There are wolves in the hills near Speedwell Forge! They make their home in one of the area’s best-kept secrets, the Wolf Sanctuary of PA.
When friends who live in Lititz told me about the sanctuary, I reached out to volunteer Dale Kofroth for a private tour. It was early spring, and the nip of winter was still in the air. A jacket was needed, as were boots as I trudged along the wide, unpaved paths. The last bit of snow strained to melt into the earth.
The sanctuary is home to more than 40 timber and gray wolves, as well as hybrids (part wolf, part domesticated dog). As decedents of our modern domesticated pets, Dale and other volunteers at the sanctuary often refer to their furry friends as dogs. He grew up within ear shot of the wolves and knew the sanctuary’s founders as only the “weird family with pet wolves.”
“I came by one day and met some other weird people,” he says, smiling after greeting me at the entrance. “And now I’m one of them!” It’s obvious Dale has a genuine love for the wolves. He talks to them in pet voices and calls to them with familiar terms like “buddy” and “girl.”
Smokey and the Lone Wolf
The first thing I learn from him is that Canis lupus, commonly called the gray wolf, is a bit of a misnomer.
“It is just a class of wolf. If you dig down to the base of the hair, no matter what color they are, they will have gray roots,” Dale explains, as we step close to the double-fenced enclosure of the pack named Smokey’s Family. “Two-thirds of gray wolves are born black, but they can be many colors. So, that’s why we have this golden one here.”
The golden one is Solo, one of the most active wolves at the sanctuary; her energy is boundless as she prances around in front of us. Most of the rest of this pack stalks nearby and consists of Cinderella, Swayze and Dusty, who is hiding in plain view right near our feet. The last sibling in the pack, Friday, is the biggest and is a bit leery of the fences. He also tends to stay apart from the other wolves, but not entirely. In a nearby enclosure is Galahad, the sanctuary’s “lone wolf.” He literally has a smile on his face when Dale approaches with the greeting of “Hey, buddy.”
“Most wolves don’t like to be alone. They’ll get depressed, but he likes having his man cave,” Dale notes.
The staff attempted to introduce Galahad to other wolves, but he has never shown any interest in a companion. The stately black-furred wolf with touches of silver on his face is happy to be the sanctuary’s lone, lone wolf.
The Big Pack
Halfway through the tour, I have a great feeling of delight and wonderment. The wolves are happy. They watch me as I watch them. Some play in the distance. Others wander toward us with curiosity. While fear has subsided, trepidation remains. These are, after all, wolves.
“It’s really hard to place animals together because there are so many different personalities,” says Dale as he leads me up a slippery, mud-covered incline. He introduces me to The Big Pack, the biggest in the sanctuary at 10 wolves. “This is our largest enclosure. It goes up and over and is shaped like a giant L.”
At the top, we pause. I get to catch my breath and take in the view of The Big Pack. Many of its members have amassed at this wooded summit to survey their territory. Half a deer carcass lays on the ground inside the fences. It carries no scent and is nearly stripped of its meat.
The wolves’ diet consists of as much raw meat as possible. In cooperation with Lancaster County authorities, the wolves get a fair share of deer that have met their demise on roadways. Freezer and farm donations are also accepted, but only 100% natural meat is allowed. They dine on nothing cooked, seasoned, marinated or made of pork. Later during my visit, a neighbor – who seemed to be something of a regular – dropped off a deer he had found struck by a vehicle and abandoned. The staff will now test the deer to make sure it does not carry any illness or disease and use it as part of the five pounds of meat per day each wolf eats. According to Dale, they are especially hungry in the winter. “The freezers can sometimes look like a horror show,” he notes.
I’m learning wolves have distinct personalities, much like people. They form bonds and look after their young. The males jockey for rank. The alpha females ready themselves for offspring. “They do the dance, but we neuter all the males. The girls just don’t know it, so they prepare for puppies out of instinct,” says Dale.
Trinity, the alpha female of The Big Pack, has been working on her den for years. It is a deep, wide and massive structure. She even demands excavation help from the other females in the pack. Running with her tail held high, she knows this is her territory.
Our presence draws the interest of the pack. Levi, one of the youngest wolves, approaches the fence. With a mostly black coat and rich gray face, Levi’s curiosity is a bit intimidating. Although he is the youngest, he is also the biggest of his brothers. The sun has hidden behind the clouds and in the shade of the tall trees the temperature has dropped; my boots start to crunch on refreezing ground. Moving back downhill I hear my first howl!
The Penny Pack
Heading away from The Big Pack, we run into a furry white ball nestled up against the fence. It is Sky, a young resident who came to the sanctuary as a pup in 2012. She lifts her head toward us as Dale asks if I know the story of the Pennypack Park wolf.
In 2012, residents of Northeast Philadelphia started noticing a wolf-like animal in the 1,600-acre park. It even started stealing dog toys from local yards. Most of the community liked the wolf’s presence, even putting out food for the animal. Eventually the sanctuary received multiple calls telling of a wolf roaming a Philly park. Doubtful, a team of volunteers headed to the city to observe. It didn’t take long for the group to realize it was indeed a hybrid.
