For years, the Berkeley Animal Care Services has been in need of some care of its own. The facility on Second Street was a wreck, and so overcrowded that within a week, any dog placed in the shelter would develop "kennel cough." Although the shelter's killing policy was as minimal as possible, and a number of animal rescue foundations work with shelter staff to place animals in decent homes, the euthanasia rate was around sixty percent. The constant killing violated the volunteers' ethics and led to anguished fights and low morale. Moreover, up until a year ago, the shelter was under the administration of the police department, and the BPD's departmental culture was a poor fit with the ethos of the volunteers. When City Manager Weldon Rucker decided to take direct control of the department and hired manager Kate O'Connor, morale started to pick up; it also helped when the City Council beefed up the shelter's annual budget to more than $1 million. Still, everyone acknowledged that the shelter staff and its volunteer partners were a long way from working together as a team.
One month ago, a timber wolf gave them a chance to try.
On March 30, the Berkeley Animal Care Services got a call: someone's "husky" was loose and running around 47th Street in Emeryville. Emeryville contracts its animal control services to Berkeley, so city staff went to pick up the dog and haul him off to the pound. But when the animal control officers arrived, they took one look at the animal's sleek lines and queer, aloof demeanor and realized they were dealing with something more than your typical malamute.
Once they had the catch pole around the animal's neck, the officers had no trouble getting it back to the shelter. O'Connor brought in a wildlife expert, and the two of them quickly determined the truth: what they had was a nearly pure timber wolf, eighteen months old and ninety pounds of muscle and teeth. But they had no idea what to do with him--just keeping him penned up was a daily challenge. "Right now he's just an adolescent, so he's not really a problem," O'Connor says. "When they reach maturity at two or three years, then they're a problem. Then they assert their pack behavior and try to dominate you. And we soon found out that the main thing you have to watch out for with a wolf is that they always want out."
It was only a couple of days before they got a taste of the wolf's resourcefulness. At first, shelter staff kept him in one of the regular pens, which had a one-foot gap in the mesh near the ceiling, seven feet up from the floor. One day, a shelter employee walked by the pen and found the animal wriggling through the gap; the wolf had either scaled the cage to the mesh near the top or bound up to the hole, seven feet straight into the air, from a standstill. They kept him in a special quarantine cage after that.
But O'Connor had a problem bigger than figuring out how to keep the animal caged--she had to figure out what to do with him. Keeping a wolf as a pet is illegal, so obviously an owner wasn't stepping forward to claim responsibility. By the same token, you can't just give him away as you might any other animal. Unless the shelter figured out what to do with the wolf, O'Connor would have to kill him--and no one wanted that. Soon, shelter staff and rescue foundations were on the phone, looking for someone who wanted a wolf and could legally take him. They called animal sanctuaries all over the West, but they were all filled to capacity. And time was running out--you can't keep such a wild animal locked up for long without damaging his mental health.
Meanwhile, O'Connor was learning how to relate to the animal. "He's different--as a dog person, I can tell you that," she says. "He doesn't read as easily as a dog does. He's more aloof, almost regal. And silent, although I've heard him howl sometimes. There were a lot of questions about how to handle him. Do you look at him or not? When we first get a dog, we walk in sideways and are submissive and meek. We don't approach him, but let him approach you. You can't assert dominance over a wolf or a dog you don't know, 'cause he'll bite you. Over time with a dog, you'll negotiate your dominance, because you have to control them. But I'd never do that with a wild animal."
O'Connor also had to get used to certain lupine quirks: often the wolf would try to snap at her hand, not out of aggression, but merely because wolves sense things by gently biting them. A few weeks ago, a chow mix in the adjacent cage gave birth, and one of the puppies was small enough to squeeze through the bars and wobble into the wolf's cage. O'Connor was convinced that the wolf would kill it in a second--"My heart fairly stopped when I saw that"--but he just silently regarded the short-haired ball of brown wrinkles until staff got the cage open.
After weeks of searching, rescue foundation volunteers found a wolf sanctuary in Colorado with a slot open. All they had to do was neuter the animal and find a way to ship him there, and he'd have open space and something like freedom for the rest of his life. Volunteers from the Milo Foundation and Hopalong Rescue raised $600 in donations around town (City Councilmember Dona Spring gave $50, for example) and found a van and a couple of drivers. On the evening of May 1, three volunteers put the wolf in a transport crate, loaded it in the back of the van, and set off on a fourteen-hour trip to Colorado, where the wolf is today.
Life at the Berkeley Animal Care Services is still a long way from serene. The shelter still euthanizes twenty animals a month, and tensions among the rescue foundations still run high. But the kennels are clean, the neuter laws have worked rather famously, and people are coming back, looking for animals to adopt. And as bad as morale still can be at the shelter, there is a world of difference now that every stakeholder in the system had to drop everything and work together to save the life of a ragged, silent predator. "It shows how far Berkeley has come," says Hopalong Rescue Foundation executive director Sarah Cohen. "Relationships are getting better, and people really went the extra mile and teamed together to save that animal. That hasn't always happened here. This says a lot for the future."
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