Written by Haley Colgate
As instructed, I bared my teeth and made eye contact while a 120-pound wolf pushed his muzzle into my face. Just prior to this meeting, I spent hours scraping away soil to dig a trench that would eventually house lines connecting solar panels to the main circuit breaker of the veterinary building. I was on a Block Break Breakout trip to Mission: Wolf, a sanctuary for the species, in Westcliffe, Colo. In exchange for improving the homes of caretakers who live off the grid to care for the 32 wolves and wolf-dog mixes that call the sanctuary home, nine other Colorado College students and I got to interact with some of the most demonized species in history.
When we arrived Thursday morning, we were met by two Mission: Wolf employees who gave us a rundown on regulations (primarily instructions on proper body language while in view of the wolves) and explained how the reserve came to be. Kent Weber, co-founder of the sanctuary, originally planned to build a house with his partner but came across a wolf in a cage while inspecting potential properties. Heartbroken at the sight of such a powerful animal reduced to captivity, he obtained the necessary licenses to take in wolves in need of shelter, bought some land far from civilization, and began establishing the sanctuary. At peak, his sanctuary housed 52 wolves that consumed some 2,000 pounds of meat per week. Since then, they’ve scaled back to maintain sustainability.
Those who work at the refuge live completely off the grid. Solar panels provide energy for hot water and lights, and the primary vehicles run on vegetable oil and diesel. They use a processing system designed by CC students in a building called the Greasy Spoon to turn vegetable oil from local restaurants into useable fuel. The staff live in tipis equipped with wood stoves for warmth. Permanent structures are built out of salvaged materials from a local landfill. Moreover, much of the food eaten by the sanctuary’s staff comes from greenhouses in geodesic domes that are temperature-regulated by a combination of large water storage basins and hydraulics filled with beeswax that expands when heated to open ceiling vents. Thus, their lifestyle is built to have a low impact on the land and to reduce reliance on nearby towns (the closest of which is 45 minutes away).
CC students completed a variety of tasks to improve the caretakers’ space. In addition to trench digging, the group helped tend plants and remove harmful insects. Scampering up precariously balanced ladders, we also coated the newest geodesic dome with paint that has the potential to double the lifespan of the canvas and provide insulation. The paint required temperature stability while it dried, so in order to counter the unforgiving desert nights, we kept a fire going in the wood stove inside the dome, requiring someone to stoke the fire at least once every two hours.
The most memorable day of the trip was Saturday, a “big feed” day. In order to mimic the feast and famine cycle experienced by wolves in the wild who only feed when their pack makes a kill, Mission: Wolf provides large meals on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The locals provide livestock donations that have either recently died of natural causes or are on their way out. These donations are returned to the food cycle by the rapid consumption of hungry wolves—a decent-sized male grey wolf alone can eat 15 pounds of food in 90 seconds.
To aid this feeding system, our group helped butcher a horse. Using rather large knives, we scraped the meat off the bones and then split the bones apart. Being covered in horse blood and sawing away at tendons provided a new appreciation for the origins of the meat we eat. Because we assisted in preparing the meat, we also got to help feed. We tossed steak-sized chunks of meat to the wolves and watched them swallow them in nearly one bite. They eat not just the meat, but also the hair and the hide. According to one staff member, most of the vitamins a wolf needs are provided by the bone marrow they obtain while gnawing on bones. Following feeding, they go into a food coma, and remain mellow for multiple days until it is time to eat again.
This trip was a prime example of using physical activity to be outdoors and to give back to organizations that help humanity. Our labor assisted Mission: Wolf in providing a safe home for captive wolves and educational programs to curious humans by supporting their staff. We may have struggled to pry open ditches with pickaxes without hitting power lines and lay coat after coat of paint while atop shaky ladders, but we also got to pet wolves and meet the people that live with them. It demonstrated to me that it is possible to trade hard work for amazing, worthwhile experiences.