Wolf Dog Rescued From Fur Farm Learns To Play 'Keep Away'
When the wolf dog first arrived at the sanctuary, she was full of parasites and severely underweight. She spent the majority of her time pacing around her enclosure. If a person approached her, she would bolt in the opposite direction.
The wolf dog - named Zoey by her rescuers - had good reason to be traumatized. She'd spent the first year of her life on a commercial fur farm in Illinois, where she may have eventually been skinned for her fur. This fur farm had mainly kept foxes, but the operators also had about 15 wolf dogs on the property - including Zoey and three of her sisters. While wolf dogs are classified as any animal containing genes from both wolves and domestic dogs, the animals on the fur farm were "high content" wolf dogs, which means they had over a 50/50 ratio of wolf to dog genetics.
Zoey and her sisters were kept in a tiny, dirty cage that didn't protect them from the elements, according to Susan Weidel of W.O.L.F. Sanctuary (W.O.L.F. stands for "wolves offered life and friendship") in Colorado, who assisted in Zoey's rescue. Their water bowls were constantly filthy, and their only food was kibble thrown onto the dirt floor.
Then, in 2015, the USDA didn't renew the fur farm's license, and Illinois wildlife officials were called in to relocate the animals while the USDA shut down the facility. Officials were able to find placement for the foxes, but they had trouble rehoming the wolves since wolves need to be placed with a licensed wolf sanctuary. It's actually illegal for anyone in Illinois to own wolves or wolf dogs (the fur farmers were breaking the law by keeping them), so the wolf dogs could not go to private placements in Illinois.
The Illinois officials contacted W.O.L.F., asking if they'd take the remaining eight wolf dogs. At the time, W.O.L.F. was nearly at full capacity, so they could only take one wolf dog - Zoey - but they worked with other sanctuaries and rescues, including The Grey Wolf in Wisconsin and Wolf Connection in California, to make sure the remaining seven wolf dogs found homes as well.
The long drive from Illinois to Colorado was tough on Zoey - the whole time, she refused to eat or drink. Even when Zoey was released into one of the large isolation enclosures at W.O.L.F., she continued to be emotionally distressed. Michelle Proulx, W.O.L.F.'s director of animal care, speculates that Zoey missed her sisters: "It was the first time in her life that she was alone, and she was totally fearful."
To help Zoey adjust to her new life, the sanctuary staff decided to place a male wolf named Pax in with Zoey to keep her company. To their relief, Zoey immediately took to Pax, and began to show improvement. "She was able to calm down and began exploring her surroundings," Proulx tells The Dodo.
Besides helping Zoey relax, Pax taught Zoey to become more interested in people. "Pax is an extremely social wolf dog, and loves human companionship," Proulx explains. "Zoey quickly learned to be curious rather than fearful of the humans who were part of her day-to-day life."
Soon Zoey found a game to play. It started when a volunteer was inside Zoey's enclosure, and left a shovel unattended. Zoey trotted up, grabbed the shovel, and darted away to chew on it like a toy.
"Zoey loved this game," Shelley Coldiron, W.O.L.F.'s executive director, tells The Dodo. "She didn't like to be touched and would run away if a human reached out to her, but she loved to come upon her humans from the side or the back. She would steal a hat, a glove, a radio - anything left unattended."
Zoey even tried stealing items being worn by people, grabbing a collar or sleeve or shoe, and trying to walk away with it. "She quickly realized it was more fun to take items that weren't attached to people," Proulx says. "She loved to be chased and play 'keep away' and she was very, very good at it. If staff didn't chase her, she'd take the treasure to a spot a short distance away, lie down and chew on it until she got bored. Zoey liked the game because she got a positive reward - the chase, the chewing and the attention."
Zoey's game is pure fun. As her caretakers explain, Zoey doesn't steal things in an aggressive way - she's initiating play. "Tug, steal and 'keep away' are games that wolf pups play with each other," Proulx explains.
Besides her ongoing game of embezzlement, Zoey loves to sniff and explore her large enclosure, and spy on her wolf neighbors to see what they're doing. Zoey also loves eating, and will jump up and down when her caretakers bring her food.