Walking with wolves
When Nan tells Jack in The Mirror of Pharos that there are no wolves in England, she’s wrong. And not just because we know there’s a pair of amber eyes watching them from a nearby wood.
It may be a good 500 years since the last wolf was hunted down in this country, but I’m happy to say that you can still hear them howling today in the village of Beenham in Berkshire. That’s where Nuka and his sisters Tala and Tundra live (along with seven others) in a wonderful 50-acre haven run by the UK Wolf Conservation Trust.
Despite a lifelong passion for wolves I’d never had a close encounter. A lot of reading, research and a vivid imagination had helped me to bring Alpha, my fictional wolf, to life. But something told me it was important to meet a real wolf before sending the story into the world. I had to know what it felt like for Jack to be in Alpha’s presence. And, of course, ever since that eventful school trip when I was seven, I’d always secretly hoped that one day I’d get to meet the creature who had become my animal totem.
So one bright May morning, I drove with a dear friend and fellow wolf lover, Patti, to the depths of beautiful Berkshire – to go walking with wolves. Or I should say, with one extraordinary wolf in particular …
Basking in the sun in his grassy enclosure, Nuka, the dominant male of the Beenham pack, happened to be celebrating his second birthday. As he blinked and yawned at us, it looked as if a spring stroll was the very last thing on his mind.
But when senior handler Pat Melton arrived he jumped up, pushed past his sisters and leapt about, licking Pat in excitement. Nuka, we discovered, loves to be the centre of attention.
Stunningly handsome, with a thick coat of dark brown, beige, grey and white, Nuka was actually the one who took us for a walk. Tethered safely to his handlers, he set the pace through a meadow full of cowslips and led us down to a stream. Then he promptly set about trying to burrow his way into a molehill.
Despite Nuka’s affectionate nature, it’s always wise to remember that wolves are powerful wild animals. With a jaw power of 1500 lbs per square inch (more than twice the strength of a pit bull’s) respect is required. So when the moment arrived for us to ‘meet and greet’ Pat took a lot of care to explain the best way to approach him. First I made a fist for Nuka to sniff, then standing by his side I stroked his underside and chest, rather than his back or head.
As I bent over, Nuka turned. His nose lifted towards my face and for an instant I felt his warm breath. It made my heart pump. ‘He wants to know what you had for breakfast,’ said Pat, reassuringly.
I breathed out gently. I didn’t say that I hadn’t eaten any breakfast that morning. (I’d been far too excited.) In fact, I couldn’t speak. I suddenly knew exactly how Jack must have felt as Alpha drew close. Complete thunderstruck awe.
In the next moment I was laughing along with everyone else, because Nuka had flopped down, rolled on his back with his legs in the air and was waiting to have his tummy rubbed. Then he took an intense interest in my boot laces. Could he detect a hint of Buster, my cat, I wondered … A wolf’s nose has 200 million olfactory cells whereas we have just 10,000. Nuka probably knew everything there was to know about me including the fact that the cupboard where I kept my boots occasionally had a feline visitor!
Later, as we headed back, Nuka’s sisters started howling in the distance. He stopped to listen, then threw his head back and howled for all he was worth in return.
It was another Alpha moment – a sound to stir the soul, particularly when you realise how we humans have treated wolves over the centuries, hunting and trapping them to extinction in many places and misunderstanding the important part they play in our ecosystem.
Long live Nuka, the best ambassador for wolf-kind!
You can read more about Nuka here. The UK Wolf Conservation Trust closes its doors to the public in August 2018 but continues to care for its ten resident wolves. In addition to its website, you can follow the Trust on Facebook and access its gorgeous glossy magazine, Wolf Print, which is available online for free.
Photos of Nuka, Tala and Tundra (above) and Nuka as a cub (below) reproduced by permission of UKWCT.
Banner photo of wolf at sunset; Pixabay. All other photos by Patti Mickelsen.