LUCERNE VALLEY, CALIF. — Eastbound on California 18, 100 miles out of L.A., I roll past the familiar strip malls and shopping plazas for several miles before the road tapers off in the stark, sun-baked landscape of the high desert.
Fifteen more miles out, a sign featuring a baying wolf marks the end of a long, grueling driveway to the Wolf Mountain Sanctuary.
But don't expect to see a pack of trotting wolves patrolling expansive grounds here. It's more like an acridly aromatic dog kennel with a couple of bigger pens featuring the main attractions. Still, Wolf Mountain Sanctuary, a nonprofit rescue for Canis lupus, is one place where Angelenos can touch, pet and be rubbed, kissed and bumped by these majestic storybook animals.
My recent visit here offered a remarkable opportunity to get closer to an animal that most people know only from myths and from a distance. Hopes were high as my son and I made the trek east from Santa Monica.
"No children under 13 years old are allowed," the sanctuary's website had warned, but in the next sentence it said, "Please call Tonya for exceptions." We called, and sanctuary owner Tonya Littlewolf, who has operated Wolf Mountain since 1985, said my son, age 10, sounded tall enough and "should be fine. . . . I'll take him in myself," she said, meaning into the cages with the wolves.
But when we arrived, Tonya's first words to me were, "He's too little." She confirmed later that visitors should be at least 5 feet tall, but this careless inexactitude took the wind out of our anticipation and underscored a somewhat unprofessional atmosphere that surrounded the place.
Littlewolf had us take a seat while she vacillated over whether to allow my son into the pen. We waited for close to 45 minutes as she took other visitors in, even though we had reserved an appointment two months earlier.
While we waited in the small yard separating Littlewolf's ramshackle house from the wolves' pens, we were introduced to the sanctuary's "ambassador" -- Waylon, a hyper half-coyote half-wolf, whom we petted. When he devoured a frozen turkey leg, he seemed far less diplomatic and far more feral.
Waylon's small pen lies between two large ones. One is a rocky expanse about 50 by 50 feet and enclosed by a chain-link fence. It holds about six wolves, which rarely meet visitors. To the left of Waylon's pen is a smaller enclosure with three wolves, into which Littlewolf brings visitors. To the left is a row of four small covered cages. Each contains a wolf.
Visitors entering the cage were cautioned to keep their hands out of their pockets because the wolves might think they were hiding something interesting; not to make sudden moves that might startle the animals; and to wait to follow Littlewolf's lead and to wait for an OK from her before they proceeded to pet them.
"My wolves are different than a lot of rescues," said Littlewolf, 57, who lives on the five-acre property. "That's why you can go inside. They know I'm the alpha female and you're my hairless pack. They greet you, and your job in the pack is to pet them and make them feel comfortable."
Is it safe? I asked Brian Cronin, division chief of San Bernardino County Animal Care and Control, who said his office does annual inspections of the facility and its 17 purebred wolves. "The animals are safe, and they appear to be well cared for," he said. "They're a licensed and permitted facility in our county."
'My spirit brothers'
Littlewolf, who grew up in San Carlos, Ariz., is no stranger to rescue operations. Her mother, an Apache, operated a rescue operation that included a veritable Noah's Ark of wild animals, with wolves, cougar cubs, bobcats, raccoons and birds of prey.
"The wolves were more like my spirit brothers," said Littlewolf, speaking of her affinity for these animals. "I was taught that I am part of them, they are part of me and we are one together. When you look in the eyes of a wolf, you will see your soul."
Her feelings are not uncommon. Jessica Edberg, information services director with the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn., said: "A lot of people can identify with the wolf," in part because they're social animals. "They tend, and often prefer, to live in a pack or family unit. From a human perspective, it seems they take care of each other," she said. This, along with their close genetic relation to domesticated dogs, helps make them appealing to people.
But this was not always the case. Through most of its history, the federal government espoused a fervent anti-wolf policy. Edberg said that between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s, about 2 million wolves were slaughtered as part of a federally sanctioned bounty system. Fear, hatred and superstition all played a part. Today, only about 5,500 wolves survive in the lower 48 states. Over the last several decades, environmentalists have worked to restore the remaining three populations of wolves, in the northern Rockies, the southern Rockies and the Midwest.