the start of a beautiful friendship?

Monday 5th July 2004 is not a day I will ever forget. The actually date may fade away, but the events will be forever remembered.

Why was it such a special day?
Because, I hope, it is the day that signifies the start of a beautiful friendship...

The work day was standard like any other - hour after hour spent programming and fighting bugs and typos but the thought of spending a quiet evening up at the Trust kept me going strong.

5 o'clock came and it was time to leave work then about half an hour later after dashing up back streets and country lanes I arrived at John's house. I knocked at the door to get the gate key then went down to the Trust.

I was greeted by the Euros with the usual disinterest - they are far too tired to be bothered to get up and say 'Hello'. I am not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. With some people they come dashing to the fence to both see them and say hi, or to growl at them. I tend to get very little if any reaction from them. They can recognise cars and often know who is coming down the drive before they are visible. My car is certainly one that they can recognise - I believe I am the only (BMW) mini driver at the Trust and the power steering makes a VERY distinctive noise!

In a way it is good that they ignore me - I hope it will lead to some good opportunities to take photos. I really would like to be able to spend hours in the enclosure with them, just watching and taking photos whilst they behave in their most natural way.

Once I had parked up, gotten changed into my wolfing clothes (a pair of trousers, t-shirt and wellie boots), none of which have been washed for months now. Is this just me being smelly? Not really. It is to try and maintain the scent of the wolves and myself in my clothes so that when spending time with the wolves they will recognise me easier, does it work... I am not sure, but Colin (one of the senior handlers) does not go in with Kodiak unless he has his 'wolfing' clothes on which again maintain his scent.

The evening was peaceful, as most evening are at the Trust. I set off down to the tool shed to kit up with everything that I would need for the evening's activities... Paint brushes, one large, one small. 7.5 litre Tubs of woodland green wood preservative stain, one half empty, one full. One small pot to decant some paint into, to make it easy to hold whilst going up and down the ladder. Then on the way back to the pole barn I picked up a long ladder so I could reach to the top of the feed area of the pole barn.

A few relaxed and calm hours were then spent going up and down the ladder painting the front of the feed shed to help it to blend in with the trees. There were concerns over the colour of the wood stain when it was first bought, but it really does look fantastic and the buildings are starting to disappear into the environment. The observation shed is almost done; we just need to get some masonry paint to do around the picture window.

I called my kids up to have a short chat with them to see how their day had been. These are a highlight of the day but the length can vary greatly depending on whether you catch them during a commercial break from their favourite cartoons. Once I had talked with them about their day at school and we had exchanged 'hugs' it was time to get back to climbing up and down the ladder with paintbrush gripped between barred teeth.

Then my mobile phone beeped... a text message...

It was from John asking if I wished to join him for a pint at 9pm and then to help with putting the wolves to bed.
I replied that I would be delighted and that I would see him later.

Somehow I seemed to get an extra boost of energy and climbing up and down the ladder became easier and the paint can not so heavy. I finished off the front of the shed, did a bit of the side, and then washed the brushes and bucket up to make sure they did not go hard.

It was about 20 minutes to 9pm now and the light was starting to fade. There was also a chill developing in the air as the evening was drawing in. A beautiful orange gold set of clouds lay over the hills to the North with bright edges where the sun was falling on them.

As I still had time to spare went for a walk around the outside of the enclosures. First off down to Kodiak and Kenai to see how they were getting on. Kenai back in with her partner and her neck wound healing. I spent a little while with them, saying hello and giving Kodi a scratch. Kodi is a great wolf. He has a certain presence and character. He is like the grumpy old man of the Trust and he grumps, growls and makes noises at most people. He does still like a good scratch though and will settle against the fence head down and eyes closed when you hit the right spot. Do not loose concentration though and let him lull you into a false sense of security - he does like to nibble fingers!

I walked back up the hill through the grass, which was starting to grow and in need of a cut again, the warm evening sun on my back. Our small mower was out of action as the cutter belt had snapped and only John drives the big tractor. Duma and Dakota lay in their enclosure, again not fussed about whether I was there or not. I walked down the aisle between the Euros and the Girls and stopped at the fence. I knelt down and Duma and Dakota came to the fence to say hello. Sniffing, licking and rubbing and getting a scratch in return.

