Sept. 10, 2008
Fifty miles west of Bozeman, Montana, I pulled out my scattered travel notes and found the phone number to an inn I’d had bookmarked for many years. Luck was on my side. There was a vacancy that evening, so I secured a reservation over the phone, put away my notes, and hopped back on the highway.
Sixty-three miles later, I exited I-90 at Jackson Creek Road and headed north, wondering what kind of adventure I’d gotten myself into this time. Just over three miles from the Interstate, I saw the B&B’s rustic sign on my right. I pulled off the road, pausing to enjoy a telltale hint within the lettering – a paw print, substituted for the “o” in the inn’s name. I looked up the driveway to the house in the distance, smiled, and proceeded the rest of the way.
By lodging standards, it’s a small bed and breakfast, with three guest rooms tucked upstairs in a family home, plus a guest suite over the garage. The rooms are comfortable, with nice linens, convenient amenities, and many other niceties associated with well-run B&Bs. Guests receive a full breakfast and have use of an indoor hot tub, Finnish sauna, pool table, entertainment center, and more. But what makes this inn so dramatically different from others is not what can be found on the inside of the spacious log and stone building. It’s what awaits on the rest of the property.
Howler’s Inn is not only a bed and breakfast, but also a wolf sanctuary, a safe haven for wolves who have been bred in captivity, abused, or unwanted. The wolves who find refuge at Howlers’s would not be able to survive if released into the wild. Though federally licensed and supervised by the USDA, the sanctuary does not receive any federal funding. It relies on donations from friends and guests, income from the bed and breakfast business, and the hard work and love provided by the owners, Chris and Mary-Martha Bahn.
The wolves who live at Howler’s Inn arrive as pups and remain there for the duration of their lives. Because the sanctuary does not breed or sell any wolves, they are spayed or neutered when they arrive. Surrounded by trees, boulders, and meandering streams, they live in one of two large, fenced enclosures and have free run of their natural setting.
I was fortunate to arrive in the late afternoon and have some time alone on the property before other guests arrived. The sky was overcast and rain was threatening, so I dropped my belongings off quickly in my room, grabbed my camera, and headed down to see the residents. Mary-Martha cautioned me to stand at least five feet away from the fences. I was happy to follow any words of warning and grateful to be allowed to wander on my own.
Wolves are nocturnal, so most were still sleeping, but as the sun moved lower in the horizon, one by one they began to stir. In observing, and later speaking with both Chris and Mary-Martha, I came to recognize each wolf as having an individual story and personality.
Mohawk and Grizzly are the Alpha male and female, respectively. Both timber wolves, Alpha was born in 1997 and shows territorial and protective behavior. Grizzly was born in 1996 and was the runt of five pups, the only one of the five to survive an attack of Parvo. Chief is the largest, weighing approx. 100 pounds. Sundance is the Omega, the lowest wolf on the totem pole, and is very skittish. Cheyenne is an Arctic tundra wolf who was the alpha female until she was ousted by the pack. She was allowed back in when the newer alpha female, Ninja, was ousted herself. Ninja is the oldest of all the wolves, born in 1994. She remains distanced from the pack and lives on a deck outside the house, though still within the fenced enclosure.
I spent some time observing the main pack, keeping the recommended distance from the fence that surrounds their three-acre space. I then moved on to the smaller, one acre enclosure, where the two younger wolves live. Kiowa and Comanche came to Howler’s Inn in 2007 as pups and the intention was to integrate them into the main pack. When they were not accepted by the other wolves, Chris and Mary Martha built them their own, one-acre habitat.
I found Mary-Martha at the edge of the enclosure, with both Kiowa and Comanche just on the other side of the fence. She motioned for me to come a little closer and told me there was a chance Comanche might allow me to approach the fence. Of all the wolves in the sanctuary, he was the most “dog-like,” she informed me. I watched as she stretched her fingers through the twists of metal, scratching Comanche’s soft, gray and white fur. He raised his head toward her in appreciation.
Cautiously, I stepped a little closer, watching for Mary-Martha’s cues. The wolf watched me approach but did not move away. Once I stood directly next to Mary-Martha, she felt the wolf had accepted me and told me I could slowly reach through the fence, as well. To my amazement, she was right. I let my fingers brush the fur behind Comanche’s ears. It was surreal. I was actually petting a wolf.
Kiowa, the other young wolf, was more hesitant. Not as distant as the older wolves, but clearly not open to a pat on the head. Comanche was an exception, a behavioral rarity, Chris and Mary Martha explained. Wolves are wild by nature and cannot be trusted to react as anything else. Since the wolves at Howler’s Inn know and trust their owners, Chris and Mary-Martha are able to enter the enclosure to feed them or visit.
I had the good fortune to see Chris feed Kiowa and Comanche that evening, decked out in safety garb – a special jumpsuit and gloves to avoid scratches. The wolves at Howler’s are fed a high-protein dog food mix daily, plus a twice-weekly mixture of red meat used for sled dogs and racing greyhounds. I had arrived on a dog food night. After taking all of fifteen seconds to consume their huge bowls of food, both Kiowa and Comanche took turns sitting in Chris’s lap to be petted and played with. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But, then, I would never have believed I’d pet a wolf.
Evening fell and I scrounged up my own dinner of crackers, fruit and other misc. edible items I had in the car. I didn’t want to miss any time at the inn by making a run into town for a meal. I retired to my room, cracked open a window facing the wolf enclosures and settled in for the night.
Maybe it was midnight, maybe before, when I heard the first howl. It sounded like a distant cry of an owl, only lower in pitch. Soon it was joined by another. And then another. Before long I was audience to a midnight concert, some voices coming from the other side of the sanctuary, others starting up below my window. The sounds echoed across the open fields and wove themselves into my dreams. I kept the window open all night, just to hear the music.
Morning brought more drizzle, and I knew I had to start preparing for a rainy day of driving, But I was determined to visit the wolves once more before leaving. I was served a breakfast of orange French toast with fresh fruit and juice, which I enjoyed while visiting with other guests B&B style. I picked up a T-shirt in the gift store—a hutch with assorted items that help support the sanctuary—and made my way back down to the enclosures.
I know I did not imagine that Comanche saw me coming. We eyed each other from many yards away. I moved closer to the fence and so did he. I stood against the fence and he moved right up to meet me. I was able to run my fingers through his fur just a few times before I had to leave. I gave him my thanks for letting me know him. In return, he gave me a forever memory of his gentle spirit.