LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. – Far east of the Los Angeles basin, north through an enormous mountain pass and deep into the high desert – commonly known as the Mojave – a little community called Lucerne Valley rests hard against the jagged rocks that surround southern California. On five acres off a highway that traverses this remote part of the desert, Tonya Littlewolf has set up a compound simply called Wolf Mountain Sanctuary. And it is here that she rescues, raises and protects endangered wolves and other animals.
Since she was 2 years old, Littlewolf, now 55, has interacted with wolves. She was birthed by a midwifeat home in San Carlos, Ariz., and spent much time with her maternal grandfather, a full-blooded Apache. When she was very young, she helped her mother rescue and tend to cougars, bobcats, hawks and eagles on their parcel on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Then, her grandfather told her the legend of the Wolf Moon that changed her life.
“When I was little, cougars and wolves were my favorite animals,” she said. “This is our heritage. The animals are our brothers and the wolf is my spirit brother. When I turned 6, my mother gave me a wolf cub – the runt. She said that I was going to be mom and take care of the cubs. When the cubs got older, I was to learn from the wolf and take care of the wolves. When you bottle feed, you are the parent,
so I was the alpha female.”
Though she reveled in her care for the animals, Littlewolf, who is Apache and Sicilian, had a hard time in school. “My grandfather told us that it was a lesson to not be prejudiced,” she recalled. Eventually, she would not go to school, so her grandfather started teaching her at home. “I was with animals more than I was with people,” she recalled. “My mother’s name is Littlewolf, but my grandfather called me ‘little one’ or ‘little wolf.’ You know how the wolf feels – you go inside to feel what they feel,” she was told. “Grandfather once said that I carry the spirit of the wolf. This is a gift to me from Wakan Tanka [the Great Spirit]. I feel the wolves are my family – they are part of me and I am part of them. We are one.”
Because of her troubles in school, Littlewolf’s mother sent her to live with a missionary woman. “I would have rather stayed with my grandfather; he taught me so much about love of people and the love of animals.” Her grandfather passed away at 104, and Littlewolf left for California. “I don’t know if my mother is still alive – I haven’t seen her,” she said.
Since 1985, Littlewolf has lived on the land that is now called Wolf Mountain. Her goal is “to protect and save the few wolves that are left in captivity.” She gets her animals from the movie industry and from breeders who over-breed. “They would be destroyed if they didn’t come here,” she said. “All of the caretakers know me and they all know that if I can’t take them [the wolves], I’ll find a place for them and make sure that they are safe.”
At Wolf Mountain, visitors can observe and interact with many of Littlewolf’s 16 wolves, which are from a variety of species and range in age from two through 10. In the wild, wolves generally live 10 – 13 years, but in captivity they can live 20 – 24 years.
Another difference between wolves in the wild, versus those in captivity, is their weight. Littlewolf’s wolves weigh approximately 150 – 200 pounds, whereas wolves in the wild are slimmer because they don’t eat every day. “In the wild, they would nibble on berries, bark and eat rodents and food that were left over by other animals,” she said. Her wolves eat red meat, chicken, rabbit, vegetables and natural herbs – if they are ill. “I get pine trees from Big Bear [a nearby mountain area] so that they can chew on the bark,” she explained. “The meat man comes to give them raw sirloin roast – that’s $1,400 per week.”
To offset the enormous costs of feeding, housing and caring for the wolves, Littlewolf accepts donations and admission money. These comprise her sole income. Most weekends, she admits 75 – 80 people to visit, photograph and pet the wolves; during the week, 10 – 15 people usually arrive. Littlewolf also goes to Big Bear, Las Vegas and Palm Springs to bless homes and perform prayers.
As visitors to Wolf Mountain soon find, Littlewolf’s wolves are very alert and sensitive, as well as docile, gentle and shy, contrary to popular myths. “The wolves think I’m the alpha female, and you’re my hairless pack. They love people, so there has never been an incident,” Littlewolf said. “They are very shy animals in the wild. When it comes to food, they are very aggressive, but you feed my wolves by hand. Europeans started the myth that wolves are evil.”
Littlewolf, whose 31 adopted children assist her in various ways, wants to move to Arizona or Colorado so that the wolves could have more land and can get out of the desert heat. “There is something out there for us,” she claimed. “In the new location, I will have 500 – 600 acres, and the wolves will have two – five acres per pack with streams running through the enclosures. There will be 20 compounds there, and I will have over 100 wolves.”
When asked about her devotion to these canines, Littlewolf paused and simply stated, “My grandfather told me that I was different from other people.”
For more information about Littlewolf’s sanctuary wolves or to inquire about adopting a wolf, visit www.wolfmountain.com.