Many South Sound residents are familiar with Wolf Haven International, the wolf sanctuary near Offut Lake.
About 14,000 people visit the sanctuary each year, including 3,000 schoolchildren. But starting in June, Wolf Haven will change the way it accepts visitors.
Those who want to visit the animals will need to make an appointment — a change that will add stability to the wolves’ lives, said Wendy Spencer, director of animal care.
“The best thing we can do for them is let them be, just let them be wolves,” Spencer said.
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The change in visitation policy comes as Wolf Haven moves toward becoming a globally accredited sanctuary through the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Wolf Haven is already one of two wolf sanctuaries accredited by the American Sanctuary Association.
Spencer said Wolf Haven already meets most of the global organization’s criteria, and sanctuary officials are working on their application.
Even though it’s important to make a safe, stable home for Wolf Haven’s 50 canine residents, it’s important to remember that visitors are an important part of the organization’s operations, Spencer said. By visiting the sanctuary, people can learn a lot about the animals.
“We’re moving closer to being a better sanctuary, but we still have to balance that goal with the education component,” Spencer said. “It’s important for people to come here and learn about wolves.”
The education component is as important as ever as wolves are reintroduced into the wild, she said. Wolf Haven participates in two species survival programs: one for the red wolf, and the other for the Mexican gray wolf. Four of the sanctuary’s residents are red wolves, and 11 are Mexican gray wolves.
Wolf Haven officials work with other wolf experts to develop breeding plans for the animals and plans for their reintroduction to the wild.
Wolf Haven has already released two Mexican gray wolf packs into the Apache Wilderness of New Mexico, Spencer said.
Most of the sanctuary’s residents will live out their lives at Wolf Haven. All but one of the wolves were born in captivity, many as pets. But once wolves and wolf-dog mixes reach maturity, they become destructive and difficult to care for in homes, Spencer said.
And in Washington state, owning wolves is illegal. People are allowed to own wolf-dogs.
“People spend lots of money, thousands of dollars, on these animals,” Spencer said. “And most of the time it doesn’t work out.”
Gray wolf Lakota, for example, was kept as a pet in Thurston County. He escaped and was nearly euthanized when caught. Luckily, there was room for him at Wolf Haven.
Lexi, another gray wolf resident, was more unlucky early in life. She was rescued from a tourist trap in Alaska, where she spent all of her time on an 8-foot chain attached to a stake in the ground, Spencer said.
Now she lives with London, another gray wolf who was once owned by a California trainer who hoped to turn London into an actor.
Spencer said the two animals are now friends and seem to be happy.
“To have a friend and a safe place is like paradise,” Spencer said.
Adding a more a consistent visiting schedule will help enhance that feeling of safety and security for the wolves. Plus, it should make trips more enjoyable for visitors, said Wolf Haven spokeswoman Kim Young.
She said that when groups sign up to visit, they can indicate whether there will be children present or not. That way, guides will know who will be present and alter tour content accordingly.
“Now we’ll know who’s coming, and we can make it a great experience for everyone,” Young said.