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Pa. Sanctuary Offers a Night Out With the Pack

By Jenny Mayo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Popular culture has us believing that a wolf's howl is always a perfect, melodious "ow-ooh!" But I know better. Sometimes, it's more of a yap or a moan, a squeal or a cry. And when a whole pack of wolves starts really going at it, you're likely to hear not a lovely, harmonized chorus, but a big, bizarre, otherworldly cacophony -- almost like something a pod of whales and a group of 6-year-olds might come up with in a jam session.

I learned all this on a recent trip to the Wolf Sanctuary of Pennsylvania, one of the many lures of the cozy Lancaster County town of Lititz. It was Valentine's night and instead of the usual overpriced, overly sentimental dinner for two, I opted to drag my sweetheart into the snowy 29-degree darkness for something that sounded much more special: a monthly moonlight tour of the 22 acres that 44 wolves call home.

We were still trudging across the grass toward the makeshift visitor center to buy our tickets when the howling began. I froze in my tracks -- not out of fear, but wonder. I had heard versions of this noise thousands of times before on TV and radio, and yet, here in person, it sounded so utterly foreign and absolutely mesmerizing.

Following this most beguiling of introductions, volunteer tour guide Kelly Waldron took about 30 of us for a look at the animals. Walking from one enclosure to the next, she lured the wolves up to the fences -- within feet of us -- using doggie treats. We met, among others, a blind wolf named Thor and a playful giant named Tioga, and learned such things as why wolves "howl at the moon." (They're probably just communicating with their pack or others.) Dividing the different wolf families, giving each a multi-acre enclosure, ensures they won't set upon one another -- like a pack of wolves.

As interesting as it all was, the group felt rather frozen after about an hour, so many of us made a beeline for the blazing bonfire the facility had set up. Others flocked to the small visitor center, which offered wolf merchandise for sale, free sweet treats made especially for our tour and live music.

Among those standing inside was Dawn Darlington, whose parents, William and Barbara, founded the sanctuary, one of about a dozen in the country trying to rescue the creatures from their dwindling territory and from humans who take their natural predatory impulses quite personally. Dawn remembers when the first wolves arrived on the property in the 1980s. She was a teenager, and these furry, fanged guests used to roam around her home like members of the family.

"I used to hang out with them," Dawn explained.

When her father passed away in 1998, she became more involved in the sanctuary and later began restoring a historic stone homestead on the property. It had belonged to her grandparents, and decades before that it was home to a woman whom President James Buchanan courted as a young man.

Nowadays, the house is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a popular country getaway known as Speedwell Forge B&B. Darlington, the resident innkeeper, rents out three rooms in the main house and two in the outbuildings, each of which blends old elegance (e.g., ornate molding and antique furnishings) with modern amenities (such as the six-foot-long claw-footed Jacuzzi tub in Kathryn's Room).

Thanks to a last-minute cancellation, I had snagged a spot at Speedwell on Valentine's night, which was not only convenient, it was downright luxurious. I awoke warm and rested the next morning, the smell of soaked-overnight French toast sneaking beneath the bedroom door.

Once steeled by breakfast, we marched to the back of the property to bid farewell to the wolves, who were too busy lazing about in the sun to return the gesture. Guess they are different from dogs, huh? Oh well, on to the next activity: exploring "downtown" Lititz.

Founded as an exclusive Moravian community, the locale attracts all sorts of folks with its old-timey, small-town charm and plenty of seasonal festivals. The "city" center is compact, its two main streets lined with historical buildings, boutiques, cafes, inns, a few modest museums and a vibrant community park.

Many local businesses were closed the day of our visit (Sunday), including the Wilbur Chocolate Candy Americana Museum and Factory Store, home of the Wilbur Bud (a better, older alternative to the Hershey's Kiss, say I). But Lititz had other treats in store for us.

At Lititz Springs Park, we fed ducks, played on the swings and wandered along a trickling brook as sunlight cascaded down through the trees, forming lily pads of light at our feet. And when it came time to refuel, we hit up Cafe Chocolate, an inviting eatery that, most days, serves breakfast through dinnertime with a big emphasis on dessert and nods to the fair-trade, organic and locavore movements.

Hot cocoas to-go in hand, we strolled the sidewalks and did some serious window-shopping. I admired a scrap-metal Don Quixote-esque figure at the furniture store Cherry Acres, smiled at the quirky window displays at Matthew 25 Thrift Shop and scored some excellent escapist reading on the cheap at secondhand store Aaron's Books.

Eventually, with daylight waning and sugar levels plummeting, it was time for us to head back home to Washington. The drive takes only about 2 1/2 hours, but it felt as if we'd been far, far away the whole weekend.

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