Running With Wolves In Ramah, New Mexico by Victoria Ugarte

Welcome to Ramah, New Mexico. Lying between the Zuni Indian Reservation, the Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation, and the Cibola National Forest, Ramah is as rugged as it is beautiful.

Staying overnight at nearby Gallup - the word ‘nearby’ being relative - my husband, Peter and I ventured out in search of the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary. Off the beaten track of the I-40, we clunked over some dirt roads in what was well and truly rural landscape. Wondering if we had gotten ourselves hopelessly lost, we counted our blessings that we’d decided to visit this part of the world in May and not during winter, or during heavy rains. Our rented Corolla sedan would not have withstood the challenge. Thankfully, the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary directions were really accurate; following our print-out to the letter, we found our way there.

Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary is a very special place that provides a permanent and safe sanctuary for abused and abandoned captive-bred wolves and wolf-dogs. A non-profit organization, it also serves to educate the public on the wild wolf, the complexities of wolf-dog ownership and the care and treatment of all animals, domestic or wild.
But this is no slick operation. For starters, the sanctuary runs on the smell of an oily rag. It is small and very remote, and don’t expect a world class zoo either. However, what it is is clean, the enclosures are spacious and as close to natural as they can make it for the animals, and the staff are passionate about keeping their charges safe. They also care deeply about educating the public on these noble creatures.

Walking the rough terrain, our small group of six followed our guide, Brennan Stoelb, on a tour of the sanctuary, dispelling the common misconceptions about the wolf and educating our group about the behaviors of the wolf, the dynamics of the wolf pack, and the differences between wolves and domestic dogs. Here is what I learnt about the wolves that day:

Wolves are shy. They tend to stay away from humans unless threatened or cornered.

Wolves are sensitive communicators. They have a rich and subtle vocabulary of visual signals that communicate social rank, mood, and intentions. Subtle changes in tail and ear positions, of body and head angle and height, making and breaking eye contact, and various facial expression show this information. This awareness is termed "metacommunication"--"He knows that you know that he knows." Because of this, the frequency and complexity of communications signaling can be reduced; a mere glance or slight flick of the ears suffices.

Wolves have a strong social nature. Since each wolf knows its place in the rank order, conflicts are reduced. Once a stable dominance hierarchy is established, peace reigns in the pack. The alpha wolves may "police" others, subordinating an upstart with a direct stare and breaking up squabbles between two lower-ranking wolves. A well-understood and respected hierarchy eliminates most serious conflict within the pack.

Wolves know how to play. Wolves of all ages, from four weeks of age and on, engage in play. Social play takes many forms. Hugging and wrestling are forms of contact-play which are usually started by a "let's play" bow and are especially evident during courtship. Contact play is often interspersed with brief bouts of affectionate grooming and may lead to playful fighting, chasing, stalking, and ambush, involving two, three, and more wolves.

Wolves are monogamous. Wolves mate for life, which means once they choose a mate, they stay with that mate for the rest of their lives.

Are wolves a danger to humans? During the 100 years of the 20th century there were between twenty and thirty wolf attacks in North America (including Alaska and Canada, which have relatively high populations of wolves). Of these, three were fatal, all because of rabies. No attacks have been recorded in Yellowstone National Park since the reintroduction of wolves more than a decade ago. For comparison, during the 20th century there have been 71 fatal grizzly (brown) bear attacks in North America. Each year in the United States, 16-18 people die from dog attacks.

Why would humans want to own a wild animal? The breeding and selling of "exotic" animals as pets has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Breeders profit from the false belief that if a wolf cub is raised like a dog, then it wil act like a dog when it is grown. Nothing could be further from the truth! Too late for the animal, the buyer realises the mistake and the animals become victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment. In fact, between 1-7 people contact Wild Spirit Sanctuary each day, asking to be "rescued" from their wolf or wolf-dog.

Today, I learnt as much about human nature as I did about the wolves. I witnessed a testimony to animal suffering due to the neurosis of humans. In our preoccupation with ego, control, and the never ending quest to be "Masters of the Universe", we feel a sense of "superiority" when we are able to "tame the wild". Yet this skewed attitude has shown time and time again to lead to the destruction of our complex eco-system, and more immediately, this magnificent animal.
As my step-daughter, Natasha, so rightly said, "Oh man, you’ve either gotta run with the wolves or let them be."
Can we do anything to help?

Yes, and Wild Spirit need your help. As donations dwindle to zero and payroll after payroll gets missed, the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary for abandoned wolves continually struggles to figure out how they can continue to help animals in need.

If this story touches a chord in you, please help the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary by contacting them and helping them in whichever way you can on

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