A wolf cub at Berkshire's wolf centre
Being a wolf ambassador
By Ollie Williams
The nine wolves of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, based at Beenham near Reading, are raised as 'ambassadors' charged with dispelling their 'big, bad wolf' image. Now the trust invites children to learn the art of wolf-keeping!
You would think a wolf centre might be easy to find - what with howling wolves and about seven acres of fenced land - but the UK Wolf Conservation Trust is tucked away down a driveway at the back of the village of Beenham.
Members of the public can't just turn up here unannounced. The centre doesn't exist for public benefit and is entirely self-financed through membership fees. Instead its mission is to train wolves to become ambassadors for their species, visiting local schools and fairs across the south of England to improve their image.
But this year the centre has opened up to allow groups of children the chance to learn how to keep wolves. They shadow the volunteer wolf-keepers as they muck out the wolves' pens, take the young cubs at the centre for a walk, and feed the centre's nine lupine inhabitants.
Wolves are hand-reared to socialise with humans.
Christopher, Lauren and Ruth are the centre's three young wolf-keepers when we visit. For them the cubs, each about three months old, are the main attraction.
"My favourite part was taking the wolves for a walk round the field and back," says Christopher.
Lauren agrees: "Taking the cubs out was the best bit. I've always loved wolves. They love their cubs and they're so sociable, it's just nice to see."
Toni Shelbourne is a deputy senior wolf handler at the centre, and she's also responsible for the centre's role in educating visitors about wolves.
"We've just started wolf-keeping days but we've been doing children's events for years, kids can come and walk with the wolves," she says.
"They're just stunning animals, there's something very special about them. The great thing about our wolves is they're socialised - they'll actually come up to you and spend time with you.
"Our job is to educate people about what wolves are really like, and help wild wolves stay in the wild."
The centre's nine wolves are a mixture of European and North American wolves, since the British Isles no longer has a wolf population.
"The European wolves are a bit mad, they show wolf instincts really well," says Toni. "They're like the wolves who used to be in this country before we killed them all.
"Our North Americans are very mischievous and playful and the cubs are three months old, full of life, very bouncy and having a whale of a time."
The wolves will stay here until the end of their lives. They have three pens taking up a couple of acres each in which to live, as well as regular trips away from the centre to schools and fairs.
There are no wild wolves in the United Kingdom.
John Dennis is a senior wolf handler at the centre. When he retired he moved to a house near the trust's premises and soon became involved in the day-to-day care of the wolves.
"It's taken over my life," he admits. "But it's a good job, it's good fun.
"There's quite a number of places with captive wolves but ours are a bit different.
"We get them when they're eight to ten days old, hand feed them, hand rear them, stop them being afraid of human beings and then use them as ambassadors."
John tells the story of a group of eastern European children who visited the centre earlier in the week. In their home country wolves are perceived as a threat and the children were petrified, on arrival, of the centre's inhabitants.
But with a little perseverance the children were persuaded to stroke the wolves and began to enjoy their company. John now hopes they, like the young wolf-keepers at the centre today, will return home as human 'ambassadors' for the wolf.
last updated: 31/03/2008 at 11:48
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