Wolf Haven Captures Hearts of Author, Photographer

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On April 27, the Olympia Timberland Library hosted its annual “Celebration of the Species.” This year the event featured presentations from the creators of a new book inspired by Tenino‘s Wolf Haven International. 

The photo-essay book is entitled “Wolf Haven: Sanctuary and the Future of Wolves in North America.” Writer Brenda Peterson and photographer Annie Marie Musselman each shared their journey with library patrons.

Musselman’s work has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, National Geographic Magazine, Audubon, Wired, Travel + Leisure and the Smithsonian magazine. In her earlier work she photographed orangutans in Borneo in an effort to raise awareness of this fascinating species whose existence is threatened by the habitat destruction caused by palm oil harvestation.

Musselman said orangutans, like wolves, are “apex predators” or “keystone species.” The survival of these species is integral to all those who fall below them on the food chain. Musselman dedicated herself to documenting animals such as these living in sanctuaries around the world in an effort to raise awareness. 

“If they were saved, others would be too,” Musselman said.

Musselman was taken by the wolves at Wolf Haven, which include the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf (aka el lobo) and red wolf. She felt a kinship with Executive Director Diane Gallegos, Director of Animal Care Wendy Spencer, Mexican Wolf SSP Liaison Pamela Maciel Cabanas and the rest of the Wolf Haven team.

“I knew I had found my people,” Musselman said.

So began Musselman’s long quest to photograph the wolves of Wolf Haven. There were challenges along the way. She had to learn to work through the fence, which resulted in the nipping and licking of her lens on more than a few occasions. 

“I would hold my camera up to the fence for hours, until my arms were weak and my hands were numb,” she said.

Musselman also had to figure out how to capture images of one of the shyest animals on Earth.

“They would hide for hours,” she said. “Finally I’d give up and walk away, just to turn around and find that they’d silently appeared at the fence. Not even the dry leaves would crackle somehow. I had to spend maybe a whole day in front of the fence to get one photo.” 

Musselman got to know the wolves by name. It didn’t take long for her to fall in love. 

“Imagine the coolest person you’ve ever met,” she said. “Totally unassuming, strong, mysterious, confident, elusive, takes your breath away. To me, that’s the wolves.”

Musselman found the same connection with the wolves that she had found during her work with bald eagles, bears, coyotes and bobcats at a Washington wildlife sanctuary and when holding baby orangutans who had lost their mothers in fires. 

“I looked into their eyes and could see myself,” she said. “I take photos to remind people that these animals are just like us.” 

Musselman formed a special connection to the wolf pair Jessie and Shiloh. When Jessie neared the end of her life, Musselman made the trip down to say goodbye. Jessie died the following day, one month after her mate Shiloh. 

“Just like my grandparents who passed away within one month of each other,” Musselman said. 

Author Peterson opened her presentation by explaining her own childhood growing up in nature. “To be able to return to the wild is really important for us as humans,” she said.

Peterson has written many novels and nonfiction books and her writing has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Reader’s Digest, Christian Science Monitor and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is also the founder of the grassroots conservation group “Seal Sitters.”

Peterson was drawn to Wolf Haven, the only wolf sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Accredited Sanctuaries in the world, in part because of their participation in a program that reintroduces some wolves back into the wild. 

“You can get compassion fatigue when you’re trying to save this and save that,” Peterson said. “This is tiring. It’s important to tell stories with a happy ending. This is a happy ending.”

Peterson told the story of the Mexican wolf pair Hopa and Brother, who were fortunate to have one of the three wolf litters born in 2015 at Wolf Haven. 

“These wolves are not touched by humans or seen,” Peterson said, showing a picture of the young brood. “They have no idea humans exist, it’s kind of a nice thought, for six weeks. They just have the sweet milk of the mother and the father who guards the den outside and regurgitates for the mother.”

Peterson recalled when she received the call from Gallegos that Hopa, Brother and their pups had been chosen for release. 

“Her voice was just thrumming with excitement,” Peterson said. 

In preparation for the release, the wolf family was outfitted with radio collars so the team could monitor their whereabouts and status. The family then embarked on a 28-hour trip by van and plane to Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch in New Mexico. When they arrived at the ranch, the wolf family was hesitant to leave. 

“Everything looks and smells different,” Peterson said. “When they opened the crates, nobody ran out. Hopa was the first to finally flash out of her kennel into the Ladder Ranch.”

The ranch served as a training ground for the wolf family, where they instinctively practiced and learned to hunt. Everyone celebrated when one of the yearlings managed to bring down a raven for the first time. During the transition, their diet was supplemented with road kill, a Thanksgiving turkey and “in the summer they’re even given bloodsicles,” Peterson said.

Finally, the family was released into the wild. 

“It’s very scary for them but it’s a beautiful moment,” Cabanas said. “When you can finally see them go and try a life to be really wolves, it’s great. After a few days when biologists on site take photos, they look like they are relaxed and just trying to do what they do, be a wolf family and hunt and try to stay away from humans.”

According to Wolf Haven, the wild wolf population of Mexico was estimated to be between 12 and 17 wolves. The new pack will help. 

“Lobos are born to be wild,” Peterson said. “It was my pleasure to write and Annie’s to capture.”

The gathering ended with a group howl in honor of the wolves of Wolf Haven. 

“When you do a wolf howl at Wolf Haven, they harmonize with us,” Peterson said. “When I sing some note, a wolf will actually take a fourth or a fifth. It’s an act of generosity that almost makes me weep to hear it. It’s not just to claim territory. Sometimes I think they sing like we sing, like the old Bible says, to make a joyful sound. I love that sound.”

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