TENINO, Wash. — On Friday nights when the weather is warm, 200 people gather around a fire, throw back their heads and howl at the moon--and 35 wolves howl back. Then they all howl together.
No wolves have lived in the Washington wilderness for more than 50 years. When the forest echoes with wolf song, it can only mean it's Howl-In time at Wolf Haven America, one of the nation's largest private sanctuaries for an animal as revered and reviled as any on Earth.
"All the wolves that are here were virtually marked for death in one form or another (except) those that were born here," said Wolf Haven founder and president Stephen Kuntz, standing in front of a pack of Eastern timber wolves sent to him after they were used in a University of Connecticut research project into wolf behavior. "No one else would take them."
About 12 years ago, Kuntz answered a newspaper ad offering wolf pups and bought himself more problem than pet. Within a few years, Blackfoot was eating the furniture and ripping up the rugs; Kuntz had to get him out of the house.
He found another wolf owner and, within four years, their seven wolves had become 16.
Kuntz and his wife, Linda, incorporated their nonprofit Wolf Haven when the other owner left five years ago and now they have 35 wolves--all members of gray wolf subspecies--as well as three foxes and three coyotes. Some of the Wolf Haven denizens, like the white Arctic wolves Lucan and Clementine, are extremely rare. Others, such as Buffalo wolves Kathleen and Windsong, whose ancestors roamed the Great Plains with the bison, are extinct in the wild.
They live in 15 enclosures on 20 of the group's 60 acres about 80 miles south of Seattle.Guided tours are offered on weekends year-round and Howl-Ins take place on summer Fridays.
"Some were family pets that people found didn't make very good pets," said Kuntz, who added that it is illegal for private citizens to keep wolves because they are protected as endangered in the United States. "Some came from zoos that were overstocked. Some came from university projects. We took in these wolves and use them as educational tools for wolves in the wild."
What Kuntz and staff biologist Jack Laufer want people to know is that wolves are noble, shy, intelligent animals, intensely affectionate and loyal to their mates and pups, and unfairly portrayed as savage and malicious. In fact, some of the animals at Wolf Haven are downright friendly. Kathleen, the Buffalo wolf, leaps up like a happy puppy when Kuntz enters her enclosure.
"I see a lot of what we should be in them," Laufer said. "The family is much stronger for the wolf. There's no divorce, no welfare. They don't need wars. They don't need to build freeways. They live with what's there. We can't do that."
They say wolves generally run from man--their No. 1 cause of death--and point out that there is no documented case of wolves attacking humans in the wild.
"A lot of people come in here in the beginning (saying), 'Let's go see the vicious creature.' They leave with a whole new perspective," Kuntz said.
A little girl who had recurring nightmares for months about the evil wolves in fairy tales received a therapeutic dose of reality at Wolf Haven.
"I took her on a personal tour and talked to her about the wolves," Kuntz said. "She said she was going home to throw away her 'Little Red Riding Hood' book."