Howlers Inn Proprietors Describe Initial Encounters
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
She was the first family member to set foot in the wolf enclosure, Aurelie Burns told the Pioneer.
The outgoing owner of the sanctuary, Mary Martha Bahn, told Aurelie to remove her dangling earrings before getting close to the wolves—because they could catch their paws on them.
Did that worry you, I asked?
“Yes, a little bit. I was already pretty worried.”
She then took that first step, out of the Inn (an internationally known Bed and Breakfast) and into the unknown.
“I actually didn’t step into the enclosure. I was on the back deck. We had opened the door between the deck and the enclosure, so I was in there with them. And the previous owners were there too. And Comanche (a large white male wolf) came right up the stairs, right up to me. And I thought he’d be afraid, but he wasn’t. And I put my hands down like this (she gestures), and he licked them right away. So he gave me a wolf greeting, right away. And I was okay.”
That lasted three seconds.
Aurelie then said, with a faint tremor in her throat, “And then I looked, and saw how big his paws were, and realized how the rest of him was much bigger than I thought.” —She laughs nervously.
“And, that’s when he lifted his head and looked into my eyes, and all of a sudden my heart started beating fast, because I thought, okay, he’s stared into my soul, he knows everything about who I am and what I’ve done (everybody laughs, including Aurelie, in the spacious windowed room above the 3-acre enclosure), and he knows I’m afraid (more laughter), and so I told Mary Martha, the previous owner—’I have to go back’.”
Aurelie, it’s worth revealing, had been wearing Mary Martha’s overalls. “I felt it was a security for me,” she said, “especially after she asked me to take off my earrings.”
Was Comanche perhaps thinking that you were Mary Martha, and checking you out? I asked.
“It’s possible, it’s what Mary Martha thought as well, that maybe when he saw my face, he paused, and then he thought, Oh, no, that is not Mary Martha.”
When he was looking at you, and of course he’s a wolf, but were you sensing anything about what he was thinking? What did it seem he was up to?
“He seemed surprised. And he seemed to be scanning me.”
“Yes, that’s how it felt.”
“I don’t know, he seemed to instantly know a lot. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but, you know, that’s how I felt about it. I had seen them from the other side of the fence. But none of them had actually looked at me, so this was the first time he saw me.”
Did he look you right in the eyes.
“Yes. And he was right there, because he had just licked my hand, so he was only — what? — three feet from my face. And his eyes were piercing.”
Perhaps Comanche’s sense of smell and taste were so acute, I said to Aurelie, that when he licked your hands, he thought, she doesn’t taste like Mary Martha.
“Possibly. —I’m pretty sure he could hear my heartbeat, too (she laughs uneasily). Because they have good hearing too. I’m sure he knew that I was scared.”
That face-to-face encounter between wolf and human happened three months before I met with the Burns family in June: Thomas and Charlene, their son Nathaniel, and his wife Aurelie—the first one to get up close and personal with one of the wolves, at their newly acquired sanctuary, Howler’s Inn, off Jackson Creek Road near Bozeman.
Posing the same questions to Nathaniel Burns, as to his wife Aurelie, Nathaniel told us, “At first the wolves were pretty intimidating. We had an initial training with the previous owners (which is required for federal licensing), just to see how they’d work out with us, also to give us the experience.”
And it was an uneasy experience, Nathaniel told us.
“You have a 140 pound animal, and you’ve seen nothing but the horror stories over the years, from when we originally even killed off all the wolves in Yellowstone, and you’ve heard how terrible they are to be back in the environment. You know, they kill livestock, they’re just these vicious animals.”
Those impressions, tempered by educational documentaries and online research, could not help color his initial mindset, Nathaniel said, as he cautiously entered the enclosure.
“We really only knew what we had read and watched (to inform) our initial experience. So we didn’t quite know what to expect. They are not like a bear (in size), but they are an animal you need to give a lot of respect. Very instinctual. So it was kind of, not weird, but scary at first, just to have these big animals come up to you.”
Nathaniel explained that for their first meeting with the wolves, the previous owners brought them into the enclosure, and sat them on railroad ties made into a bench.
“They brought us in, they had us sit down…and the wolves were real excited that the owners were in there. They had raised them all since they were pups. They come in, and it’s almost like a dog greeting them when they come home. They’ll zoom up, one will lick their face, and all that, and we’re just, you know, sitting there and not knowing what to expect. Are we gonna get attacked, how are they gonna react to us?”
The previous owners did not know how the wolves were going to react either, Aurelie then said, because the only other people who had ever entered the enclosure were the owners and their daughters. So the Burns’ entrance into the wolves’ world would be new to all involved, to the wolves and the humans, and somewhat unpredictable.
Did you know that?
“Yes, we knew that,” Nathaniel and Aurelie said at the same time.
That knowledge did not exactly provide a calming effect.
“It did not help,” Nathaniel said. “Not at all.”
When asked if he has begun to feel more comfortable with the wolves, Nathaniel said, Yes and no. He explained that the wolves are all about being wolves, “doing their own thing,” and that he concerns himself with the type of clothing he wears in their presence, among other things.
“Anything containing down,” he said, “they’ll try to rip that off of you (due to the scent of water fowl). He also pays attention to cuts on his skin.
