Shadow cautiously watches visitors from his enclosure. Photo: Julie Lawrence/Wolf Haven International
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Kids enjoy getting up close and personal with wolves from a safe distance and Wolf Haven International. Photo: Julie Lawrence/Wolf Haven International
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Carosal is one of the two coyotes visitors can see during their walking tour. Photo: Julie Lawrence/Wolf Haven International
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Mexican Gray wolf Gypsy sits among the prairie grass in the enclosure. Photo: Julie Lawrence/Wolf Haven
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The short trail from the wolf cemetery (pictured) to the grandfather tree is a walk worth taking before or after visiting the wolves. Photo: Wolf Haven International
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Mima mounds and trails in the prairie restoration area are free and open to the public even when daily tours aren’t scheduled. Photo: Wolf Haven International
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Wolf Haven’s talented educational staff travels around Washington state, and into Arizona, California and Oregon to give their hands-on science based presentations to groups of children and adults. Photo: Wolf Haven International
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I can always count on my kids to be up for an animal adventure, from staring down the brown bears at Woodland Park Zoo to gleefully waving to the bison along the tram trail at Northwest Trek. So when my 9-year old begged me to find a new animal experience, I accepted the challenge. The destination was obvious: Wolf Haven.
Wolf Haven International is an 82-acre park, 10 miles south of Olympia, which provides sanctuary for captive-born wolves, and also promotes wolf conservation and education. In honor of its 35-year efforts, Wolf Haven was recently awarded accreditation by the Global Federation of Accredited Sanctuaries (GFAS), making it the only GFAS-accredited wolf sanctuary in the world.
It's the perfect time of year to plan a half-day escape to Wolf Haven: The sanctuary re-opened its doors on March 18 after a month’s long hiatus, just in time for the drier spring and summer months. The primary way to explore Wolf Haven is on a 50-minute, docent-led tour that gives families a thrilling chance to get up close and personal with the gray, Mexican gray and red wolves that make the sanctuary their home. Other attractions include a prairie walk, a famous tree and wild summer events to book now.
Walk among the wolves
When you arrive at the sanctuary, the first thing you’ll notice is the large fenced-in area, surrounded by prairie. It’s covered with an opaque fabric, a sign of the staff’s dedication to the resident wolves’ privacy. This is where our group gathered, about 15 minutes before our scheduled tour time (you can book ahead), anxious to see what lay beyond.
Right before the gates rolled open, several wolves howled their welcome. My son could hardly contain himself; those doors couldn’t open soon enough. When they finally did, we saw a circular dirt trail that wound its way around five, open-air wolf enclosures, dotted with prairie grass, shrubs and trees. Everything we would see on our tour was within sight.
As we approached the first enclosure, two wolves named Lexi and London came up to the fence, just a few feet away from us. They playfully snuggled up to each other, putting on a show for our mesmerized group. Watching interactions like these is what sets Wolf Haven apart.
Although the sanctuary is home to more than 50 wolves, visitors typically see 10-12 during their visit, the ones deemed most comfortable around people. As we walked on, we learned how each wolf came to live on the property. For example, Shadow had had five different homes before he was finally taken in by Wolf Haven at age two. Not surprisingly, he was the one who hung back a bit, watching visitors from afar.
Like the wolves, tour groups travel in a “pack” along the short path. For parents this means kids need to stay with the group and can’t wander off. It’s one reason the tour is recommended for kids 8 and older. Kids should also be able to stand still and listen; the docent typically gives a 10-minute talk at each enclosure on the loop, sharing details about the wolves’ lives. My son was fascinated to learn wolves only live between 4 and 6 years in the wild, but many make it to their teens at Wolf Haven. The docent also spoke about the return of wild wolves to Washington state: Since being driven out in the 1930s, they are slowly making a comeback.
If you’re not sure if your kids are ready, there are some work-arounds. If you’ve got siblings spanning an age gap, the older kid/parent team can tour while the other set explores a few easily accessible acres on the property (see tips below). And you can always leave the group if your child needs a break (you can’t rejoin, though).
At the end of the tour, kids can explore a gift shop. Be sure to check out of the recently published book on Wolf Haven that features Annie Marie Musselman’s photography and essayist Brenda Peterson’s writing.
Picnic among the Mima Mounds
After the tour, it’s a good bet your kids will want to get a little wild themselves. Let them loose outside the fenced sanctuary along the half-mile trail that runs from the wolf cemetery across Mima mounds and out to the Grandfather tree, a 300-year-old tree with low- hanging branches that are perfect for climbing.
Mima mounds are naturally occurring small hills that look a bit like bare moguls on the ski slopes, are part of the sanctuary’s prairie restoration project, and give the wolf cemetery a somewhat magical appearance. Little adventurers can also run around the picnic area just outside the habitat.
Wild wolf programs
Throughout the year, Wolf Haven offers special experiences for visitors of all ages.
Winter wolf photography: Teams of teen photographers and their parents can sign up for special winter wolf photography sessions, three-hour, uninterrupted photo shoots when the wolves are most active, which also includes a breakfast and short presentation.
Midsummer’s Night: Families with younger children should consider the popular Midsummer’s Night events, a reincarnation of past years’ Howl-Ins. The overnight camping event includes a Ramblin Jacks' catered dinner and two trips into the sanctuary accompanied by Wolf Haven specialists. Sanctuary Director Wendy Spencer draws wolves in with enrichment treats, so that Midsummer’s Nighters may get a peek at wolf behaviors usually just seen by animal caretakers. (Note: Although both of these events are almost sold out for the 2017 season, families can have a chance at tickets again next spring.)
Bring Wolf Haven to you: WolfHaven’s outreach education runs free programs offered at libraries, community centers and festivals that allow kids to touch artifacts and learn about wolves. The best place to find upcoming events is through Wolf Haven’s Facebook page. Groups can also invite the Wolf Haven staff to present one of their science-based off-site programs to a classroom or Scout troop for a small fee.
Know before you go
Where: Wolf Haven International, 3111 Offut Lake Road, S.E., Tenino, Wash.
Tour admission: Adults $12; youth (4-12) $7; seniors and active military $10; kids 3 and under free. Walking around the property is always free. Register online for scheduled visits.
Hours: Wolf Haven is open on weekends, with additional Monday and Friday tours beginning April 1 and running through September. Tour times are at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Explore Tumwater and Olympia: Add some fun nearby stops for a full day's adventure. The baby animals at Lattin’s Country Cider Mill and Farm are a spring favorite. Grab a bag of feed at the big red barn so your kids can hand feed the animals; then stock up on award-winning apple cider and hot apple fritters. The Olympic Flight Museum is a hot spot for airplane enthusiasts, with a hangar full of vintage airplanes and helicopters, including a Huey heli kids can climb aboard. If you’re looking for more outdoor fun, stroll the one-mile loop around Tumwater Falls. Keep your eyes peeled for hidden waterfalls and, depending on the season, salmon making their way up the Deschutes fish ladder.