Not far from our home adjacent the Anacortes Forest Lands (ACFL), I stand on a damp, dark hillside covered with craggy gray rocks, gnarled roots and bright green sword ferns. Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars tower overhead. Sunbeams filter through the forest canopy where seven wolf dogs roam, cautiously approaching their visitors. We’re inside a 1.5 acre space, enclosed with a formidable fence, topped with a live wire of sufficient voltage to knock a person flat. Animal handlers Bethany, Kali and Holly divide their time between us six guests, answering questions and ensuring that wolf dogs and humans alike follow strict rules of conduct while interacting with one another. I’ve contemplated this visit to the Predators of the Heart (POTH) wildlife sanctuary for a long time and savor the final minutes of the two-hour-long Howling with Ambassadors encounter during which I had the chance to get up close to nine of the twenty-six wolf dogs that call this place home. Airbnb waves fees for so-called social impact experiences, so POTH keeps 100% of the $200 per person proceeds. The place has been in existence for over twenty years, “Our sanctuary is in Anacortes, WA on a 10 acre parcel that houses wolves, cougars, bobcats, birds of prey, many different species of reptiles and small mammals. We are insured [through Airbnb] and licensed by the USDA that ensures the safe keeping, proper care, and humane exhibition of our animals. Our goal is to educate children [under 18 are prohibited from participation in the Airbnb experience] about wildlife, not only to teach the facts about the animals, but to use an approach that leads to an appreciation, affection, compassion and respect for these living creatures…We also serve as a sanctuary for animals that cannot be reintroduced to the wild and need a safe and healthy environment to live out the remainder of their lives.”
According to its Articles of Incorporation, POTH began as an “educational and religious” organization, more recently adding “animal husbandry” to its list. Subsequent addenda, on December 9, 2013, and June 4, 2015, stipulate that in the event of a voluntary dissolution, the Board will distribute any funds and specify restrictions to its mission in order to fulfill Washington State Law regarding sanctuaries (RCW 16.30.010). Its Howling with Ambassadors experience has become a huge success. Since joining Airbnb, the sanctuary has hosted over 9,600 guests and increased the initial booking fee by one-third, from $150 to $200 per person. By my math, that’s over 1.5 million in proceeds in just over two years. But five years ago, it was almost forced to shut down for good.
In February of 2014, Skagit County Breaking News reported, “Wolf hybrids and cougars in Skagit County face stricter regulations after county commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance that will regulate potentially dangerous wild animals” after “Five neighbors of Predators of the Heart filed complaints with the county and many spoke at a public hearing…expressing concerns about public safety, noise and food scraps dropped in their yards.” “The county gave Coleburn until the end of 2014 to comply with their demands, while Coleburn remained insistent that his facility was in compliance with all federal and state regulations. The county then sued him in February 2015…In December , the county scheduled a summary judgment hearing in which Predators Of The Heart might face a fine in excess of $100,000, but then cancelled the hearing.” Sixteen months after surviving the lawsuit, the sanctuary continued to operate on a shoestring budget, “We run on a 100 thousand a year, and other places work on a million a year,” [Coleburn] said. “We’re here for the community.” Fortunately, the tide was about to turn.
Three months later, in July of 2017, Predators of the Heart discontinued self-booked “wolf encounters,” and began booking with Airbnb. But its reputation with some of the local public was about to take another beating. In September, a wolf dog escaped its enclosure. Animal Control picked it up on the ACFL. A month later, a man walking a leashed dog along Trail 118 wandered onto POTH property. Two wolf dogs escaped their handler, resulting in the dog’s death. In December, the “City of Anacortes…posted Warning signs on four trails in the Community Forest Lands to alert trail users that there is a wild animal refuge in unincorporated Skagit County.” As a frequent visitor to the ACFL, these incidents concerned me, but seeing the operation firsthand eased my mind. Contact between guests and creatures takes place only within the confines of secure enclosures. And the attitude and behavior of the animal handlers (Bethany, Holly, Jeremy and Kali), who kept us safe, provided information about the animals, and unhesitatingly answered our every question, solidified my change of mind. Surprisingly, in spite of repeated references to wolves at the organization’s website, the animals are, in fact, “high content” wolf dogs, as indicated at Airbnb.
American Wolf author Nate Blakeslee writes, “When the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, there were perhaps as many as two million wolves on the continent,” “By the 1920s, the wolf had been all but eliminated from the continental United States,” “But in recent decades, conservationists have brought wolves back to the Rockies, igniting a battle over the very soul of the West.”
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reports, “Wolves were formerly common throughout most of the state, but declined rapidly because of trapping, poisoning, and hunting as ranching and farming by European-American settlers expanded between 1850 and 1900. By the 1930s, wolves were considered eradicated from the state. Infrequent reports of animals continued in the following decades, suggesting that individuals continued to disperse into Washington from neighboring states and British Columbia…A pack with pups was confirmed in July 2008…represented the first fully documented breeding by wolves in the state since the 1930s. Since then, the state’s wolf population has increased at an average rate of 28 percent every year, and many other wolf packs have been confirmed,” and “estimates at least 126 wolves and 27 packs were living in Washington by the end of 2018.” Earlier this year, when a wolf first observed near Marblemount two years prior found a mate, the pair formed the first pack living west of the Cascades in Washington state, about sixty miles east of their distant wolf dog cousins at the sanctuary.
Since my visit, I’ve read everything I can about wolves, wolf dogs and Predators of the Heart and sent Manager Ashley Carr a list of ten follow-up questions. Her reply–no comment. Even so, my one sentence review of Howling with Ambassadors…
It was epic.