Down East 2013 ©
When Fred Keating brought Loki into his apartment over twenty years ago, he wasn’t trying to be a saint. He was just another misguided guy who thought a half-wolf, half-dog would make a swell pet.
“I figured I would train him, have him in my house, and things would be great,” he recalls, taking a long drag on his cigarette. But things weren’t great, because wolf dogs need loads of outdoor space.
“They make lousy pets,” Keating notes. Yet he now lives happily with about eighty of them on a large tract of hilly land straddling the border between Stow, Maine, and Chatham, New Hampshire. The packs may occasionally feel confined in their one-acre pens, but they have a lot more space than Keating has in his sparsely furnished trailer. Photographs of wolves and wolf dogs, displayed like family portraits, cover every available inch of wall space. Keating’s been married three times — unsuccessfully. “I guess I get along better with animals than women,” he quips, and leaves it at that. [For the rest of this story, see the December 2008 issue of Down East.]
With an angular, weather-beaten face and a broad-brimmed hat that almost never comes off, Keating could have been cast as the Marlboro man. But this tough guy is not a swaggerer. He’s a savior. On the day of our visit, the snow banks are so high against the eight-foot cages that the most adventuresome animals might easily go AWOL. Keating keeps an anxious eye out, and so do his helpers Mike Hally and Dan Hazlett, making daily rounds.
Keeping these animals on the straight and narrow is kind of like raising rebellious teenagers. By the time a wolf dog is about eight months old, Keating says, it has the IQ of a fourteen-year-old human being. And the attitude to match. “It may like you, but it doesn’t see any reason to do what you tell it to. If it wants to go for a walk, it will, and it will come back when it feels like it, not when you call,” Keating says.
So the way he sees it, whoever started trying to breed Canis lupus — the wolf — with Canis familiaris — the dog — was making a big mistake. At least, it’s turned out that way. According to research published by the United States Department of Agriculture, wolves have genes dogs don’t have. A purebred wolf is born to hunt, not to attack humans, and it socializes much better with its own kind than with Homo sapiens. Dogs, on the other hand, may want to be with their people but can also be more aggressive than wolves. The hybrid can sometimes merge the least malleable traits of both species.
That’s what Keating found out first-hand from the late, great Loki, named for the Norse god of mischief. “About a year into it, I realized he was training me, not the other way around. So I got him a companion, and we did some breeding. But four years later, I quit that. I guess I was part of the problem, and now I’m trying to make up for it.” He says too many breeders sell their puppies to uneducated or unscrupulous customers. “Most people just want a nasty animal for a watchdog. But wolf dogs are actually afraid of people, and when they don’t do what they are supposed to, they get tied to trees or beat up.”
Or dumped in a shelter where they will almost surely be put to death after the legal waiting period. Estimates vary, but advocates put the population of wolf dogs at more than a million, and they fear that half of them are at risk. Since launching the Loki Clan Wolf Refuge as a nonprofit in 1994, Keating has been getting as many as ten calls a day from owners or shelter operators who want him to take the animals off their hands. He’s had to quit his job as a wrecker driver to tend to the refugees full-time. He’s also made a thorough study of Native American culture, which reveres the wolf as much as he does. “For them,” he says, “the wolf is a brother spirit, a good totem, so it makes no sense for people to kill their teacher.”
For Keating, the “brother” metaphor goes a long way, because even though wolf dogs are typically afraid of men, they aren’t usually afraid of him. He’s only been badly bitten once, a long time ago when he tried to rush a traumatized dog out of a shipping crate. Keating has learned patience, and he’s also figured out how to create foster families from orphans and outcasts. Each new wolf dog must arrive spayed or neutered. It starts out with a couple of unthreatening canine mentors in a “transitional pen” near Keating’s trailer. Keating watches for a few days to see how the new arrival will fit into a monarchy. A complete wolf pack is ruled by an alpha pair — a king and queen. There’s also a beta pair, like a prince and princess, and, lower down on the ladder, omegas.
We bundle up and take a stroll to see how the newest immigrant is faring.
“That’s Taina,” Keating says, and begins to translate from wolf-dog body language into English. “I like people. I am a little cautious, but if I know you, I am a suck-up, so I am going to submit to you.” Taina rolls on his belly, looking not at us, but at the other two wolf dogs eyeing him from a few feet away. “I am submitting to you so you don’t need to beat me up,” Keating translates. A little farther up a hill, Keating pauses at a pen where a few old-timers are roughhousing. One of them could be a poster child for this place. “She’s from Rhode Island,” Keating says. “She was running loose, and when she was finally caught, her harness had grown imbedded in her neck, so it had to be surgically removed. The scars from the gashes were incredible.”
He remembers how another adoptee arrived with ears torn so badly they had to be sewn back on. Others have cancer. Keating doesn’t perform major surgery, but he does a lot of self-taught vet work that would make Doctor Dolittle blanch. “Sometimes I wonder,” he muses, “when I see tumors and arthritis and dental disease and all the rest of it, if I am really doing them any favors, prolonging their lives.”
Not that every life is long, in human terms. A wolf dog can survive in the wild for about six to eight years — double that in captivity. When there’s a death in a pen, the animals go into mourning. “They all get very quiet,” Keating says. “If it’s an alpha, they lie still, commiserate, and then decide who will be the next alpha. The successful candidate walks through the pack, and the others just peel off and roll, to show respect. It’s amazing to watch. But if a low-ranking animal dies they treat him like a bump in the road and walk over him.”