Time was marching on now and I only had a few minutes until John was due to come and pick me up to go to the pub so I popped over to the Euros fence and greeted the three of them. Lunca and Latea came up and gave me a lick through the fence and then Alba came over and joined in... I rubbed, scratched and fussed over them for a few minutes, then made my excuses and went to leave. They gave a few whimpering noises as if to say 'do you have to go already' and then wandered off over to the woods in the enclosure.

I went back up to the obs shed and went to meet John to head off to the pub. We went over to the Queen's Head. This is a great little pub with a nice warm atmosphere. It is also where we had our Christmas Party. John had a pint, I had my usual - a diet coke. He checked with the bar woman that there was a booking for them the next evening when they were having a senior handlers meeting to discuss Trust issues. Then it was time to return to the Trust to put the wolves to bed.

We got back and it was reasonably dark by now. The wolves were frisky as we came in through the gate. They are most playful at dawn and dusk which is a great time to see them messing around together or running around their enclosures at full speed.

We approached the Euros kennel and John unlocked the padlock on the gate. I hoped I would get to go in to the kennel enclosure next to where the wolves would be going to bed so I would get a chance to stroke them through the fence so I followed John in through the outer gate. He went through to the middle section and I stopped to close the door behind him.

He asked if I wanted to go in with him.

I was a little confused and asked if he was sure about going in with Alba. He said 'yes' so I was more than happy to follow, if a little nervous.

I thought to myself there was no need to be nervous. John, the kind of uber handler to them was there. He is one of the most experienced handlers of the wolves at the Trust and would not put people at risk.

John pointed out that they would most probably be focused on the food, even though it was starvation night so there was very little.

He reached through and put the key in the lock of the padlock of the door to the enclosure. He turned it and it clicked, then he shuffled the bolt back out of its hole to open the gate. Alba was first up to the gate, Latea keeping Lunca back to play. Alba came in, glanced at John then turned toward me. My heart beat faster as I wondered what would happen next. He came over to me and jumped up, I caught his paws in my hands, and we were now face to face. His warm breath filled my nostrils with the smell of wolf. I looked back at him straight in the eyes, as softly as I could whilst wondering what was going to happen next. I stood firm, not wavering or stepping back, which could have been taken as a sign that I could be picked on. His large jaws opened in front of my nose. Then, he licked my face from chin to cheek to forehead and I blew gently back at his snout.

Then as quickly as it had all started it was all over.

Alba got down and went in for his food.

John shut the door behind him and I was grinning from ear to ear. Finally, a first face-to-face meeting with Alba.

This was not the end though. The girls were busy still playing out in the enclosure and John went out to see if they would come in. They showed little interest, so after a couple of minutes I went out to join him by the platform and spent a little while fussing over the girls. We then walked back over to the kennels after having decided that they really did not want to come in - it was a beautiful night after all.

John decided to let Alba go out again too. He had behaved, been a good boy and deserved a treat. He opened the door to the sleeping area and there we were again, Alba and I on the same piece of concrete with no fence between us. This time Alba had already eaten too and so there was no other distraction.

He came over as casually as he had done the previous time. Jumped up his front paws, breathed paunch breath over me, licked me chin to forehead again then hopped down and went out to play with his ladies...

I had now met Alba twice in the one evening and things could not be better.

There really is no way to fully describe the feelings that I had. I do not think unless you have been there, unless you have experienced it first hand that you can have a real appreciation of what it means to an individual. I know that I did not and wondered why people reacted the way they did to being in the enclosure with him. It has certainly given me a new level of respect and admiration for the dwindling numbers who can share time with Alba in the enclosure.

My feelings were many;

Elation. Things seemed to have gone well. I must remember that it was on the concrete and not his home turf so he would maybe not be quite so dominant. I was with John who Alba treats as his authority, so if things were going to go well it would be with him. Had things not gone well, then the chance of ever getting to meet Alba again would have been almost none existent.

Awe. Alba is a magnificent wolf. He has power, stealth and agility. He is also massive, muscular and weighty. He also has a presence about him that lets you know that you need to respect him or he will not tolerate you.

Relief. I had been in with Alba, although only on the concrete, and he had not taken exception to me being there. Maybe there is hope yet that I will be able to go into the enclosure and spend time in with him.

There are many more feelings and emotions that were running through me but my grin and feeling of internal hope for what may be is still there when I think back about this first evening that I met Alba without a fence between us.