants for southern food) where we played the infamous peg triangle game, ate some catfish, and had the front desk lady obsess over my polaroid camera before heading out. Also worth noting – New Mexico’s Starbucks do not offer my favorite protein boxes – and when you’re hungry and on the road – this is quite disappointing.
Fast forward about 22 hours later and we are driving up the long, beautiful, and completely desolate road through the Colorado countryside towards Mission:Wolf. They weren’t kidding when they said this place was off the grid – but wow is it worth the winding drive. I remember getting out just before we began our final drive up to the wolf sanctuary and taking my first picture with my new Canon T6. Now everyone knows Jake is the photographer, but I have decided to make it a hobby of mine as well since we plan to be adventuring for quite some time to come. I must say that my first shot of the Rockies wasn’t too shabby! We then freshened up the best we could after the long drive and made the final drive to where we would have our quick stay to visit with the wolves, get some very valuable insights into conservation education, and meet some awesome people….
But before explaining more about the rest of our trip – I should mention some of the background for the trip. What would cause two people to drive such long hours to a place that was so far away from the rest of the world? Well, I speak for myself when I say it was a combination of many different feelings and purposes. Mostly, it was for the purpose of Why Should You Care – to apply all the passions that had been stirred up within me during grad school in a real world situation. To get to the wolves, to be in awe of them as I knew I would, and to see if the staff at Mission:Wolf found my ideas to be as potentially valuable as I believe them to be. (While we had Skyped with the staff weeks before planning this trip, there is nothing that beats hands-on interaction and experience.)
Other feelings consisted of wanting an adventure, being scared by the adventure, proving to myself that I can follow through with my ideas, and having some fun and facing the unknown with Jake, of course. I would assume Jake’s were mostly to get outside, get some awesome photos, venture to a new place, and also thrive amidst the unknown. I would hope he enjoyed being with me as well, but I will let him speak for that!!
Now, back to our arrival… We pulled up to a quant and beautiful little hillside placed strategically away from the rest of the world – surrounded by breathtaking views that complemented the magical sound of the wolves howling around us. After meeting with John Ramer, one of the leaders at Mission:Wolf, we were immediately given a tour and introduced to the wolves within their large (and very natural might I happily add) enclosures. I’m not sure if it was the altitude, the long drive, or finally being up close to the wolves, but I felt a rush of feelings that lead to complete exhaustion by the end of the day. Thankfully, John informed Jake and I that we were being given the “VIP” loft where we could stay for our short trip. Little did I know how THANKFUL I would be for this amazingly kind gesture come night time. It was COLD and my fever from the past few days decided to come back. But thanks to some advil, a warm stove in our loft, and Jake keeping me calm we made it through the night…
But during our first day at Mission:Wolf, I quickly learned that there is more to this place than meets the eye. There are many dedicated and incredibly smart volunteers and staff who make sure both wolves and visitors to the sanctuary are given the best experience possible. Living completely off the grid, they grow vegetables in their own greenhouses (raw brussel sprouts are amazing), filter water nearby, compost, sleep in large tipis, and literally focus their every day to the care, feeding, and needs of the wolves.
I should add that all the wolves at Mission:Wolf are not capable of being released into the wild and are prevented from breeding so as not to further promote the spread of wild animals born in captivity. They are strictly for educational purposes – to teach people that wolves do not make good pets – and that they are wild, beautiful, and very important animals to many of our planet’s ecosystems. In fact, I was shocked to learn at how often people try to buy wolves or “wolf dogs” online… Additionally, many of the wolves that were brought to the center also suffered from Parvo, which broke my heart. Putting it honestly, the lack of consideration people have for wild animals continues to blow my mind – no matter how much I continue to learn or where I go.
