By Branden Navarro
Down a bumpy rocky dirt road, tucked away in Lucerne Valley, Calif., is a place inhabited by animals long feared and hunted by man — wolves. Wolf Mountain Sanctuary was started by Tonya Little Wolf, who moved to the Lucerne Valley location in 1985. For the past 30 years, she and her children have been rescuing and raising the wolves. On the property there are several pens where the wolves are fed, cared for and shown to those brave enough to enter them. Two pens are open to tourists who make an appointment with the sanctuary, while other pens are off limits to the public. A tour of the grounds lasts about an hour. Little Wolf and her son, Bob Nordstrom, lead visitors through the pens, give facts about the wolves at the sanctuary — as well as general facts about the species — and guide them into the pens where the most socialized wolves reside. Over the years the wolves have come from a number of different places, such as from breeders that were going to put the wolves down for being the runts of the litter, the movie industry when they were no longer needed, and dangerous environments from which they had to be . One of the wolves was even rescued from a meth lab, Nordstrom said. The police called Wolf Mountain to see if they would come and get it.
“Mom went in and he was hidden behind the toilet in the bathroom and she pulled him out,” Nordstrom said.
Four of the wolves came from a Paso Robles rescue, Nordstrom said. The people who worked there were afraid to get near the wolves, and the rescue offered the sanctuary $50 per wolf just to retrieve them.Nordstrom has a special relationship with the wolves he cares for, and wants people to know the animals aren’t as dangerous as they seem.
“They’re not really what people think that they are,” Nordstrom said. “They’re not the big bad animal, they’re not. These guys are so mellow.”
The compound is surrounded by 10-foot fences to prevent the wolves from escaping, Little Wolf said. During a tour, Little Wolf went to feed one of the wolves in a pen, and it jumped up almost five feet in the air from excitement. It's cost about $6,000 a month to run Wolf Mountain, Little Wolf said. She also has to pay a yearly fee of $4,000 for a county license to keep exotic animals.The wolves at the sanctuary are fed a diet of red meat, chicken, fruits and vegetables, which can cost as much as $2,500 a week, Little Wolf said. However, the fruits and vegetables are often donated. The wolves are also given herbs for when they get sick, and they like to eat a lot of biscuits, Little Wolf said. Little Wolf said that paying for the 11 wolves on the property is not always easy, but being at Wolf Mountain is not her only job, and that supporters play a large role as well.
"I go from cleaning houses, to painting houses, to building houses, to putting in windows and putting in roads, to cleaning roads, to doing anything,” Little Wolf said.
As far as supporters go, Little Wolf said the sanctuary has “Adopt-A-Wolf” programs where supporters can donate different amounts on a per-month basis. The information can be found on its website, wolfmountainsanctuary.net.
Wolf Mountain once received a lifetime membership donation of $3,000 dollars, Little Wolf said.
“That kind of donation gets you a lot — a blanket, a tee shirt, all kinds of stuff,” Little Wolf said with a laugh.
Tourists who opt to go inside of the wolf pen to spend time with the wolves and take pictures with them can’t make quick or sudden movements because that makes them jump, Nordstorm said. People are also encouraged to stay seated at all times because the wolves find humans’ heights intimidating., Nordstrom also said visitors shouldn’t wear sunglasses around they wolves because they can see themselves in the lenses and are also intimidated by that.Nordstrom recalled an instance in which he was bitten by one of the wolves as a result of breaking some of the rules.
“If you’re having a bad day, its best to just stay away,” Nordstrom said. “I learned that one the hard way, but I know better.”
Nordstrom feels it’s important for people to come to the Sanctuary, get educated about wolves and spend time with them.
“A lot of people think they’re the big bad wolf,” he said. “Kids growing up watch ‘Red Riding Hood’ and think that’s how a wolf is.”
Nordstrom said if more people came to actually experience what it’s like to be with a wolf and learn what they are about, then more people would come to find out that you shouldn’t be afraid of them.Nordstrom’s deep relationship with the wolves seemingly extends to trusting them with his life.
“If I were ever lost in the woods, these are the guys I want to run into,” he said as he looked at the wolves.
Little Wolf said the wolves see her as the “alpha female” of their pack. Because of this, she can walk in their cage and separate them when they are fighting and they do not attack her. Little Wolf has also developed a deep, trusting relationship with the wolves she cares for.
“They’re family,” Little Wolf said. “I love them like my children.”
The sanctuary’s website doesn’t have an address for the property, but it is easy to find with a simple search on Google Maps. Tours cost as little as $25 for one hour, but there other tour options available.