How to be a modern day Mowgli

Hearing the call of the wild, Chris Green headed off to work with wolves – and learnt why he should worry when they wag their tails
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The Independent Online

Leyton Cougar, the director of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, in New Mexico, turns to face the small group of newly-arrived gap year students arranged in a semicircle around his desk, and fixes each of them with a piercing stare. A sleeveless denim shirt reveals a pair of heavily tattooed arms, punctured with scars from numerous wolf bites.

“Now that you’re here, I can tell you that I’m a bit of a slave driver,” he says with relish, before pausing for a moment to let his words sink in. “In fact, I’m gonna bust your asses.”

Smiling nervously, I steal a glance at the two male students, both in their early twenties, who are sitting on either side of me. One is American, the other British, but their response is the same: they both look utterly terrified. I later discover that the director’s striking appearance – he is over six feet tall, with a mess of blond hair that falls down to his shoulders – has caused children from the nearby town to nickname him Hercules. Fortunately for me and the rest of the hardy volunteers, Cougar is nowhere near as intimidating as he seems: he just needs everyone who visits his sanctuary to have a good work ethic.

“The point is to give people an experience they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else, something they can carry away with them and leave thinking ‘that was fantastic’,” he tells me later. “I’m looking for people who are ambitious and want to discover their own potential, but are also willing to use the skills they already have.”

Life at the sanctuary, which is based in the heart of the sun scorched New Mexican desert, two hours’ drive from the state capital Albuquerque, is certainly physically demanding. Volunteers can expect to spend a good portion of their time doing maintenance work: during my two weeks there I helped to build a new enclosure, dug trenches to re-bury some dangerously exposed ground wire and, with the aid of few others, even taught myself some basic plumbing to fit a drainage system for one of the animal ponds.

The start of the working day, which begins at 8am, sees each volunteer cleaning, watering and feeding their assigned animals. If the thought of getting into an enclosure with a couple of wolves before you’ve even got over your jetlag sounds a bit terrifying, don’t worry: new arrivals spend their first 10 days observing the more experienced volunteers, and are tested on safety procedures before they’re allowed to handle a wolf on their own.

Walking into an enclosure with a wolf for the first time is thrilling, but not as dangerous as it sounds. Many of the animals are wolf-dogs – the result of a wolf mating with a dog – and are typically easier to handle than the pure-bred wolves, some of which are so dangerous that their enclosures can only be cleaned once they are safely housed in a sub-enclosure. New volunteers start off on the “low maintenance” animals, graduating to the more demanding wolves as they become more confident.

Even though all of the wolves at Wild Spirit were bred in captivity, they can still turn out to be just as savage as their brothers in the wild. You need to be alert to danger every second you’re inside the enclosure, since you’re effectively invading their territory every time you enter. If you get your body language wrong, they might think you’re challenging them for dominance. As 21-yearold American volunteer Adam Silverman points out, this experience can be downright frightening at times. “Telling people that you’ve worked with wolves sounds quite cool, but when you’re actually there with them it’s difficult to forget that these animals have the ability to decimate your body,” he says. “It can be a little disconcerting.”

Day to day living at the sanctuary is also quite a challenge, a fact which was brought home to Silverman a few days after his arrival, when he woke up to find a baby rattlesnake dozing in the corner of his cabin. Despite this harrowing experience, he admits that, without its extreme remoteness, the sanctuary would lose a lot of its magic. “The second you get here you notice the absence of a safety net,” he says. “All the stuff you take for granted at home – the comforts of suburbia, police, hospitals – you don’t have out here. But you’re also surrounded by nature, so there’s nothing and everything at the same time.”

The fact that the sanctuary is out of the immediate reach of civilisation doesn’t mean that you’ll be stuck for things to do, since a volunteer’s duties are not restricted to merely looking after the animals. Within a few weeks you are expected to be knowledgeable enough to give hour-long tours to the public, and to do this you need to know a little about the history of every wolf in the sanctuary. This is no mean feat: at the time of writing, Wild Spirit had 61 animals under its care.

Arguably, all you need to get the most out of your time at the sanctuary is a love of animals, but volunteers with more specialist skills are keenly sought. If you’ve done a degree in biology or animal behaviour, a more rewarding gap year programme will be hard to come by, but practical skills are also useful: during my time at Wild Spirit, the volunteer who was a former bricklayer was always in high demand.

Wild Spirit’s programme is certainly not for the faint hearted: working in temperatures touching 100F at an altitude of 7,500ft is no picnic, so volunteers need grit and determination. But according to director Cougar, if the sanctuary continues to develop as rapidly as it has been, his dream of creating the world’s best educational wolf facility could be realised within 10 years.

“I see it as a park which people can visit, and spend as much time as they want wandering around and communing with the animals,” he says. “I see beautiful pathways, ponds and fountains, but I want to make it educational too. It should be a place where people can come, camp out and stay for the weekend, interacting with wildlife that they wouldn’t see anywhere else.”

I would never describe myself as an “animal person”, and yet I left the sanctuary after a fortnight knowing more about wolves than I ever imagined possible. Did you know that if a wolf wags its tail, it means that it’s angry, not happy? And that a wolf’s bite is about twice as powerful as a Rottweiler’s? Neither did I. But if you are going to spend any time at the sanctuary, it’s well worth keeping these things in mind.

  • To work as a volunteer at the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary contact Real Gap (01892 516164;

'You have to love the animals and accept it's no holiday'

Matt Nixon, 23, volunteered at the wolf sanctuary for eight weeks over the summer as a break from studying.

I came here because I wanted to volunteer with animals, and when I saw the wolf sanctuary listed on Real Gap’s website, I thought it looked quite cool. I thought I’d get on with wolves quite well, because I’ve always liked animals and used to have a pet dog at home.

The sanctuary takes a bit of getting used to, and coming out here is a bit of a culture shock. But once you’ve accepted that you’re going to be faced with quite a simple way of living, and have adjusted to it, you get along fine. Online you don’t get an appreciation of just how remote the sanctuary is and how separated from civilisation you are, but after a few nights it’s like a second home.

The programme is definitely harder than I thought it would be. There’s been a lot of manual labour so far – digging trenches and carrying water buckets, that kind of thing – and as a student I’m used to sitting at a desk all day. As well as helping out with the animals, you’re also here as a carpenter, landscaper and builder.

It’s very physical! It’s hard to describe what it’s like interacting with wolves. It’s pretty amazing just being with them. They’re different to how you’d expect – scared of everything – but it’s also very rewarding.

To get the most out of the programme, you have to love the animals and accept that it’s not going to be a holiday. But you’re also getting something truly unique, an experience much more rewarding than the average gap year adventure.

  • To work as a volunteer at the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary contact Real Gap (01892 516164;