Excited doesn’t even come close to how I felt on the day I was to have a photo shoot with two wolves Raven and Forest at the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in Ramah, New Mexico . Raven who is a pure Black-phased Timber wolf is a retired ambassador for the sanctuary and Forest who is a pure Timber wolf is the new ambassador.
I made arrangements with photographer Michael L. Miller and the director of the sanctuary, Leyton Cougar and even got up at 4:00 in the morning in preparation for our 2 hour drive. We planned and prepared and even had a professional make up artist on site.
In my mind I was going to be Leyla the warrior belly dancer living amongst the wolves…….ok quit rolling your eyes! I’m sure the wolves themselves would have howled with laughter. Little did I know that my fantasy was quite the illusion.
As we walked towards the enclosures where the wolves were kept my heart was pounding a mile a minute. Laughing and talking excitedly we all anxiously kept up a fast pace to the front gate to the large enclosure. That was until Leyton said, “We’ll have to see if Raven will allow you to be next to him. And there may be a chance he won’t want his picture taken.”
You could have heard a pin drop with the deafening silence that followed his statement. It was as if time stood still and my moment of “Leyla the wolf woman” vanished with the wind. It served me right because when you work with wild animals you are working on their schedule not yours.
Fortunately I already had been around Raven and he knew me so he was excited to see everybody. Whew….that was a close call and my heart started to race again. Once I was beside Raven it occurred to me that the images of photos in my head were unrealistic. Raven was calling the shots throughout the entire photo shoot and I was left standing by myself on numerous occasions or basking in his glory by my side. And I would love to say that he was by my side because he really liked me but the truth of the matter is that Leyton had me rub lip balm all over myself because Raven loves the smell. So here I am rubbing lip balm all over me so I can get this gigantic wolf to come over and take his picture with me. He came over immediately and all of a sudden he just started to rub himself all over me! There were moments I thought we were both going to tumble off the rock ledge that we were perched on. The funny thing about it was that there was no way to look stylish because I was holding on to this large boulder for dear life while at the same time I was dealing with wolf saliva being drooled all over me. Oh yes I forgot about the wolf drool……..actually I didn’t even think about it! And since it had just rained a few days earlier, I also had mud being rubbed all over me along with the wolf drool. And do any of you know how wolves smell? Not only did I learn but I ended up smelling like one. And a word for the wise; just remember that your costume will take a beating too!
As we walked around I noticed a lot of birds flying above in the air watching us curiously. They just happen to be Ravens. It’s really interesting to note that Ravens and wolves are connected to each other. This is because the Ravens help the wolves find food and then the Ravens get to eat the left overs. At times it almost seemed like they were our audience because there were so many of them. The large enclosure where we were taking the photos had enclosures on either side of it with other wolves watching us as well. So it was interesting to note that the Ravens and the wolves had confused and perplexed looks on their faces kind of like some audiences. Sound familiar?
At the end of the first photo shoot with Raven, I crawled off the rocks only to see to my dismay that I had scuffed up and tore the heels of my new boots. So, just about every part of my costume that has a tear or smudge on it still reminds me to this day of what a wonderful and amazing experience it was. Bizarre as it may seem I almost felt like I went through a right of passage.
Furthering this right of passage was my next photo shoot with Forest. For this next photo shoot I dressed in my gothic, gypsy outfit with a little bit of Elvira in it. So off we went back to the same enclosure to see what was in store for us with Forest. Fortunately all it took was hotdogs for Forest to come over to me and I didn’t have to rub any of them on me. But I’ll tell you all a little secret, when Leyton first took out the hotdogs I was a little worried!
Forest was such a gentleman and he even gave me a few kisses here and there. But after while he stood beside me looking at Leyton with a pleading look on his face as if saying, “Are we done yet”? Fortunately the occasional hotdog did the trick and we were able to get in some good shots. To Michael’s dismay though, Forest thought his light reflector that he was holding in his hand was a new toy and Forest went right for it. I wish I would have had the camera on the both of them as Michael was trying to pull the reflector from Forests mouth. Leyton had to come over and make Forest give it up and pry his mouth open. I have never seen a wolf cry but Forest whined and whined over having to let go of what he thought was his new toy. So obviously this ended the photo shoot with Forest getting reprimanded and Michael having his reflector back but with a few extra bite marks on it.
Understand that if any of you are going to have your photos taken with wild animals you are entering their world and their timetable. Make sure you do your homework and work diligently with the animal trainer or handler. Anything can happen in a split second so you must be focused and aware at all times.
Leyton is one in a million and he is known as the “Wolf Whisperer”. Leyton has 62 wolf and wolf dogs at the sanctuary that he and volunteers care for. Over the past two years I have had the pleasure of seeing Leyton handle the wolves with amazing grace. The wolves’ body language is so astounding when Leyton walks by their enclosures. Since body language is one of the oldest languages on the planet, I found watching the wolves move reminded me of an ancient dance form being performed with deliberate grace. Their sinuous movements had the timing of any well versed choreographer. I also noticed that Leyton respects the wolves and he looks at every one of them as individuals with characteristics all their own.
To say that patience is a virtue while working with wild animals is an understatement. It took all day to get in a variety of shots. And after it was all said and done, I was exhausted. Plus I smelled like I had been in the wild for days with the hint of lip balm. And just so you know I had lip balm in places I never would of thought putting it! In the end it was all worth it because both Raven and Forest taught me a great lesson; they reminded me to be in the moment and this was the most precious gift of al