Wolfwood Refuge in Ignacio lost an important member of its family this week.
Oakley, a 9-year-old, nearly 160-pound Alaskan wolf, died from complications related to surgery to repair a ruptured stomach. Oakley was the biggest animal at Wolfwood and as an “ambassador wolf,” was widely known around town, making frequent trips to Purgatory Resort, Three Springs, various nursing homes and many of the schools in the area.
Director Paula Woerner said Oakley was one of the favorites at the refuge for his ability to interact with people.
“He loved people. He found them interesting and got a lot out of interacting with them,” Woerner said.
Oakley, or Big O, arrived at the refuge in July 2011, when he was just 12 weeks old. With eight other wolf pups, named “The Alaska 9,” Oakley was rescued from an abusive breeder in Anchorage. It was the largest rescue in Wolfwood’s history.
The first couple months of his time at Wolfwood were difficult because he had a number of health and behavioral issues stemming from the abusive environment he was born in. For example, he was taken away from his parents just four weeks after he was born. Early separation from parents makes it hard for wolves to develop and mature.
However, Woerner said Oakley was naturally mellow and had a good personality which allowed him to connect especially well with humans. Out of the nine wolves from Alaska, Oakley was the only one able to be an ambassador wolf. Ambassador wolves are used to educate the public outside the refuge.
“Oakley was the happiest animal ever. He was so patient with the public and so loving and so giving,” Woerner said. “It’s really not an exaggeration to say he changed so many people’s lives for the better. There’s hundreds of people that will tell you they’ve never been the same since they got to interact with him.”
Woerner said Oakley will be irreplaceable as an ambassador wolf. He was able to change the way people thought about wolves because of his combination of size, beauty and tenderness.
“There’s not any here that can interact like he does. ... He was such a teacher,” Woerner said.
Woerner said Oakley loved people and it was not uncommon for visitors to cry after being with Oakley.
For example, Woerner recounted the story of a man who came to Wolfwood after a diagnosis of macular degeneration. His doctor told him he would be blind in three months.
Staff members placed the man in a pen with Oakley and his experience was unforgettable.
“Normally, Oakley just kisses everybody, but with this guy, he went nose to nose and he looked at him and he looked at him. The man came out crying and said, ‘If that’s the last thing I’ll ever see, I’m OK with that,’” Woerner said.
Oakley was also connected with staff members. One volunteer in particular, Ben Ehlers, who Woerner said helped raise Oakley, was particularly attached to Oakley.
After the surgery, Ehlers sat with Oakley at the veterinarian’s office as he tried to recover. Woerner said as long as Ehlers was there, Oakley knew he was safe.
After Oakley died, Ehlers told Woerner, “He taught me how to love. I did not know what unconditional love was, until I knew him.”
All of Wolfwood is feeling his loss.
“It’s literally like losing a member of your family or a loved one,” Woerner said.
A couple of years after the Alaska 9 arrived at Wolfwood, they split into two packs and Oakley was the alpha of the larger pack. Woerner said she doesn’t think the pack knows yet his temporary absence will now be permanent. She’s unsure how the pack will respond.
Despite the need to grieve and remember Oakley, Woerner and Wolfwood are faced with the financial challenges that many nonprofits are encountering during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Of course, we’re in the same position as all 501(c)(3)s this year, we weren’t able to do any fundraising this year, we weren’t able to do any educational outreach,” Woerner said.
The surgery for Oakley was costly and put a significant dent in Wolfwood’s funds.
To donate to Wolfwood Refuge, visit wolfwoodrefuge.org.