From our earliest childhood memories, we were raised to fear wolves. The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Aesop’s Fables — the menacing wolf character is always a mischievous killer, best to be avoided. But what if wolves no longer existed? What if we hunted them to extinction? Would the world be a better place? Spend time at a place called Wolf Hollow, and a man named Zee Soffron will make you think otherwise.
Wolf Hollow is situated in Ipswich, a quaint Massachusetts town just an hour north of Boston. Soffron's parents, Paul and Joni, founded the North American Wolf Foundation here in 1988. Wolf Hollow began with the mission “to preserve and protect the wolf in the wild, through education and exposure.” While the captivity-born wolves kept in Wolf Hollow's care will not be released into the wild, Soffron aims to have them "serve as ambassadors to their wild cousins, show the social nature and pack dynamic and remind us of our own role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem." Every Sunday, Wolf Hollow opens its gates for the public to visit with the wolves.
The crowd watched as Zee opened the first gate along the 8-foot fence surrounding the perimeter of the wolves' 3.5-acre enclosed environment. He was careful to securely lock the latch behind him. Past the second layer of fencing was a pack of four seemingly wild wolves, pacing as they studied his movements. After opening the gate in the second fence, Soffron stood within striking distance of the wolves. I feared he was about to become their next meal as a crowd of children and their parents watched. “Here wolfie, wolfie,” he called out. The wolves were unresponsive. Seemingly without a care, a human had just entered their habitat. “Not so much like your dogs at home,” Soffron said.
The pack started in 1990 with five gray timberwolves that were donated by other facilities in the United States. Currently, Wolf Hollow is home to Argus, Arrow, Grendel, Linnea, Neveah, Jelly, Osa and Bear, a wolf-dog hybrid. After Paul Soffron died in 2001, Zee took on the role of assistant director. It is a truly family-run operation; the small visitor center is located in the Soffron living room. Zee and his pack (partner, Heidi; son, Otto; rescue pit bulls Clyde, Katy and Olivia; and Lilly, a 10-pound terrier mix) live on the second floor.
Before European settlement nearly 2 million wolves roamed wild in North America. Rampant poaching began in the 19th century and decimated their numbers. By 1973, only a few hundred remained in the lower 48 states. While we are aware that wolves are predators, we may not be aware of the expansive role they play in their ecosystem.
Yellowstone Park began an ecological transformation in 1995. Without natural predators, populations of deer and moose had grown out of control and were eating too much of the vegetation. The reintroduced wolves have been credited with playing a role in the natural reduction of deer and a subsequent rebirth of vegetation and wildlife. Certain trees quintupled in size; vast numbers of bird species returned, and beaver populations increased, which led to healthier rivers and bigger populations of otters, muskrats, fish, ducks, amphibians and reptiles. Current figures from the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service places the domestic wild wolf population at above 15,000.
“How many deaths each year do you think are attributed to wolves?” Soffron asked a group of visitors at Wolf Hollow. “100!” “200!” “50!” “Would you believe me if I told you it was just two in the last 100 years?” he said. “On average, 25 people are killed each year by domestic dogs, 175 by hitting wildlife on the highway, and 25 each year by vending machines. That’s right, vending machines are a bigger threat to us than the wild wolf.” (The actual number of vending machine deaths each year is closer to two, but the point is the same.)
While most wolves need companionship and fear humans, Jelly is a “lone wolf” who seems to dislike interacting with other wolves but loves human interaction. That makes her a favorite to volunteers and visitors. Jelly’s behavior may seem more like a domestic dog then a wolf. But volunteers spend an average of six months of daily interaction to gain the trust of the wolves. Kevin Kenny, a volunteer at Wolf Hollow, explains, “It may seem like we are hanging out with our German Shepherds or huskies, but we have to pay close attention to the cocking of the ears, widening of the eyes, flicks of the tongue — all subtle warning signs that could lead to a dangerous situation. With 2,000 pounds of pressure in the rear of their jaws, twice that of a German Shepard, we want to make sure we stay on their good side.”
It is important to understand Wolf Hollow is not a zoo. It’s distinctly and undoubtedly a safe haven — observable in the level of care and understanding Wolf Hollow demonstrates with these animals and its prioritization of education above entertainment for visitors. One of the crowd’s favorite moments is when Soffron sprays perfume into a hole in the snow, far away from the wolves. As he explains it, wolves will identify and bring back an unfamiliar scent to warn the pack of the unusual smell. Seconds after he sprayed the ground, one of the wolves ran over and began rolling on the ground like a dog playing in a field. Watching a large gray wolf drop to its back sent the crowd howling with laughter and applause. After Soffron's presentation, visitors are invited to roam, explore and see the wolves up close. When first entering Wolf Hollow, most visitors nervously avoid the fence, keeping their children close and their little fingers closer. After the presentation, kids and their parents seemed unafraid, pressing their faces up against the fence and asking if they could pet the wolves (they can’t).
As a farewell, Soffron invites the visitors to howl so the wolves might return a howl of their own. Howling in the wild is primarily done to defend a pack's territory. A returned howl would mean the pack felt threatened by the crowd of people who had visited that day. “3, 2, 1.” Soffron counted down and then let out a loud howl. Kids and even their parents excitedly joined. The wolves didn’t respond. Once more, Soffron said, and the crowd howled once again, this time much more in unison. Nothing. “I guess they don’t feel threatened by you.”