Wagner, who’s volunteered for 15 years, unlocks the outer fence, closes the gate and puts her hand through the inner fence to pet Sophie, who wags her tail. Pure wolves have straighter tails that have a black spot (which marks a scent gland) on them.
Sophie’s mate died, and the sanctuary has tried to find her another. Wolves generally prefer pack life, and the sanctuary aims to match personalities. To test compatibility, caretakers might give the wolves a “playdate.”
The day we visited was cold and blustery — the kind wolves like. (They can be slow-moving in the heat.) Sam and her friend Mary Kate opted for the private tour to see all the packs on the 40-acre sanctuary. During our drive up, they had eagerly read the wolves’ profiles on the website.
The sanctuary houses 54 wolves and wolfdogs rescued from across the country, including gray wolves and timber wolves (a subspecies of gray wolf). Most mixes are part husky, German shepherd or malamute. As we walked, Wagner discussed each animal’s history and personality. Many arrived malnourished or mistreated, and most clearly enjoyed her affectionate voice and attention.
A century ago, wild gray wolves roamed the Mid-Atlantic region, but none do now. In 1995, gray wolves were successfully reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, and packs are now in nine states. Since 1978, gray wolves have been classified as endangered in the Lower 48 states (except for Minnesota), but in 2019 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed lifting those protections.
The sanctuary is next to a larger, privately owned property that includes a bed-and-breakfast in a historic building dating to 1760 when this area was known as Speedwell and included a cannonball forge. In the 1980s, owners Bill and Barbara Darlington began rescuing wolves, and the sanctuary became a nonprofit in 1993. Their packs are known as “the Speedwell wolves.”
The guides are volunteers, and you must volunteer for 500 hours before being allowed between the fences. Initially, the sanctuary did some breeding, but the organization now focuses on supporting rescued animals.
The wolves and wolfdogs eat raw meat donated by restaurants, groceries and hunters. Wolf jaws are powerful — exerting a force of up to 1,500 pounds per square inch at the back — and can chomp bones easily. They are fed six times a week here; in the wild, wolves may eat once a week. Wild wolves usually live four to eight years, but at the sanctuary we admired 17-year-old Swayze and Cinderella, pure wolf mates.
While touring, we were treated to the impressive call-and-answer howls of Little Girl (a timber wolf) and Jake (a wolfdog). The notion that wolves howl at the moon is a myth, though. While they can smell prey from miles away, their eyesight is average, so they see better under a full moon to make a kill. That’s reason enough for a howling celebration.
If You Go
What: One- to two-hour tour of the Wolf Sanctuary of PA.
Where: 465 Speedwell Forge Road, Lititz, Pennsylvania (125 miles from Washington).
When: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Once per day; check website for times.
How much: $10 to $13 for ages 4 to 11, $11 to $15 for adults; free for ages 3 and younger. (Online booking required Tuesdays and Thursdays)
For more information: wolfsanctuarypa.org/tours-events.