Toni Shelbourne is part of a very exclusive club; one to which only a handful of people worldwide belong. She has had the privilege of working with socialised wolves, those who have been reared to be comfortable around people. Here is an extract from her new book Among the wolves ...
Even though Dakota was a very well socialised wolf, her true instincts were never very far from the surface. To run away from unfamiliar or frightening situations is the first line of defence for any wolf, so although Dakota would be happy and unfazed at a busy event, a wheelbarrow out of place at home could be a big deal for her. She would refuse to walk past it, or wait until I did so in order to use me as a shield between her and this scary object. She was also wary of the metal traps and doors in her enclosure, especially when they rattled in the wind. Often, though, vocal reassurance and a belly rub would calm her.
Dakota loved to sunbathe, and would often lay out to bake for most of the day. In the summer sometimes she would be so comfortable she wouldn’t even come in for her dinner, and you’d find her late at night, lying sleepy and content in her scrape (a bed that wolves make in the dirt). She’d let you stroke her, lay down next to her, or even use her as a pillow, but try to get her up and moving towards the kennel area where the wolves fed and slept and she’d become grumpy, so we usually left her there to enjoy the evening. Wolves don’t need to eat every day, and will self-starve if they feel so inclined.
Photographic days at the UKWCT were a favourite with Dakota, who was always a bit of a poser (in her younger days, before she lost part of her tail and became ill with lymph node cancer, she was extremely photogenic). Dakota had her limits, even so, and after striking various poses (she seemed to have a stock of them, displayed in order: sideways look, sit, ears picked, howl), would let us know she was done with her adoring public. She always ended each session with a howl, after which she’d look at the handlers in a bored fashion, which definitely said “Right, time to go back and have a snooze now, please, I’m done toiling for the day.”
Alba was the male of the European pack, and lived with his sisters, Lunca and Latea. This litter was born at the Trust on 3 May 1999, and is said to be the first born on British soil since we eradicated wolves from mainland UK, hundreds of years ago. Roger Palmer imported their parents and an aunt – Apollo, Athena, and Luna – from Europe, and they subsequently went to live at Wildwood in Kent.
To various handlers Alba was a wolf to fear. Domineering; sometimes unpredictable, he was an impressive, majestic animal who took no prisoners. I never understood why he accepted me into his inner circle and not others, and I never once felt threatened by him. Even at a very early stage in our relationship he would enthusiastically greet me by sometimes holding my entire head in his mouth!
I didn’t meet him until he was about eighteen months old, and I was one of the last people he took to. Volunteers who joined after that time were held in distain, or targeted for an impressive display of posturing and growling. He could set a handler’s heartbeat racing in a minute if he looked at you the wrong way, and had the ability to stare you down with hard, glazed-looking eyes. If you saw that look, watch out!
To me, though, he was just Alba, my mate, and we rubbed along together well. Although he was too strong for me to handle on a lead on public walks, I occasionally got to walk him double-leaded with one of the strapping male handlers that Alba liked. His power was amazing, and I’ll never forget the sight of him dragging around sixteen stone guys when he got the wind up his tail, which often happened when he’d had a dip in the pond on walks, and had become frisky. I’ve no idea how they managed to hold onto the lead ...
I never really knew how Alba would be in the enclosure: some days he would want to play; others he simply rolled over for a belly rub. Either way he demanded respect and compliance – and he was bigger than me, after all!
One girl, eleven wolves – and a whole host of heart-warming stories ...
Among the wolves – Memoirs of a wolf handler by Toni Shelbourne.
The fascinating story of Toni’s life with eleven charismatic wolves at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, Berkshire, England. Over ten years she handled, raised, cared for and nursed these amazing creatures, and within these pages you will come to know the characters; laugh at their sense of fun, mourn at their passing – and learn to love them as she does.
Describing some of the best and worst of times, discover what happens behind closed doors when the public goes home, leaving just Toni and the wolves ...
Click here for more information about the book.