Rambling up the bumpy dirt road, the brown and tan pickup pulled to a stop outside the pens. Volunteers gathered around the bed of the truck as one poured dog food into orange 5-gallon buckets to be taken to the wolves.
It’s a Tuesday at Wolfwood Refuge, and volunteers are ready to help feed, clean and play with the 60 animals, including wolves, wolf-dogs, a coyote and other dogs living at the refuge. From the outside of the fenced-in enclosure, it looks as if the animals could attack someone as they start to make noise and move around, but once volunteers and guests enter the pens, the wolves’ true colors come out.
These misunderstood creatures come from all around the U.S. to live out their days in a “forever home.” After overcoming abuse and neglect, these residents are brought to the refuge in hopes of rehabilitation and a place to live out their days in peace.
For Paula Woerner, who founded the sanctuary, it started by rescuing a single wolf-dog from her local humane society. Over the years, Woerner has adopted hundreds of other K-9s, including wolves, wolf-dogs and coyotes at her refuge near Ignacio.
The animals brought to the refuge won’t be headed to the wild; rather, most are permanent residents of Wolfwood, where they are fed, socialized and given a safe space.
“I tell people, I did not move to Colorado at 40 going, ‘I know, let’s start a wolf rescue,’” Woerner said. “I don’t recommend it. It’s crazy hard work. But, not everybody gets to live their passion, and I do.”
Taking care of 60 to 85 animals takes a coordinated effort of dedicated volunteers. Twice a week, members of the community help feed, water and pickup after the pack animals. While Woerner lives at the refuge and is on call 24/7, she has accumulated a battalion of volunteers to help feed the wolves and work on projects. There are three “caretakers” whose job is described as a “catch-all” experience, but their primary job requires working with the animals.
Volunteers socialize the animals by working with them until they feel safe and comfortable, Woerner said. She said sometimes all they need is a little time, space, love and attention.
“That’s a big thing that we have to learn as individuals working with the animals, to actually be able to interact with them, so that they’re happy and comfortable,” said Benjamin Ehlers, a caretaker who has been working at Wolfwood Refuge for about eight years. “That, more than anything else, makes the biggest difference when working with animals who’ve been hurt or abused.”
The refuge has a two-fold vision: To rehabilitate the animals and to educate the public about the animals in an effort to dispel myths and misinformation.
Woerner founded Wolfwood Refuge knowing it would include an educational component. It’s very existence helps educate people about the animals to dispel myths and false information people might have.
“I continually am surprised by how misunderstood they are,” said Keith Lawyer, who has been volunteering with the refuge for 13 years. “People still think that they are vicious man killers and will come in and steal your children and things like that.”
Lawyer said he has seen “a lot” of people have an “aha moment” when they go in with one of the wolves.
Wolfwood Refuge works to fulfill the education component by hosting tours and taking the dogs to different talks around the state.
This summer, the refuge took wolf dogs to Estes Park, where the group talked with 800 to 900 people about the wolves during one weekend. Woerner said “tactile educational experiences” are good for children because those types of experiences can be life-changing. In a year, the refuge educates thousands of people, teaching them about life in the wild and stories of how the animals were rescued. Wolfwood also works with at-risk youth, which helps teach the need to maintain someone’s behavior, she said.
“That’s my bigger goal, is to have an impact on the attitude of humans toward all animals,” Woerner said.
Entering the cage for the first time can be nerve-wracking, but once inside, feelings of anxiety start to subdue the more the animal becomes acquainted. Wolfwood Refuge has never had a wolf hurt someone out of aggression, but people have been hurt playing with them. Wolves treat humans how they treat other wolfs, so humans have to modify their behavior.
A refuge plays multiple roles including keeping the public safe, keeping the animals safe and improving the relationship between canines and humans, Woerner said. Without the refuge near Ignacio, there would be more animals running around potentially causing trouble, Woerner said.
Woerner said some people who cannot handle their wolf-dog will release it into nature not understanding the animal won’t fare well in the wild.
“You know, basically, we’re cleaning up other people’s messes,” Woerner said.