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A passion for predators

JULIE SUTORsummit daily news
Summit Daily/Julie Sutor Blue River resident Ellen Craig wears her love for wolves around her neck. Craig volunteers at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Florissant about once a week.
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FLORISSANT – Not unlike a lone wolf, Summit County resident Ellen Craig criss-crosses hundreds of miles of western landscape each month.About once a week, Craig hops into her car from her home near the top of Hoosier Pass and heads south, roaming through high valleys, sweeping ranchland and sleepy little towns with postcard-worthy mountain backdrops.Once her odometer ticks through about 65 miles, Craig arrives in the ponderosa- and boulder-strewn hills of Florissant, where she reunites with her pack.

Craig greets Nikita, an 11-year-old, 100-pound, male Arctic wolf, whose yellow eyes peer through white fur to reveal a certain level of trust and familiarity as they stare back at her.”These guys are so intelligent, and they have so much personality,” Craig said. “I’m fascinated by their social nature. You have to earn the wolves’ acceptance – it’s not a given – so it feels really special when they give it to you.”Nikita is one of 12 wolves and wolf-dog hybrids at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center (CWWC), where Craig volunteers her time cleaning enclosures, answering the phone, building ponds, feeding wolves and coyotes, landscaping and working on construction projects.The sanctuary contains several one-acre enclosures, each home to a male-female pair of wolves. The center’s director and founder, Darlene Kobobel, has rescued them all from photography farms, Hollywood breeders, roadside “zoos” and even a Colorado College dorm room. Nikita’s previous owner had confined him in a 5-by-8-foot crate for three years prior to the now-striking wolf’s arrival at CWWC.

At the center, the wolves are fed, spayed and neutered and free to live out their days in the most natural setting possible, given their inability to survive in the wild. Although the CWWC wolves do not run together as a pack (the behaviors that establish and maintain pack hierarchy would make the necessary human care difficult), they do establish close relationships with their enclosure companions – and even some of their human caregivers.When Nikita’s female companion, Chinook, died, Craig spent a few summer nights sleeping inside his enclosure.”They were afraid he was going to get so sick and lonely that he might die before they could find him a new companion,” Craig said. “So I took a sleeping bag – getting it set up was a challenge, because he’ll try to take anything you put down – and I slept in his enclosure three different nights about 10 feet away from him so he wouldn’t howl all night.”One night I woke up, and he had the corner of the sleeping bag in his mouth and he was trying to drag me down the hill. That’s probably my favorite memory there,” Craig added.

In addition to being a sanctuary for orphaned wolves, the center serves as a means to educate the public on one of the country’s most fascinating and controversial predators.CWWC staff offer 20 tours each week, during which they tell each wolf’s story and discuss wolf biology and politics. Kobobel rails against photography farms, which churn out wolf pups to pose for pictures that collect a hefty price to end up on mouse pads and coffee mugs. She also warns against the practice of breeding wolves with dogs to produce wolf hybrids as pets.”Breeders make good money off (hybrids), and in some places they’re legal,” Kobobel said. “Wolves should be wolves, and dogs should be dogs. Wolves are predators, and they belong out in the wild.”

About 250,000 hybrids are born every year, 80 percent of which are euthanized before they reach their third birthday, she said.Craig emphasized that the volunteers’ relationships with the CWWC wolves, though close at times, shouldn’t fool people into thinking that wolves can ever make good human companions.”It’s not a familiarity that I would recommend with wild animals in general. Nikita is a very kind, gentle soul, and he and I have a special relationship. But I don’t want people to get the mistaken idea that these animals are like your average golden retriever,” Craig said.Many of the center’s staff and volunteers are unabashed advocates of having the animals roam through Colorado again, as they did before they were eradicated in the mid-1930s.

“The wolf is a top predator, so there’s always going to be controversy,” Kobobel said. “But we need them in our state to manage deer and elk, which are overgrazing. Bringing the wolf back would restore the balance.”To schedule a tour at CWWC, or to volunteer, call (719) 748-8683. Staff conduct tours Tuesday through Sunday at 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.wolfeducation.org.Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 203 or jsutor@summitdaily.com.


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