One of my favorite wolves there – Max – was kept prior by a family who did their best to give him a grand life. However, after an encounter with a nearby chihuahua, he was brought to Mission:Wolf to live more freely. Interestingly, the owners informed the staff at Mission:Wolf that Max loved the band Blue Oyster Cult and that he would enjoy their songs played for him occasionally… Sure enough, I tested this idea one day and streamed “Don’t Fear the Reaper” with the little cell service I had. Max ventured over and sat curiously by the side of his enclosure nearest to me as the song played. This was the first time I was ever able to sing and dance for a wolf who actually seemed entertained (at least I hoped)! I will never forget that experience – who would have thought!?
Our second day at Mission:Wolf involved making our breakfast over a camping stove that we had brought with us. I made oatmeal – Jake made Top Ramen. Enough said there! We ventured to the different wolf enclosures and spent time photographing, journaling, and just soaking in the presence of these breath-taking animals.
The more time you seemed to spend looking in their eyes, the more questions you seem to have – and yet the more you begin to understand. There’s something so out of body you experience when you look a wild animal in the eye. The wolves seemed to look back with a longing to know more – probably similar to what I was feeling – but in their wolf ways. The closest thing I can relate it to is being in love with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you. The attraction and desire I felt to spend time with these wolves grew with each passing moment. I almost forgot about why I was there and instead became immersed in their ability to captivate others – whether they desired to or not. It is as if they vibrated on a different wavelength, but desired to understand ours as well.
There was no fear on my end incase you might ask. But I have never been one to fear animals for as long as I can remember.
Later that day Jake and I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing John and Kent Weber about their time at Mission:Wolf, their education and perspectives on wolves in captivity and in the wild, and to learn more specifically about appropriate wolf behavior and instincts. I also shared with them my ideas for what Why Should You Care “in the field” could offer Mission:Wolf (which I was a bit nervous to do for the first time face-to-face). But I could have set for hours listening to both of them talk.
It felt at one point like I was in a movie, watching myself from the outside in… There were times I had to stop and think, am I really here? Is this really happening? And am I actually able to make a difference amongst all of the challenges these beautiful wild animals are facing? While we discussed many different topics – there always seemed to be one overlying consensus – it is the lack of education regarding the value of wolves in the wild and the inability of many people to care that seems to drive much of the threats they face. I have always believed that education has the power to start fires in peoples’ hearts that they might not know existed, but being at Mission:Wolf reemphasized this truth. And yet, despite such a large challenge, the people of Mission:Wolf continue to live off the land, day by day, doing their best to protect and educate visitors about the importance of these wolves.
It was a conflicting emotion to feel so helpless and overwhelmed by the situation – while also feeling inspired and prompted to do the little that I could to help fight against the ignorance of my own kind to save the wolf…
After speaking with Kent, we were then given the opportunity to enter into one of the Ambassador wolf enclosures where we met Abraham, Magpie, and Zeab. Jake was quite nervous about entering into the enclosure – especially because of the size of Zeab. I on the other hand was more than on cloud nine. After practicing the proper wolf behavior, the three wolves eagerly greeted us as we sat down in their enclosure. Zeab of course went straight over to Jake which I got a kick out of. It’s not often I hear Jake say he is nervous about anything, and seeing him and Zeab interact made me all smiles.
As the snow began to fall, the wolves found us interesting for about 5 to ten minutes before they ran off as a group and continued about their day. In case you were wondering, wolves in the wild greet each other by chattering their teeth against each other’s… Almost as if we humans would would go up to our friends at the start of every day and smile – mouth to mouth… With a little tongue action involved at times might I add!
Having a wolf come eye to eye with you while licking your mouth is quite the humbling and amazing experience… If I had it my way, I would have teeth chattered with every wolf there – Jake, probably not so much. But together we both had a once in a lifetime experience that we will never forget. (Oh, and wolves have perfect breath! Not at all like ours or that of a domestic dog.)
We also were taken to a secluded area by John to visit with Arrow and Zephyr – two of the most beautiful wolves I have ever seen. John talked to us about his love for the wolves and this particular area – and again I felt humbled to be sharing such an important spot with Jake and John in this moment.
