Wild wolves have not lived in Central Kentucky for more than 100 years, but the howls of wolf hybrids can be heard occasionally near the Kentucky River in Jessamine County.
Any time a fire truck or police car passes by with blaring sirens, the hybrids’ howls join a chorus of coyote yips and dog barks at Wolf Run Wildlife Refuge, which is nestled a little ways back from U.S. 27.
The nonprofit sanctuary runs purely on donations and volunteer work, founder Mary Kindred said. It is home to dozens of animals, including a three-legged deer and several wolf hybrids that came from abusive homes.
A pack of five high-content wolf hybrids lives in a large enclosure at the back of the sanctuary. High-content hybrids are indistinguishable from wolves physically and behaviorally, animal care volunteer Kara Baird said.
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Baird hand-raised Nayeli and Aries, two members of the pack. Nayeli is the alpha, or leader of the pack, and Aries is the omega, at the bottom of the pecking order.
The refuge is working harder than ever to spread awareness about the wolves, Baird said. New outreach programs allow people to get up close and personal with the animals.
She said she hopes this will help people respect wolves and realize that they can appreciate them without trying to own one.
“These are wonderful animals,” Baird said, “but they aren’t pets.”
People often try to own wolf hybrids, thinking they’re going to be like a dog, she said. Once the owners find out they can’t handle the animals, the hybrids are often euthanized or taken to a sanctuary.
Giant but gentle
Toward the back of the refuge’s 14 acres, a large white face often can be seen peeking from behind dense green foliage.
The imposing creature that weighs more than 200 pounds is Nibbles, a low-content wolf hybrid mixed with a great Pyrenees.
Nibbles doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, Baird said. But with his size and strength, even cuddling can lead to injury.
Baird once suffered a black eye when Nibbles tried to lick her face.
It’s not pretty like a zoo where all the animals are new and bred for being looked at. These aren’t animals to be displayed, this is a place for these animals to feel safe.
Kara Baird, volunteer animal handler
Incidents like that and wolves’ innate ability as “escape artists” are reasons wolf hybrids should not be kept as pets, Baird said.
“They are very intelligent animals; they’re not your average dog that wants to please you. They have their own mind-set,” Baird said. “They want to please themselves and they want to do what they want to do.”
Nayeli is one wolf that doesn’t completely adhere to that rule. When with the other wolves, she behaves just like a wolf, but she loves people, Baird said.
“I joke sometimes and say she’s an alien because she’s so unusual,” Baird said.
Nayeli’s love of people has allowed her to become the sanctuary’s wolf ambassador. She goes with Baird for outreach events in Lexington and surrounding counties to raise awareness about conservation.
Nayeli’s pack is the biggest at the refuge, but there are several smaller groups of wolves living there.
Khaleesi is a high-content wolf hybrid that is from the same litter as Nayeli’s pack but was too small to live with her siblings.
She now lives with Bandit, a large low-content hybrid that used to entertain golfers at a course in Louisville, Baird said. Bandit was known at the course for coming up to and socializing with golfers.
One day, a golfer got angry because Bandit tried to steal a ball, Kindred said. The golfer beat him with a golf club and broke Bandit’s shoulder.
Bandit now has several scars, walks with a limp and stays away from people. The third in Bandit and Khaleesi’s unlikely group is a coyote named Loki.
Most animals native to Kentucky that move through the refuge are raised to be released into the wild, Baird said. Volunteers use blind feeding and other methods to ensure that the animals don’t become reliant on or trusting of people.
The careful planning for release didn’t work with Loki. Volunteers released the coyote, but not long after they noticed paw prints and markings around the sanctuary.
Then one day, Loki appeared in the enclosure with Bandit and Khaleesi. He’d dug his way into the enclosure and has refused to leave, Baird said.
It’s not pretty
The refuge is not a zoo full of perfectly healthy animals, Kindred said. It’s place for animals that are at a “dead end.”
“It’s not pretty like a zoo, where all the animals are new and bred for being looked at,” Baird said. “These aren’t animals to be displayed. This is a place for these animals to feel safe.”
A horse named Buddy and the three-legged deer, Will, are just a few of the refuge’s unique animals.
Buddy was a foal when a dog tore a chunk out of his nose, Kindred said. He survived, but he has a disfigured face and snorts when he breathes.
After the attack, his owners neglected him, Kindred said. Someone eventually called Wolf Run to report the abuse, and when volunteers arrived, they found Buddy emaciated.
Despite what he’s been through, Buddy is extremely social and waits near his gate to greet anyone driving past, Baird said.
“There are animals here that have gone through abuse and have special needs. Some of them are blind; some have neurological issues,” Baird said. “They all have different backgrounds. Some of them have been through horrible situations of abuse, and they just come back and still love people, which amazes me.”
Not all the animals at Wolf Run have been abused. Some come from homes where people tried to keep them as pets, not realizing how much care and work goes into exotic or wild animals.
Bob and Apache are bobcats that came from separate but similar situations, Baird said. Both were bought as pets when they were babies.
Their owners thought it was cute when they were small and would jump from rafters onto people’s heads. When they weighed more than 30 pounds and started attacking people, it was no longer cute, Baird said.
It takes a village
The big task at the sanctuary now is creating perimeter fencing for all the enclosures, Kindred said. A new U.S. Department of Agriculture sanction requires the extra protection for animals that could be dangerous.
Kindred said donations and help from the community, especially Lexington, are the only things that keep Wolf Run going.
People lend a hand in their own ways. Boy Scouts have painted barns, and built toys and houses for the wolves.
Some people who find freshly hit deer on the road bring them to the refuge for the wolves to eat, Baird said. In addition to a meal, the deer carcasses offer enrichment for the wolves, who don’t leave anything behind.
Since the refuge opened, donations have been a vital piece of the financing. The sanctuary couldn’t survive without the donations of individuals and businesses, Kindred said.
Kindred said she originally bought the land on Old Danville Road because she had a wolf hybrid and wanted to give her more room to run.
Over the years, the refuge has been home to a variety of animals, including African lions, cougars and wallabies, Kindred said.
Through the years, the operation has adapted to needs and available resources. It has changed a lot from the one-woman show it was when it started in 1985, and Kindred said it undoubtedly will continue to adapt.
“It’s exciting to see what will come next,” she said.