a bunch of strangers made a pack.
There are a lot of things I remember about meeting my first wolf.
I remember that it was an uncharacteristically cooler day in July during a summer filled with scorching temperatures and drought. I remember that it was overcast. I remember first being introduced to the main pack of wolves through a fence and wondering how I would ever tell them apart. Then there were the 3-month old wolf pups that had just been born in April; six total, 3 played with their grandma wolf in another enclosure, jumping on humans and being good, curious wolf puppies. The other three watched from an enclosure across the way, poking their black plug-like noses through the chain link fence and whimpering quietly.
I remember the first two wolves we met – Tristan & Ayla, a father, former alpha male, and his daughter. They were skeptic of the new humans in their enclosure, so our visit was brief. Another senior wolf was suggested for a meet: Chetan, a whited out, 17-year old wolf. I remember walking in to his smaller enclosure and watching him slowly emerge from his wooden hut. His eyes had sunken into his skull a little due to his age, and he had a lovely little canine snaggle tooth draped out of the left side of his muzzle. I squatted down so he could sniff my face in the same way he would investigate other wolves. His nose was wet and he smelled earthly. I listened attentively when he exhaled quickly through his nose and at the sound his teeth made after he’d tongue flick and close his mouth. He spent the majority of the visit checking out my husband’s face and nestling his head underneath my husband’s armpit. It was an incredible experience. Chetan was the wolf that made me fall in love with all wolves. He was put to sleep on May 31, 2013, after he suffered a hip dislocation that his old, tired body lacked the necessary muscle to recover from. He had just celebrated his 18th birthday.
Waking up at 6:15am on a Saturday morning to drive 2 hours for his memorial was an honor that I was happy to be invited to. We had always been fortunate to have good comfortable weather anytime we’d visited the park this year. We didn’t bring rain gear or jackets or any extra clothes. As we pulled off the highway exit, we noticed storm clouds in the distance. We might get rained on, but it didn’t matter. We were celebrating his life.
Birds were chirping and singing, but the park was quiet. The humans were quiet. The wolves, coyotes and foxes were quiet. Amanda, Chetan’s human best friend, walked to the front of the main pack’s enclosure with a small, rectangular wooden box held in both hands.
“This is my puppy,” she said, gazing down at the tiny vessel that held the remains of a once 100-lb. white, fluffy, beautiful wolf. “He was my first puppy.”
She told stories of being new to the park and new to raising wolf pups. Her stories of his puphood brought smiles to many faces. And when she got choked up, so did everyone else. She threw a handful of his ashes into the main enclosure where he lived for a decade and rose and fell in rank and then produced a litter of puppies with the alpha female.
We walked to the enclosure he had spent his living month, the last place I had visited with him. It was the smallest enclosure he had lived in, but it was a great place for his comfort and safety. There were no large holes dug into the ground, it was shaded by three tall evergreen trees and a wooden hut with some blanket “doors” to provide a good hideaway from the sun and heat.
It was a lonely place to look at without him there; he had been up and very active when I last visited in late May. He seemed good. But everyday, at his age, was a gift, and that gift was given from the great care that the park’s staff and volunteers provide daily to all of their animals. Chetan’s life was a gift.
It was not a surprise when the raindrops started falling when we all stopped in front of his last home. It was not a surprise when those drops started to fall faster and faster until they were almost deafening. It was difficult to hear everyone’s stories. The rain made it easier to hide tears. I’m sure some people were grateful.
The last destination on our rainy memorial march was the bison pasture where several of Chetan’s relatives and other Wolf Park inhabitants found their final resting place. My husband bravely stepped up to say a few words and place Chetan’s ashes in the tall grass. In his usual charming way, he made a few people laugh with his story. When he asked me if I wanted to speak I declined even though Chetan had been my sponsor wolf. I made a promise to myself a few years ago that I would never touch a dead thing that I loved ever again. The feel of waxy, embalmed skin or the coarseness of ashes was not how I wanted to remember that thing I loved. Because, really, those things were just things now, not a person or an animal. I wanted to remember Chetan’s thick, lion-like mane of fur around his neck, and the way I had to bury the entirety of my fingers in it just to give him a good scratch. I wanted to remember his earthly smell and not the absence of smell in his ashes. I just wanted to remember him the way he was the week before he passed: active, curious, big and beautiful and fluffy.
He was a lot of things for a lot of people and a lot of other wolves. He was a son, a mate, a father, a grandfather. He was an ambassador for his kind and a gentlemanly wolf if there was one. A lot of people and wolves howled the day we scattered Chetan’s ashes and the earth wept as it took back its friend. And as I visited with one of his sons afterwards, the rain let up and the smiles returned, and I dug my fingers through Wo’s fur to give him good shoulder and spine scratches like I used to do with his dad.