After visiting with the wolves, we than ventured inside to have a simple dinner kindly shared with us by the volunteers. Despite the weather growing increasingly cold, I paid no attention as I was too distracted by the sanctuary’s newest wolf pup, Nashira, eagerly chasing after my hand. The snow was piling up, the wolves were howling, and I was snuggling around this amazing 9 week old pup whose life had just begun. What an honor it was to get to interact with this beautiful soul surrounded by people who care so much about her well-being. There was no doubt in my mind little Nashira would live the happiest life in captivity possible. Additionally, having Jake next to me throughout all of this added another surreal sense to the evening. At the time, I didn’t realize how much this night would stick out to me for the rest of my life. But now looking back, I know that it will.
The next day we got up – and it was time to head back out to California. However, I couldn’t help but feel an extreme attachment to the wolves even in so little time. Their innocence, beauty, curiosity, and power is uplifting and consuming all at once. There’s something indescribable about what looking into their eyes can do to the human spirit…
As Jake tried to fly his drone with John before we left, we quickly learned that the freezing temperatures are not supportive of a long term battery life. I think Jake’s drone was up for about 5 minutes max before I heard him yelling, “Brittnei – grab it,” as it descended rapidly from the sky. We said our goodbyes and I finished taking my last polaroids for the trip. I decided on all of my adventures to start a polaroid photo album to fill with memories and quotes. I have to say I used it more than my new Canon!
As we began to pack up, John informed me that he was quite interested in the my Why Should You Care ideas for Mission:Wolf and that he would like to train his staff in my project starting June of this year… At first, I didn’t know what to think. It was everything I had ever wanted to hear – but it just came out so simply and easily from his mouth. It took me a second to excitedly reply that I would be happy to and honored to do what I can to help them continue their amazing work. And just like that – Why Should You Care got its first real world chance. Now the reality has hit that I do have the opportunity to provide Mission:Wolf and hopefully many other organizations with some deeper insights into exactly how their work is impacting the public and why or why not.
In that brief moment, John had given me all the encouragement and answers that I hoped for during the entire road trip and time that we were there. I will never forget that shocked, excited, and intimidated feeling I had upon hearing his simple words. And then I realized something that I had considered before but never fully realized… At times, I am my own worst enemy. The anxiety I allow to build up as I ask myself, will I do my research right, will I present myself well, and will I have all the answers they need only takes away from the ultimate goal of my project.
And that is to simply provide an extra set of eyes focused on helping them understand the work that they do. There are no right or wrong answers. And the research is only as complicated as I make it. Anything I am able to provide is going to be more than groups might have otherwise. And it is a pleasure of mine that I am able to offer them my service in doing so.
After being at Mission:Wolf and seeing just how busy the staff and volunteers are – it is a blessing that I am able to take some time (that they would otherwise have to) and investigate how their work is impacting visitors to the center and the potential long term conservation of wolves.
It’s not much, but its something – and if we all offered our “something” perhaps this world would expand into many great things.
Before leaving, I purchased a wolf fur bracelet, a Mission:Wolf shirt, and Jake surprised me with an INCREDIBLE picture of one of our favorite wolves, Arrow. The photographer, John, is the same passionate leader at Mission:Wolf who we spent our days with and oversees most of the center’s daily affairs. He sells his photographs whose funds go immediately back into the care of the animals at Mission:Wolf. Just another reminder of the selflessness the people who commit themselves to wolf conservation have…
With our stuff packed, we said our final goodbyes to the wolves and stared one more into the silent beauty of nature surrounding us. I can’t help but remember John telling us before we left, “You’ll be back”. And I can’t help but agree. The next time we will be back, I will be heading to Mission:Wolf with some valuable insights based on the work of his staff and the simple research Why Should You Care aims to provide. While this is the first of hopefully many journeys in conservation, the wolves have captivated my spirit and I very much look forward to seeing them again…
However this time, Jake and I both agreed we would fly to Denver then drive the 4 or 5 hours to Mission:Wolf…. This would allow us to both keep our sanity and maybe stay a few extra days as well.