Moments like that are not easy for a man whose sole mission in life is to save these vulnerable, misunderstood creatures, allowing them to die with dignity when the time comes. This is not a foster home, it’s a last stop. That means Keating has to accept — even celebrate — the wolf dog’s natural cycle. So do his growing band of apostles. One of them, Myrtle Clapp, read about Keating in the newspaper at a time when the state of New Hampshire was investigating his operation. Keating had sparked a minor media storm by testifying before the state legislature against a law that would have completely banned wolf-dog hybrids. Hoping for a compromise, he lobbied instead for regulation. He got his way. New Hampshire now allows wolf dogs but they must come from out of state — they can’t be bred or sold, and must be confined. They must have I.D.s tattooed or inserted via computer chip, and owners must keep neutering and vaccination records. Maine places the same restrictions on wolf-dog owners, but does not ban the sale of the animals. Neither state allows the animals to be abandoned or released into the wild. Controversy swirls around rabies vaccination. Some scientists claim it isn’t effective on wolf dogs, and others insist that it should be done. Since Keating’s operations straddles the border, he’s under close scrutiny from both states, though he says Maine regulators tend to be more friendly to him than New Hampshire inspectors.
At first, volunteer Myrtle Clapp was deeply suspicious about Keating’s refuge. “I’ve always been passionate about wolves,” she says. “I felt I should pay Fred a visit and see for myself how he treated his animals. If they were not well cared for, I figured I’d try to help the state shut him down.”
That’s not what happened. Keating took Clapp on a tour and introduced her to his charges. “An alpha leapt into my lap,” she says. “From then on I started helping out on Saturdays.”
At that point, Keating didn’t have nearly enough pens for the growing population of refugees. In fact, Clapp says, a number of dogs were tied to trees. So she drove to a fence company in Rhode Island and started begging, scavenging, or, if necessary, buying up sturdy metal fencing and posts. She also started spreading the word about the refuge more systematically in schools and community centers. These days she gives seminars and trolls for volunteers and donors with a Power Point presentation complete with canine portraits like those poignant, big-eyed snapshots you see in “Save the Children” ads. At sixty, she’s been doing this for almost eleven years, when she’s not running her day-care business in Goffstown, New Hampshire.
“The animals are so special,” she says during one of our phone conversations. “They don’t ask for anything, but they give so much love. If I’ve had a hard week, I just go up there, walk into a pen with them, and my troubles melt away.”
If the semi-wild Loki tenants do treat her more affectionately than they greet, say, a male photographer, it’s not just because they have known her longer. It’s because, by and large, women are less threatening to wolf dogs than men. (And a long camera lens may look ominously like a gun.) Fred Keating figures the first hungry wolves who showed up at fires in Native American territory got “hard-wired” to see men as carriers of weapons and women as bearers of food. Myrtle Clapp, though, doesn’t push it. “When you go into a pen,” she says, “you have to be an alpha, but you have to know when to back off, too. Once when I was cleaning bones up in the spring, I went to grab one and then I saw by the eyes and ears and posture that I had to wait until later to pick up that bone.” She eventually got it without any trouble.
Not surprisingly, these adolescent-likeanimals can create special and lasting bonds with human teenagers. Especially during the spring and summer, the refuge has become an unlikely tourist stop and an increasingly popular site for college interns and high school field trips. Residents from a youth detention center have befriended the dogs. Overnight accommodations are monastic — just an extra trailer or a rustic shed for hardy campers. In the winter, volunteers shovel paths through snowdrifts. In the warmer months they repair pens and whack weeds. Summer brings “fencing parties,” when more than a dozen workers can put up a new pen in a day and get rewarded with a barbeque. And supporters give more than time. The annual budget ranges from sixty thousand to a hundred thousand dollars. Keating takes just enough to survive in his trailer.
Despite a pressing need for refuges like his, Keating’s getting choosier about the animals he takes in. “We can’t save ’em all,” he laments. And, at sixty-three, he hopes to groom one of his most skilled and dedicated disciples to take over his job. Naomi Levesque, a thirty-three-year-old social worker from Berlin, New Hampshire, has been volunteering here for more than four years and even enjoys doing what she calls “the gross stuff” — tossing smelly barrels of animal parts from nearby rendering plants over the fences for ravenous wolf dogs.
“I think I’ve kind of learned their language,” she says. “It’s not always the sounds they make, it’s more what their eyes say. Aren’t eyes supposed to be windows to the soul?” Still, even though she’s crazy about these animals, she’s not sure that she can make the whole-hearted, full-time commitment that Fred Keating made twenty-five years ago. She figures that would be asking a lot of her husband. But she can’t seem to get that first visit out of her head. “Every single wolf dog started howling,” she remembers. “It was like surround sound. I cried. I died. It touched me deeply.”
There is a way to rile up this soft-hearted caregiver, and to make the usually unflappable Fred Keating see red. Just bring up that misleading nursery rhyme about the unfortunate little girl in her riding hood. If that’s how people grow up thinking about wolves and their canine relatives — that they have big teeth and gobble up unsuspecting grandmothers — then the Loki Clan Wolf Refuge will be educating the public and taking in abused and neglected cast-offs for years to come.
Visit the Loki Clan Wolf Refuge online at www.canineworld.com/lokiclan/