“Someone had a hybrid, and they claim it got loose,” says a skeptical Dale, who believes the owner simply let the wolf free in the park. “Seventy-five percent of all hybrids are killed, mostly because people can’t handle them.”
Along with the PA Game Commission, the sanctuary volunteers set traps. “He was probably the smartest dog we’ve ever dealt with; he basically went around behind everyone and unset all the traps,” Dale recalls. “He came here malnourished and wasn’t doing too well, but we got him into a pack.”
To create a new pack, the staff takes many things into consideration, including age, gender, size and temperament. Two overly dominant personalities will not be introduced to each other. “Once we find a good match on paper, we put them each into an enclosure side by side,” Dale explains.
One sign of aggression – a growl, a lunge – and the animals are removed and work begins anew. If the wolves can live peacefully beside one another, they stay in those enclosures – side by side – for several months. The third step is the most precarious, meeting face to face. If it works … great, a new pack will start to form. If not, the animals are separated, which can be as easy as calling to a wolf like one would to a dog.
The big, docile, and aptly-named Liberty from Pennypack Park, passed away after only a year at the sanctuary. During play with another wolf, he received mysterious trauma and did not make it to the veterinarian in time. The Penny Pack now consists of three wolves. The gray-eyed Rogue came to the sanctuary when an owner – who kept the animal inside most of its life – moved to an apartment and could no longer care for him. Jasper, who is kind of a lunk, enjoyed being in human company, but he took a real liking to Sky and now enjoys his animal home.
As we approach Thor’s area, Dale hunches his shoulders slightly low to the dog who is standing still in the middle of a small clearing of hardwood trees. His smoky eyes train on us as we walk on an angle to the clearest vantage point. Dale’s gentle call sets the animal in motion, and he slowly creeps toward us, his massive gray frame rippling with muscle. As he nears the fence he slows, takes a few small steps, and lightly brushes back when his nose pushes into the first fence. Thor’s cataracts have rendered him completely blind, but nowhere near useless. His senses of smell and hearing have been heightened over his many years. I notice a distinct set of paths, well-worn and winding through the woods and brush.
“He has this big space completely blueprinted in his mind,” says Dale, who turns his attention to me. Thor moves away, perhaps knowing he is no longer the center of our attention.
Like all the wolves here, Thor is at the mercy of the sanctuary. Because they all have been bred in captivity, there is no way to release the wolves into the wild. Their fate without the Wolf Sanctuary of PA would be euthanization. They come from all over the East Coast. Whether the animals were discarded from zoos, the product of distasteful puppy mills, or delivered from questionable auction houses, these cast-off wolves are welcome at the sanctuary. “That’s how everything really got started. We never started out to be a sanctuary,” Dale observes.
In the early 80s, laws for keeping wolves as pets changed, and Bill and Barbara Darlington – the original owners and residents of the property – made sure to meet full compliance. Bill’s small pack was moved into what are now the original enclosures. After a while, the Darlingtons became known for their ability to successfully house their wolves, which prompted law enforcement to begin asking them to take in other wolves. “These animals were no longer allowed to be pets. They were being seized and destroyed because people were not following regulations,” Dale continues. By now, Thor has completely lost interest in us and has almost disappeared into the thicker woods.
The wolf sanctuary of pa is the only sanctuary of its kind in the state and is run solely by volunteers like Dale. There is no federal or state funding. The resources needed to operate the sanctuary come from volunteers, donations and fees from tours. On an average Saturday, 150 to 200 people will visit, with another 100 touring on Sundays. Appointment-only tours on Tuesday and Wednesday offer views of the wolves for 30 people. “Summer is the worst time to come,” says Dale. “They hate the heat.”
I’ve already decided to go back for the Hunter’s Moon Tour in October, which features a visit by Edgar Allen Poe. During the Full Moon tours (which are held year round, except December), the enclosures are lit so visitors can see the wolves, but if the moon is bright at 9 p.m., the lights go out. Visitors are not guaranteed to hear a chorus of howls under the moonlight, but are welcome to enjoy the bonfire and torch-lit paths.
“They howl whenever they want to,” Dale tells me. “We get questions about their howling habits all the time. They howl in mourning; they howl at a birth – it’s a celebration. They howl to warn others. Our guys howl for all those reasons too, but they also howl if they hear the click of the walk-in freezers. They howl at the fire sirens coming from Brickerville.”
Almost as if on cue, the barking of a few wolves up on the hill sets off short, sporadic howls from the younger ones below. Then, somebody big has something to say, and the next howl barrels through the facility. I’m amazed! What a way for the tour to end!
Update: During my visit, Thor shared his area with Lucky, an aging female who was growing too old to even run. Lucky got sick while she was the alpha female of The Big Pack and was replaced by Trinity. Once removed from The Big Pack to heal, she was never again accepted. Thor found a place for her. Before finalizing this piece, Lucky passed away, and Thor walks his memories alone …