Overall there are several major things I learned while on this adventure:
1. Sometimes, things are worth doing just for the simple fact that life is short. I was once told that you need to know your why before you do something – and while I completely agree having a focus is the best way to stay on tract and to reach a goal – I also feel that going just because you wonder is a great reason as well. I think life is too short and too precious to spend trying to find the perfect reason to make a move. Because in the end – I think we learn so much more by doing than even if we knew every reason in the world why we should. There are some things we can’t predict. And at times that brings harsh realities that shed new light on our once shiny and pure dreams. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t necessarily worth pursuing. It’s all about your attitude. This world is so good at bringing you down if you let it. Things are not always what they seem and often we can literally get in our own ways. I think this is where I have also learned lesson number two…
2. Have no expectations. This doesn’t mean don’t have expectations of yourself. I believe you should always know who you are and what you bring to the table – but that doesn’t mean that the world will value it or that others will want it. What you can do is go into unknown situations – open-minded and with an open-heart – willing to learn and realizing you don’t know it all. There is always someone more dedicated, someone smarter, and someone more willing than you are. But that doesn’t mean that what you are is not enough for your purpose. In fact, God created us all in our own perfect balances to fit the needs he designed us for. To want to be anything else would be to rearrange his plans – and that is not for us to say. So be humble, but realize you are an outsider to many people, just as people are outsiders to you. If nothing else, that is a common bond we all share. That we all are made for different purposes, but together we can compliment each other in this world of no expectations. Which brings me to point three…
3. What you do love – love hard. For me, there are very few things, people, and ideas in this world that have my complete heart. And the crazy thing is some of them I haven’t even been to or maybe even met yet. But what I have learned so far and what Mission:Wolf also taught me is that the things you love are not by chance. That doesn’t mean that life will be easy following what you love – and in fact sometimes following what you think you love will require you to leave things you know you love – and perhaps that is the scariest part. Love means safety, whether in a physical location on this planet or in your heart. I’m new to love – I do believe I am still getting to know its power. This is something I hope to learn more about on my journeys both through Why Should You Care and in life overall. But what I hope to discover is that the pain of being away from those you love can be overcome by chasing that which you desire to love. However, the only way to love is to know – and the only way to know is to find out. So its a risky chance, but in the end I think you have to realize that it really is all about mindset. You never truly leave what you love. There is no end. When you go into unknown situations where you feel nothing is familiar, and there is nothing to love right away – know that you carry all that you already do love with you – and there will be something more to love soon enough. As you find new companions for your heart to share its love with – you have to realize you aren’t separating yourself from what you already do love. It’s simply an addition to your love armory. Love can grow – and in fact I believe we all are meant to love many things. That’s what makes life colorful. Do not selfishly hold on to what you love so much that it creates a barrier between you and your potential. I am still learning how to step away physically from the love I know and into the love I believe is out there – but I pray that this idea and understanding of how to do so continues to grow within me. Because right now the hardest part of all of this – is finding a love balance. Not feeling guilty for stepping away temporarily from who I am right now and bringing into my life all that I hope to love. I am still learning, but I do believe once I learn this and befriend the fear of dependency I currently struggle with at times – I will be able to live a life more free. A life filled with lots of different love… A life more capable of sharing my “something” with the rest of the world.
And lastly – while animals in captivity are never ideal – I am learning that we have to work within the situation at hand. And the sad truth is that unless people are able to interact and learn directly about the raw, untamable beauty of wild animals – it will remain a daunting challenge to secure the conservation of many species. As Mission:Wolf states – it is their goal to “put themselves out of business” meaning that no more animals will be needed to be kept in captivity. And it is my goal to help them reach theirs…
This is all for now…. Stay tuned for more adventure updates and video footage from Mission:Wolf.