Clare wouldn't make eye contact. The 12-year-old from Wisconsin, on vacation with her mother, Shannon, wouldn't speak when asked a question. She buried her face in her mom's blouse, terrified. I recoiled in embarrassment, as if I'd done something wrong.
But two hours later, something unexpected and wonderful emerged. A smile. A brilliant, beaming smile. Bubbling with joy and confidence, Clare looked directly at me and talked. Right before my eyes, she went from dark to light. What happened?
Simple: She walked with wolves.
Clare, Shannon and I were in a group that met at the Wolf Connection, a nonprofit located on a 165-acre ranch in the Angeles National Forest that houses wolf dogs — part-wolf, part-dog hybrids. The Wolf Connection rescues these abandoned half-breeds, which are trafficked as pets but are illegal in most states. Animal advocates discourage adopting or buying wolf dogs, because it perpetuates a cycle of misery for the animals: Many are abandoned or neglected because they are too wild to be fully tamed. At the same time, they are too domesticated to survive in the wild. Many animal control officials will quickly destroy such animals out of safety concerns.
Saved from euthanasia, at Wolf Connection, the creatures find a way to give back.
"What you saw with Clare was what we see all the time: Wolves get people to open up — especially kids — because they get us in touch with our primeval selves," says founder Teo Alfero. "They take us back 40,000 years — long before modern pressures and insecurities. Wolves co-evolved with us, hunted with us and taught us their tribal family structure. We carry a connection with them in our DNA."
Alfero was working as a teacher in Los Angeles years ago when a friend told him about a litter of wolf dog puppies. Alfero volunteered to care for one, named Tala, who still lives with him. "Her first howl touched me — spoke to a longing I didn't know I had," he said.
He began volunteering with a wolf dog rescue organization and researching the human-wolf connection.
"Wolves and humans have an ancient, permeable bond that may go as far back as the Neanderthal era," he says. "They were the first animal we associated with. On an unconscious level, they activate our ancient memories and traditions."
After three months, Alfero had an opportunity to take over the wolf dog rescue group in 2007. He broadened its function and renamed it Wolf Connection. He began offering self-styled "Wolf Therapy" sessions to young people rehabbing from crime, drugs and gang activity, using the natural environment to counteract the dehumanizing stresses of urban living. Classes and tours at the ranch help fund the sessions.
Most of the people in my group of 18, who booked the $150-per-person tour through Airbnb Experiences, had a longtime fascination with wolves. Candy Huynh, 20, of Adelaide, Australia, and Darko Morec, 50, of Slovenia had seen them in the movies. Clare, the young Wisconsinite, always loved "Animal Planet" and persuaded her mom to drop a day from their vacation at Vid-Con in Anaheim.
After meeting at the small Wolf Connection headquarters shack, the group hiked uphill for a few minutes to fenced-off compounds that hold about 20 dog-wolves, in groups of two. Our guides gave us detailed biographies of each animal, such as Malo, booted after eating his neighbors' chickens, and Beau, who kept escaping from a confining yard. All were stories of love, abandonment and abuse.
We learned that dogs started off as wolves — weak, hungry ones who wandered into human camps, aided our hunts and were bred and customized. Now, illegally re-bred with pure wolf DNA, they sport narrower chests (for fast running, especially through snow), pointier ears (better acoustics than floppies) and pitch-perfect howling (for long-distance communication). A handful of rescued dog-wolves ended up here, to live out their days.
Craving action but lacking survival skills, they can't be released into the San Gabriel Mountains. They wouldn't last long. So, on leashes, they happily led us on a slow, hour-long hike with many petting stops.
In truth, I didn't feel transported back 40,000 years. Still, something special clearly had occurred. Because everyone else was ecstatic.
"Amazing," raved the Aussie. "Better than Seattle, Yosemite and Sequoia National Park," said the Slovenian, who'd also toured the West. Then of course there was Clare. She'd been transformed.
I wondered: Since dogs are inbred wolves, don't we get the same benefit out of "walking with dogs?" After all, dog therapy is utilized for aging populations and even used to calm jittery airline travelers.
That's true — sort of, said Alfero. "A dog is to a wolf as a garden hose is to a fireman's hose," he explained. "With a wolf, we get a full blast of what we used to be. ...Wolves remind us."
As if to emphasize the point, with the sun setting to the west, a beautiful chorus echoed in the hills. The wolf dogs began howling.
Where: 29063 Aliso Canyon Road, Palmdale
What: A variety of activities are available, including private tours and hikes. Group hikes are held four times a year in the Angeles National Forest, with tickets starting at $55 for children ages 7 and up, and $65 per adult.