Matthew Simmons is greeted by one of the 29 wolf dogs rescued from a roadside… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
Chained to posts on a half-acre lot, the 29 wolf dogs languished for years behind stockade fencing at a roadside attraction near Anchorage.
The wolf hybrids were unable to touch one another except when they were bred through chain-link fences. Several had sore backs and legs because they had never been able to move more than a few yards at a time.
The animals were seized by Alaskan authorities as evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation and scheduled for destruction before the Lockwood Valley Animal Rescue Center intervened. The center had the wolf dogs spayed and neutered, then transported by plane and truck to its sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.
PHOTOS: New life for rescued wolf dogs
They arrived at the 20-acre sanctuary Dec. 12 and will live the rest of their lives unchained, in sprawling enclosures and networks of wire holding pens.
Striding toward a pen shaded by scrub oaks and pine trees, Lori Lindner, co-founder and president of the nonprofit sanctuary, introduced visitors on Thursday to members of her new "packs": a black female with dark honey-colored eyes featured in Sean Penn's 2007 film, "Into the Wild," and a large male that fathered seven of the rescued wolf dogs.
Lindner, 46, recalled with a sigh arriving at the Wolf Country USA attraction in Anchorage earlier in the month to begin preparing the animals for the long trip to California.
"It was heartbreaking to see so many of these animals on chains," she said. "Wolf dogs are products of human vanity and machismo."
The trouble is that crossing wolves, which have been bred by nature for millions of years to be wild, with dogs, which have been genetically manipulated for thousands of years to serve humans, creates a conflict of innate behaviors. As a result, they are often chained up or given away, turned loose or killed, or they escape and are shot or poisoned.
In a 2½-acre enclosure dubbed "wolf mansion," Lindner's husband, Matthew Simmons, called out to six juvenile wolf dogs that were adjusting to a measure of freedom.
"No more pain," said Simmons, 38. "They're getting along amazing well, although there have been a few tussles in which one girl pushed another girl around. But overall, they honestly seem to understand that this is a better environment than where they came from."
The Humane Society of the United States has taken a hard stand against wolf dogs as unpredictable, destructive and rarely trainable. At least 16 states ban them, and California and 20 other states have restrictions on ownership. Alaska prohibits ownership of wolves or wolf dogs unless they are spayed or neutered, fitted with microchips and registered with state authorities.
Lindner and Simmons were alerted by sanctuary accreditation officials that Wolf Country USA was under investigation, accused of illegal possession of wolf dogs. The zoo-like attraction boasted "the largest wolf pack in Alaska" and charged $5 to walk along a path close enough to the animals to take snapshots and, in certain cases, pet one.
"We flew to Alaska and met with the assistant attorney general," Simmons said. "He told us that the state had no place to keep them, and if we didn't take them he was going to dispatch state troopers to shoot them and toss them into a freezer until the court battle with Wolf Country USA was resolved."
In a telephone interview, Werner Shuster, owner of Wolf Country USA, denied that the wolf dogs had been mistreated or that he had broken the law.
"We raised them since they were pups, each one had 12 to 15 feet of space and they were the healthiest animals on the planet," said Shuster, 82. "They do better on chains. That way they don't fight, and people can pet them."
Money to take the wolf dogs to the sanctuary came from a $5,000 donation from the Humane Society and a "very, very large donation" from Bob Barker, who hosted the TV game show "The Price is Right" for 35 years, Simmons said.
Because of their histories, size, strength and often unstable temperaments, the wolf dogs need lots of care. The nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare donated $43,000 to construct nine new enclosures with 10-foot-high fencing.
The sanctuary needs $3,000 a month for maintenance and about $350 a day for raw meat, day-old products bought from local grocery stores at a discount. It is also negotiating the purchase of a nearby 180-acre property that would be devoted to dozens more rescued wolf dogs and wolves. "We need $250,000 for a down payment on the property," Simmons said.
To help reduce the costs of the operation, which already housed 20 rescued wolf dogs, the sanctuary launched Warriors and Wolves, a program designed to pair wolf dogs with combat veterans volunteering there to try to overcome physical injuries and lingering anxieties.
Stanley McDonald, 48, who was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder after he returned from the Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm, is among veterans who have become full-time volunteer ranch hands at the sanctuary.
Stepping through the gate of an enclosure where three wolf dogs paced warily, McDonald said, "I see a lot of myself in these animals. Like them, I was lost and troubled until I came here. Now, there's a lot of healing going on."
PHOTOS: New life for rescued wolf dogs