Wolf dogs find haven in New Hampshire sanctuary

What happens, finally, is you turn a corner – this one being deep in New Hampshire at the bottom of a frost-heaved dirt road over a Western ridge. There is a sign there, crude letters on simple planks. "Loki Clan Wolf Refuge," it says. And you turn that corner and then you see one. You see a wolf. Her name, you learn later, is Wayah. You're here to meet the man who saved her.

In a minute that man, Fred Keating, will watch you watching Wayah, and will begin telling you about her. To begin with, she is not entirely a wolf, despite everything your senses tell you. She's a wolf dog, a mix made by breeding wolves in captivity with dogs. (Wolves won't mate with dogs in the wild.) In most states, Wayah is illegal; in the rest, she's a bad idea for all but a very, very few. "People get them, thinking they'll be pets," Mr. Keating says, "dogs, but cooler. But they're not pets. They're wolves. Doesn't matter if their wolf blood is only 1 percent – that makes them as smart as a 12-year-old human, compared with dogs who are like 3-month-old infants. They're wolves, and that's how they act."

Which means they're in trouble. While no official statistics exist, advocacy groups estimate that some 500,000 of the animals – out of a population as high as 1.5 million in the United States – are at risk of maltreatment or euthanasia because of their temperament as adult animals. They need to roam (up to 40 miles a day), to be outside, to live in a pack, but many are chained, caged, or even abandoned. The problem is getting worse with Americans' growing taste for exotic animals. Keating, who rescued his first wolf dog 20 years ago, started Loki Refuge to save as many as he could. Since its construction began in the '90s, Loki has become one of the largest sanctuaries of its kind.

Today, Keating is in the midst of saving 94 individuals, as he will show you during the rounds of feeding them and looking in on the 24 separate packs – little families – spread out in the 24 chain-link fenced enclosures. You could almost be forgiven for thinking that Keating's work doesn't add up to much – 94 wolves saved (he always calls them "wolves") out of 500,000 animals at risk.

But here is Wayah, standing a few feet away in her territory, looking at once familiar and like something you've never seen before – the wind-carved head, the impossibly long legs, the almond-shaped eyes. Her coat is cream, oatmeal, and black – the skin of a birch tree. Her fur turns in the licking breeze.

As you look at her, she looks back at you better. She – what's the right word? – regards you, takes your measure. You see the steam of her exhaled breath. She is something past beautiful, and you can't help recalculating: Maybe saving just Wayah is enough.

Now Keating, having given you time, has emerged to stand beside you. Keating is deep-chested, with a snowy beard, a scroll-brimmed hat that might be the first thing he puts on every morning, and a cowboy's walk – a little stiff-legged but still easy over the ice patches and ruts.

He looks like a man who doesn't have much use for town. He says of Wayah matter-of-factly, "She was owned by a gang of drug dealers in Providence [R.I.]. They thought, 'What could be a tougher watchdog than a wolf?' But when the DEA came, the wolves were too smart and just hid in the back until it was over. Somebody asked if we could take them. She was in bad shape, but she's turned the corner now." He looks at you to see if you've understood. Another corner turned. He pauses. "Ready?" And he leads you off to inspect and feed the inhabitants of Loki's acre-sized pens.

Alongside comes a rackety little ATV driven by Keating's helper, Dan Hazlett, pulling an old wagon with frozen hamburger patties and chicken pieces. The two men toss the chunks over the fencing of each enclosure. The wolf dogs come to the sound and smell, and Keating talks to them, calls them by name, whispers in baby-talk. Sometimes he enters a pen, behaving carefully. ("To go in, you gotta be able to act like a wolf," he says.) He has assembled each of the packs like a matchmaker, placing alpha and subordinate animals to cohere. He's good at it. The wolves will live to be 15 or older at Loki (wild wolves live to be 6 to 8). They've escaped destruction and found a home.

Which is exactly, you realize later, what Keating has done, too. He lives on the property in a hard-worn trailer next to the pens, the air inside it thick with the damp overheatedness of close quarters in harsh weather. "My paycheck," Keating calls the trailer. He takes no salary, instead drawing just a provided subsistence. Loki, a nonprofit, functions annually on a budget of $60,000 to $100,000, which comes from donations.

But the trailer, the landscape, the wolf families – all of it for Keating is a turned corner of its own. Twenty years ago, he'd gained notice during a New Hampshire government inquiry into the wolf dog problem, which was growing even then. He loved the animals – he'd made a personal study of wolves for a couple decades already – and people began saying, "Hey, he seems to know what he's talking about, let's give him the problem." So Keating started taking in the animals people brought to him.

"What was I doing [for work] then?" he says, repeating a question. "Oh, a little bit of everything – welder, mechanic, school bus driver, whatever." He laughs. "I was waiting to find what I was gonna do with the rest of my life."

And what he found was this. He saves wolves.

"These are good lives now," Keating says as he walks among them, as he enters another pen and the animals jostle against him roughly and lick his face, mouth his fingers, and moan. "This is what they need."

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