“We’re running with Wolves”

The world is big, we are small, money and time are not infinite resources. It’s a huge problem. So how have we chosen the places we want to travel to? To be honest alot of it ended up being dictated by Workaway and the activities we wanted to do for particular hosts. For those of you still unsure how we are working this trip check out “The Idea” section of the blog but basically we are doing work stays in various countries to limit the cost of travel. However I never thought in my life I would find myself wanting to visit Spain, least of all it being our top destination. So why are we here?

The short answer is Wolves. Being a zoo keeper all animals (apart from the dreaded snake) are very important to me in many ways and I am extremely passionate about most species, usually the stranger the better. But the Wolf (Canis lupus) is my obsession. The only way I can describe it is that they feel like home. So when Peter and I began planning this trip via Workaway I typed in “wolf” across all countries just to see what would come up and the first entry was a place in Catalonia, Spain that had 2 huskies and we’re trying to set up a wolf sanctuary. I believe when I read about it I squeaked in excitement and would occasionally punch poor Peter to ensure he understood just how excited I was. So we contacted them, skyped them, planned with them and finally met them at the start of the month. We were then introduced to their Wolf project.

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At the moment there are no Wolves. They are currently in the initial stages of planning and getting approval and learning as much as they can about Wolves and in particular the Iberian Wolf which was once native to Catalonia and sadly, but not unusually, gone into decline. But we are here for ideas, helping them to understand what looking after wolves in a captive environment would be like, what enclosure considerations they may need to think about, what behaviours they could expect and how to keep both the Wolves and the general public happy. We are also here to cuddle their two huskies, obviously! These huskies are also great ambassadors for their wild Wolfen brethren and fantastic conversation starters amongst the local Catalans whom we meet. Most do seem to think they are actually Wolves. I had also been helping with some Wolf research. I had spent a fair amount of time reading up on the latest research findings, suggesting what topics of research could do with more exploration and inventing studies of my own for potential use one day. Geek that I am, it felt hugely rewarding to be using knowledge and techniques gained in my degree as well as my experiences in zoos and I hope my notes will prove useful for the project. For more information on the project visit www.wildnessoflife.org

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Our hosts have been on the hunt for some land to set up their sanctuary. Whilst we have been here the idea has switched to potentially looking for a premises in which to create educational opportunities in a more urban setting initially to change opinions of the Wolf before the sanctuary has been built in a more wild place. Once that stage is complete they are looking for somewhere spectacular for eco-lodges and Wolves. We found it. On top of a mountain, the next peak along from where our restaurant mountain trek adventure was we were shown the most stunning piece of landscape you could imagine. It was the most surreal estate agent visit I’ve ever had! After viewing it we quickly termed it “Wolf Mountain” and our host declared on the drive back down “This is fucking epic! I want it!” But alas, as always, practicality gets in the way.

It is 40 minutes of heart stopping 4×4 driving up an incredibly windy track just to get there. There is limited clearings in which Wolves could make use of and fencing and viewing issues would be very difficult to overcome. The practicalities of hospitality would also prove problematic and the biggest problem of all would be building up there in the first place. But this mountain, allegedly haunted, had already bewitched us with its spell. We saw other land for sale but nothing could compare to this place. So we went for another adventure to see more of it. On the first viewing we explored one side with spectacular views and an enchanting sunset that was so genuinely beautiful it practically brought a tear to my eye. So this time we were to explore the more northern side which was equally as stunning with spectacular views and, of course, more challenging terrain. I was surprised amongst other things to find what appeared to be limestone pavements, much more native to my beloved Yorkshire than Spain.

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And then the storm came.

We had seen it rolling elegantly off the backs of the mountain ranges to our right, rumbling away with the odd flash of lightning. Now I love thunder, absolutely adore it in fact, it makes you feel as small and insignificant as a small child yet as alive and empowered as a war Lord. However my mum and sister are of the opposite opinion so when I was young they used to tell me that thunder was God playing marbles. Either way it was fascinating to watch it approach us across the valley as we began our descent and we joked that the hippy gathering we had disturbed had called the thunder and that our host “answering” their call had angered them.

The problem was that we had lost our way. On this mountain there’s no real trail other than the spaces the Wild Boar create as they crash through the undergrowth. So we ended up following that through forests until the terrain got far too steep for our liking and we realised we were heading along the wrong side of the mountain. As we wound our way in between ever encroaching trees and vegetation the rain began. This was biblical rain. I had been out in storms before but this was just relentless. Our host told us we needed to be careful of “the torrents” which are open patches of forest that the rain quickly rivers down into, slicing its path ever downwards. I looked down and realised we were stood in one.

By now we were soaked beyond the skin. Even my feet were swimming in my waterproof boots and the huskies were feeling slightly worried as the darkness within the forest seemed to descend, confusing us even more. It genuinely felt as if we had been cursed to wander in this forest forever under some enchantment. But eventually we did manage to make it back to the car, down the mountain and back home, drenched and still admiring the storm that was raging all around us.

To introduce our hosts to the zoo world and in order to get some photos of Iberian Wolves for them to use we decided to visit “Mollo Parc” one weekend. The zoo itself was on a ridiculously steep hill so I thought they had been rather inventive with their enclosures, the Bear enclosure in particular was lovely. They had a few contact areas with Goats and Bunnies and even supervised Marmot cuddling! The Wolves were right down at the bottom of the valley by an astoundingly lush river and enclosed on all sides by deliciously cooling woodland. A very serene place to spend a morning, particularly before all the other visitors arrived. What was interesting was the keepers. We tried to speak with some of them as best we could but language was always the barrier. However we seemed to come across one who did nothing but clicker training. Every now and then he would be at an enclosure clicking his clicker and throwing food. Now whether this was “bridge training” to get them used to the sound of the clicker or recall I couldn’t tell as it was a little inconsistently done but as a result we got some lovely views of the Otters, Foxes and Lynx. However at feeding time for the Bears the food was being thrown directly in the Bears mouths. The Bears had developed some anticipatory behaviours because of this and the time it took them to eat their food was very minimal. It also resulted in no exploration and therefore bored Bears. I didn’t seen any stereotypical behaviours displayed but it was frustrating that something so simple as a scatter feed could have changed a lot. The other really frustrating thing was a lack of enrichment, which again could have made such a difference.

It was an interesting visit and opened my eyes to how different EU zoos are from British ones (not a single hand sanitiser to be seen anywhere!) It also felt lovely to be back in a zoo. That might sound strange, particularly in a zoo I had never visited before but they have a sense of familiarity about them somehow. And whatever language the keepers speak, an animals body language is much more easily translatable.

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