“I try to be safe, rather than sorry,” he said.
Do you feel any sense of connection with them, or they with you? Or are you not at that point yet?
“I’d say maybe it’s not quite at that point. But at the same time, you know, when we go in there, I feel comfortable. But it still gets down to, you gotta respect that they’re not domesticated. Their domestication has purely been as the previous owners raising them as pups. They don’t have hundreds or thousands of years of people repeatedly breeding traits into them—It did take a little while of continually going in there on a weekly basis to feel comfortable.”
What about the first time you went in solo, without the owners?
“That took awhile for me to feel comfortable, to go in there by myself, because they are a big animal. They’re huge. Big yellow eyes. Big jaws, an intimidating animal. We were, just like, give them the respect required and due to them, being instinctual, not domesticated.”
But describe for us what it actually felt like, the first time—concerned, scared?
“The first time—all those things, but at the same time trying to keep all that bottled in, because I don’t want them to sense that I’m fearful. Maybe they’ll think of me as some sort of prey. I don’t know. I’d say a lot of those thoughts were going through our minds.”
And what about subsequently?
“After a few walk-ins with the owners, and talking with them about the wolves, after a while the wolves are just like a poorly trained dog in a way (laughter).
Like dogs in Livingston?
Did you have any harrowing moments you could describe?
“We definitely had some instances where, ummm, they have scared us, a little bit.”
As Nathaniel continues, we can imagine the psychological power of a wolf, a power it uses as a threat to get its way, backed up by its physical power, and just how terrifying that can be.
“We give them wet and dry food throughout the week, and it was a dry food night. We have this bucket we fill up, and I went out there, filled up their bin, and decided to sit down with them, and I took a walk around the enclosure and left the bucket, and then, Comanche, the big alpha male, in the bigger enclosure, ended up grabbing the bucket, and I went, Oh shoot, and followed him around the enclosure for a while, and he kept turning his head, and he’d see I was getting close, and he’d go somewhere else, until he finally dropped it down in the corner of the enclosure. And I was like, okay, good, I can grab the bucket, and get back inside. And I go to reach for the bucket, and he just spins around and growls at me.”
Imagine, then, a large white wolf, the largest of the pack, bearing his fangs, his piercing eyes directed squarely at you, the intruder in his space.
“And I’m there, just like, ummmm, blanking myself. …All right, that’s yours (I think), I’m not even gonna mess with that, and I’m outta here (more laughter). And I went and tried to get it back later.”
An individual commenting on the same incident had asked Nathaniel why he didn’t set about demonstrating, as the wolf had become threatening, that he, the human, was the dominant male.
Wolves in the wild, Nathaniel explained, may kill other wolves in battle to prove dominance, or severely injure another wolf. “A hundred and forty pound animal,” he said, “that has a bite strength stronger than a pit bull, is not something that you want to challenge—it was a spine chilling moment. All my skin just perked up, and, I thought, I’m just backing off slowly, and we’re outta here.”
How have your interactions evolved, and your feelings about being close to them, or interacting with them? I asked.
“I’ve made a lot of progress, bonding with them,” Aurelie said, almost hesitant, as if asking a question, not quite sure. “I’m not scared of them anymore. In fact, I think they’re more predictable than dogs. I don’t know. I’m okay in their presence, and they’re okay in my presence.”
“Maybe you’d like to meet Comanche up close, David,” Thomas Burns said.
Um, well, at some point, maybe at a distance…
“No, what about up close?”
Well, uh, sure, I said, feigning alpha-male confidence, while imagining what Comanche might perceive in my soul.
“He didn’t bring a change of underwear,” Nathaniel joked.
No, I did.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the invitation had also been in jest, in that a person off the street may not closely interact with wolves at the sanctuary, they soon informed me, due to federal licensing regulations.
Thomas Burns, a real estate investor and former publisher, handles the business side of Howlers Inn. He also chats with guests from all over the world (leaving day-to-day management to his thirty-something son and his wife). Sharing a glass of wine with New Yorkers, Europeans, and local visitors who often find themselves somehow moved to reveal and share in ways they otherwise might not, given the vista of the Bridger range—the alpine landscape reminiscent of Switzerland, the white capped peaks jutting above rolling greenery—he’s found that the presence of wolves, a stone’s throw from the living room, taps some primordial connection, or at least fascination, that takes people from their sense of the mundane to another place.
He spoke of his experience with the wolf pack, having observed the fur bristle on their backs at feeding time, their ability to “wolf down” a raw turkey or other game meat supplied by hunters, and their preying upon gophers and magpies, their source of live wild game, as they stalk and chase them down in the multi-acre enclosures.
“I’m still leery about being in their presence,” he admitted. “I just don’t know how they’re going to react at any give time. Because they’re wolves.”
These interviews took place in June 2017. Months have since passed, many guests come and gone at the Inn, and the proprietors have, of course, grown more familiar with the pack. While most of the wolves maintain their distance from people, as is their nature, Aurelie seems to have befriended Comanche, the large sociable, ousted alpha male, though none of the wolves, it should be noted, act like pet dogs, respond to the names given to them, or discard their basic territorial and survival instincts. They are though all spayed and neutered—no wolves can be bred at the sanctuary, the mission of which remains to provide the best life possible for rescued and born-in-captivity wolves.