When Wolf Mountain Sanctuary, a place I’d never heard of before, popped up on my Facebook page one day, I looked to see where it was. Turns out, it’s been out in the Lucerne Valley desert for almost 30 years. I don’t know how I’ve missed it all this time.
I drove around the backside of Big Bear and dropped down from the forest into the desert. Lucerne Valley is a character unto itself.
It really feels like the middle of nowhere, just like the local cafe proclaims on their T-shirts. I like the middle of nowhere.
I drove down a dirt road off the main highway with squirrels darting across it. Jake, one of the caretakers, opened the gate. I met Tonya Littlewolf, the half-Apache, half-Sicilian founder of Wolf Mountain, and the first thing she did was give me a present: A fold-up chair with wolves printed on it. Perfect for sketching.
I told her the chance way Wolf Mountain had landed on my radar. She replied, “it was supposed to be.”
Tonya is known as “Mama Wolf." She’s been called that, she says, since she was small. Her grandfather had a rescue. They helped “anything that got hurt in the wild. We had wolves, all the way to squirrels, cougars, bobcats. And then we let ‘em run free. Because they got better and we relocated them back. My grandfather said that was my summons in life. I was to take care of and protect the wolf.”
She has been around them since she was 2. She believes in their healing power and has lots of stories of them helping people, including soldiers with PTSD.
We talked for a while. I found out that some of the wolves had been filmed for the Twilight movies, and found out some of their individual personality quirks. Then we went outside to see the wolves — they are amazing.
Some visitors were there to take a tour, so Holan came out to hang with them. He’s sort of the Wolf Mountain greeter. He’s really friendly and seems to like the attention. I hung out with him after — he climbed all over me checking me out. I think I passed his inspection.
(Mike Sheehan and Holan. Credit: Tonya Littlewolf)
Wolves seem to always be fighting so many misconceptions about them, which has bred an irrational hatred of them in some places. But they are amazingly complex social animals, and beautiful.
On the second day, all the wolves howled (check out the audio in the player above) when I arrived in the morning. Prophet, a more recent arrival, growled at me for some reason. I think I might have been a little early for him.
I went and hung out with Holan. I got some color sketches of him as he walked by. Later in the day I found out Prophet could be a ham, and he would sit and pose for a while then walk around, but he came back every now and then and hit his pose again. It felt a little like a conversation.
That’s when it gets interesting, when it’s quiet and they get comfortable with me being there. We’d both sit and look at each other trying to figure each other out. At least I was; Prophet might have already figured me out.
Why are the wolves here? Some are failed pets and illegal breeding. Some come from the movie industry. Some have sad stories.
Balto has the manner of a wolf that hasn’t been treated very well. He was malnourished, dehydrated, stressed and had worms when he got here. He was skittish when I held my palm out offering him some treats. He finally took them, but quickly backed off to eat them. Tonya spends a lot of time out here with him and all the wolves. She is teaching Balto that some people actually love him.
I would ask Tonya each one's story, then be sorry I asked. But she gives them lots of love and they love her back. She also lectures at various organizations. A lot of her education efforts are teaching people that wolves are not pets, and that they are not villains — that they should be wild.
She spends a lot of her day raising money, a constant battle. It costs over $1,500 in red meat and $800 in chicken every week, and that's just some of the food costs. She has two wolves now that need to be fixed, and then there are other costs involved.
Wolf Mountain is completely reliant on donations and tours. There is also the effort to move them to Colorado, where there is more land and the climate is more to the wolves' liking.
She said she wanted to be outside with the wolves whenever she was in the office, and always made time go out and sit with them. I went out one day with her — she wanted me to see how peaceful it was. I did have to calm down as I entered their space, and sit on the ground so I didn't seem like a threat. It is truly amazing to see their movements and get to interact with them.
I went Friday for my last visit. I had gotten used to seeing them every day, and I was a little sad that I wouldn’t be sitting with them anymore. I was starting to see their distinct personalities. It's funny how fast you can feel bonded to something — but I have a feeling I’ll see them again soon.