becoming a volunteer

For some reason, and I don't know what it is, I have always had a fascination with wolves.

Back in 1999 I found that the UK Wolf Conservation Trust existed and is located in Beenham, near Newbury, Berkshire.

As this was close to home I had a look at the website and signed up for a family membership which allows you to go on a walk with the wolves in the woods. They are with handlers and controlled on chain leads, not loose.

One very nice day at the weekend we went for our walk. Helen, Myself and our two children Conor and Jarod (about 3 years old and the other 9 months at the time - NOTE: There is now an age restriction and children have to be over 12). It was a wonderful time seeing these intelligent, beautiful, powerful animals and you could not help but be in awe of the handlers. Whilst they are no where near as strong as the wolves they interact with them as dominant pack members.

At the end of the walk we went back to the farm and were told they are always looking for new volunteers to either help out around the place or become handlers - the Trust has only ONE full time paid employee, all others are volunteers.

I thought "I would love to do that!", but did not do anything about it.

In July 2003 I did a course, which gave me a few insights to life and also the ability to stop procrastinating and get on and do things. HINT: This really is your life, it is not a practice run for the real life. After having done this and with the backing of my partner, which I had always had, just never realised, I got in touch with the Trust. They invited me along to the next introduction day for handlers.

We met up at the Farm on a Sunday in early August (2003) and were given an introductory talk by Roger Palmer, founder of the UKWCT. This was followed by an opportunity to ask questions. Next we were taken outside and given a briefing on Safety and what was going to happen next.

The safety briefing consisted of what to do if the wolf jumps up at you. When you are new to them they are likely to do this as they want to get to know you. They like to get your scent from your face and give you a friendly lick. There is nothing malicious and no harm is intended, but they are powerful animals and you have to treat them with respect.

We were then split into two groups. The larger group was to take the three European wolves and the smaller group, which I was in, was going with Duma and Dakota - the younger of the North Americans.

We headed off, through the gate, across Roger's lawn and up to a field. Once we were there the senior handlers talked to us about how to hold the chain, what we needed to be careful of and what we needed to watch for on the floor. Also you are NEVER to try and take something from a wolf once it has set its sights on it. The person who is shadowing the handler needs to be aware of what is ahead and try to remove any items before the wolves see them. Also you need to alert the handler if it is not something that you would be able to get to in time, safely!

Safety can not be stressed enough - these animals are socialised, they are not tame. This means that whilst they accept and tollorate people they do still make their own choices as to whom they do or do not like. They will generally give you a warning if they do not like you, but you constantly need to be observing and interacting appropriately.

This was my first experience of handling a wolf. It is very hard to describe the feeling. You are very close to a very powerful animal who could easily overpower you and do serious damage - their bite is twice as powerful as a pitbull! In comparison to a German Shepherd they are about 3 times as powerful... As expected Duma turned round to see who I was and jumped up to me, bumping me on the chin with her teeth. As explained to me I bent at the waist and went down to her to let her get to know me. As a trainee you stay as high as you can to try and maintain your dominant position, but at the same time need to be approachable. Once I had bent down I stroked her in front of her back legs on the belly whilst she had a sniff at me, resting her nose on mine. Staring eye to eye with a wolf with your noses touching is something amazing to experience.

Once Duma was happy we did a couple of laps of the field, swapping handling with the other trainees so we could practice passing the leads whilst maintaining control.

The wolves were then returned to their enclosures and we returned to the Visitor Centre. The good news was that we had all passed the first stage. Now we needed to commit to two days a month of volunteering at the trust. When we had done this we were given our thick Safety manual to read.

Now we just needed to wait to hear from Alex what was going to happen next.