LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. — Tonya Carlone came to this desert community in 1984 in search of a refuge for herself and her eight pet wolves. She bought a ranch facing an expanse of rocks and sand on one side and the San Gabriel Mountains on the other.
Her nearest neighbors, a few hundred feet away, were Virgil and Georgia Christian of Montebello, who had bought a weekend home 23 years earlier as a wilderness retreat.
Now, the Christians say, they are afraid to even walk outside and that the "bone-chilling howling" of Carlone's wolves makes it impossible to sleep. They want Carlone and her wolves to move.
Carlone, 35, says she can't afford to move and has vowed to "fight them to the end."
It is a feud peculiar to the sparsely populated Southern California desert, although Carlone and the Christians are fighting it out in the halls of San Bernardino County government.
The county Planning Commission and the county Board of Supervisors have agreed to decide whose idea of paradise will prevail. A final decision, however, may be months away.
At the heart of the dispute are the eight timber, tundra and buffalo wolves that Carlone has been given over the years by others who could no longer care for them.
Carlone said none of these predatory carnivores can ever be returned to the wilds, where wolves have been trapped, hunted or poisoned to near extinction in most states. The animals have become too dependent upon humans for food and shelter to fend for themselves.
Instead, Little Wolf, Topaz, Robin, Kala, Teddie, Destiny, Chrissy and Shena, which range in size from 100 to 150 pounds each, are confined in large outdoor pens covered with chain-link fencing--about 400 feet from the Christians' bedroom window.
At least once a night, the wolves sound off in unison at the stars. The noise is the main source of antagonism between Carlone and Virgil Christian, 58, a high school teacher, and Georgia Christian, 48, operator of a catering business.
"The wolves howl a lot--and not just to say good night," Georgia Christian said. "But the bottom line is they (Carlone and roommate Diane Flagg) have broken the law (by keeping the wolves without legal permits) and we want to protect what is ours. Right now, with those wolves next door, our property is worthless."
"You get eight wolves howling at once and it'll raise the hair on the back of your neck--and they howl all day long," Virgil Christian added. "I get so damn mad I want to get a gun and start shooting."
Once, he said, a wolf got loose. Ever since he has worried about the safety of friends and children who come to visit on weekends and holidays.
"I was opening my gate and it came up to me with saliva coming out of its mouth," he said. "I thought the animal was rabid."
Carlone denied that allegation and suggested that the animal he saw may have been one of the many wild dogs or coyotes that roam the surrounding hills.
Nonetheless, it is a story that the Christians have taken to county officials in their effort to get rid of the place Carlone calls Wolf Mountain Sanctuary.
"I'm not too worried," said Carlone, who has kept wolves since her mother gave her a cub when she was 10. "I have God and Archer Hudson on my side. With those two I can't go wrong."
Archer B. Hudson, Carlone's attorney, works out of a tiny office next to Lucerne Valley's only hardware store, about four miles from Carlone's home.
"The only legal issue here is a standing complaint by people who are not even residents of Lucerne Valley," Hudson said. "There is no way the wolves are a nuisance for the Christians, who stay out there on occasional nights."
He also said that the fact that Carlone brought her wolves here without permits in the first place is a technicality.
"You have to remember that we are dealing with a different life style in the desert," Hudson said. "This is one of the last frontiers. Out here, people tend to do their thing and work it out with the government while they are doing it."
Amid the controversy, Carlone, who is unemployed, Flagg, who works at a hearing aid company in Burbank, and a cadre of volunteers have built cages, laid concrete and installed a high fence around the property for the wolves.
Each day, they exercise the animals by taking them out of their cages on leashes for strolls around the dirt yard of Carlone's small wood-frame house.
Some of the wolves have even been trained to sit, lie down and shake hands. They also respond to an Apache Indian phrase that sounds roughly like "Ti Wah Mah Tah!" Carlone, who is half Apache, said it means, "Get your ass back in there!"
Feeding the wolves has been a problem. Despite a steady stream of donations from friends and supporters, the women can't always raise the $60 needed each week to keep the animals supplied with red meat and chicken.
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