Howling at the Thunder Moon

LITITZ – Prompted by tour guide Rosemarie, a strapping wolf named Tioga raises his buckskin muzzle to the sun and howls. About 20 other wolves quickly join in.

There, not half an hour from the quaint storefronts of Lititz in Lancaster County, an other-worldly chorus rattles the woods.

It is a recent spring Sunday at the Wolf Sanctuary of Pennsylvania, an education center and refuge for captive-bred wolves from several states.

The afternoon tour has just wrapped, and veteran volunteer Denny Binkley is explaining why the nonprofit refuge started by Bill and Barbara Darlington in 1980 is growing, and interest in it bounding like a lobo on a hunt.

Wolves are haunting symbols of wilderness for many, Binkley says, but the animal’s bad-boy reputation lingers. Some western ranchers have again declared war on wolves now that their management has shifted to the states.

The trend worries wolf fans, who say humans over the eons have wrongly maligned the smart and shy – and still endangered – predators.

European settlers began collecting wolf bounties in pilgrim days and wolves eventually were wiped from most of their North American range.

“All that folklore” took a toll, Binkley says. Today, “we actually tell people that Little Red Riding Hood lied.”

Far from being the monsters of fairy tales, Binkley adds, wolves are born leery of people.

“They won’t stalk you. I definitely have more fear of coytes than wolves,” he says.

Pack members squabble like any family but “they don’t like to be alone. If one loses a companion, they get very sad” and may die, according to Binkley.

They are inquisitive, playful and agile – Binkley says he’s seen sanctuary wolves snatch birds out of the air and leap 6 feet straight up from a crouch – and they’re hardly the savage devils of legend.

Seven-year-old Tioga, for example, still defers to his eastern timber wolf dad, Merlin, the 11-year-old alpha figure of the pack.

And the sanctuary packs normally dine on their raw meat in orderly fashion, alpha males and females first, pups last. Every animal waits its turn.

“We always say humans could learn a lot from a wolf pack,” says Binkley, who professes a lifelong passion for wolves.

Still, the creatures behind the double-wire barriers of the sanctuary are not domesticated.

Tioga weighs 150 pounds in winter, the season the wolves are most vigorous. He can shatter a deer bone as if it were a soup cracker.

No one goes in the enclosures alone. Visitors are advised to move slowly to avoid stirring up the packs.

Most of the 43 gray wolves and wolf hybrids at the refuge won’t respond to their names. They usually don’t let people handle them (though Binkley’s wife, Patti, once was permitted to touch the head of a favorite white-and-gray female and found the fur astonishingly soft).

Binkley says wolf howls made his hair stand on end when he first heard them at night.

“They are at the top of the food chain in North America,” he adds. “You can’t train one like a dog. They do their own thing.”

Many of the animals at the refuge were confiscated illegal pets. They will be cared for until they die and will not be released into the wild.

Eight acres of the hilly sanctuary ground are fenced and four new enclosures are planned.

“It is being expanded because there are so many animals out there that need help,” says Darin Tompkins, a Darlington family friend since the 1970s. He came back to lend a hand when sanctuary owner Dawn Darlington renovated a 1760 stone mansion on the 128-acre property nearly a decade ago.

“I never left,” Tompkins jokes.

Today, Tompkins is the wolves’ caregiver and Darlington is innkeeper of the Speedwell Forge Bed & Breakfast, which sits beneath huge old sycamore trees in view of the wolf runs.

Tompkins and Binkley say word of the refuge at 465 Speedwell Forge Road, Elizabeth Township, has spread, with hundreds now turning out for public weekend tours that cost $12 for adults.

Admission fees help support the enterprise, as does the Adopt a Wolf program and monthly full moon tours (Next up is the Thunder Moon event, July 12).

“It’s an escape for people to come here,” says Tompkins, who is winding down his day by wolf watching while birds twitter overhead. That goes too for the handful of part-time employees and 25 or so volunteers who operate the facility.

The Binkleys started filling water buckets and lugging dog food seven years ago.

Patti works in the rustic information center with Flash, a stray tabby cat that expended several of his nine lives last year before being rescued from a wolf pen.

Early on, Patti, a devoted wife and grandmother, had her own close encounter.

She’d been crossing an enclosure with Denny when a blind wolf named Thor slipped in back and nipped her. She reached shakily around and found torn-through clothing but no blood. The mark smarted for weeks. Thor never bothered her again, she says.

“He just wanted to let me know, ‘You’re in my territory.’ “