It's been three months since a California animal rescue center retrieved 29 wolf-dogs from an Alaska tourist attraction that had fought the state over owning, breeding and selling the wolf-hybrids. Chains were so deeply embedded in the necks of two of the animals that they had to be surgically removed. Many developed limps because they'd never used the pads of their feet.
Now the task of taming the wolf-dogs has been given to three U.S. military veterans who say they can relate to the stress of trying to transition to a normal life. The program is called "Warriors and Wolves."
"I get along with the wolves," said one of the three, Stanley McDonald, a 10-year Navy vet who has been foreman of the Lockwood Animal Rescue Center in Frazier Park, about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles, for 4 1/2 years.
McDonald said he knows what it is like to be homeless, alone and lost. "They've been in a bad situation, which I've been in most of my life. Most of them are afraid, taken away from the only thing they knew," he said.
"A great number of people are coming back from a combat environment and that's as stressful as can be. It's difficult to transition from that to civilian life," said William "Buzz" Varley, a Lockwood volunteer and retired Navy man who works for the California Department of Transportation.
The wolf-dogs are now thriving in small packs of two to six animals after joining 12 wolf-dogs already at the shelter, according to Lorin Lindner, who founded Lockwood with her husband, Navy veteran Matthew Simmons, in 2008.
Lindner said the wolf-dogs, who normally travel up to 40 miles a day, had been tethered in Alaska. Once they had room to run at Lockwood, they went lame because their muscles were not acclimated to the exercise.
"It's taken three months, but we are just now noticing them running without limps," Lindner said.
The animals are fed high-priced, high-quality kibble made of buffalo, venison and game birds, in addition to five to 10 pounds of meat each day. As part of a landfill diversion program, markets in the area give the rescue group their expired meats "so we are not killing any additional animals to feed the wolf-dogs," Lindner said.
In Alaska, they had been fed raw moosemeat to keep them looking good so tourists could get close enough to the animals to take their pictures for a $5 fee.
Before the wolf-dogs arrived, Lindner and Simmons were running the sanctuary on $10,700 a month. But with the new arrivals, that's jumped to $15,500 a month, including salaries for the three veterans. To help pay the bills, Lindner and Simmons are inviting supporters of the sanctuary to volunteer, donate or sponsor a veteran or a wolf-dog or plant a fruit tree (it helps feed birds) in honor of a loved one.
Lindner, Simmons, the vets and volunteers built enclosures for the animals on their 20-acre sanctuary. Standing 10 feet tall, the enclosures include dig guards that are buried 5 feet deep.
Because some of the animals have bad hips and arthritis, Simmons is building soft-webbed trundle beds so they can sleep off the ground. They've put out a plea to firehouses since old fire hose makes the best webbing.
Lindner's veterinarian took the sickest wolf-dog (she has another hybrid) and four of the animals have gone to other rescues.
Eight others will be placed with other sanctuaries if those centers can build the proper enclosures.
Besides the wolf-dogs, Lockwood has four rescued horses, 16 parrots, six peacocks and a duck. "We rescued 33 koi fish from a house that was in foreclosure. My husband made a 200,000-gallon pond and now we have thousands of fish," Lindner said.
Lindner and Simmons also built a parrot sanctuary at the Greater Los Angeles Veteran's Administration Healthcare System complex, where Lindner worked as clinical director of New Directions, a program serving homeless veterans with drug or alcohol problems.
McDonald, 48, is the wolf program's biggest booster. He says he has been an alcoholic since he was 18. He spent 10 years in the Navy and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. "I wasn't a mean or angry drunk," he said. "I would just take everything we had to buy alcohol."
Lindner met McDonald at New Directions, before "Warriors and Wolves." McDonald says he's learned from the animals and knew if he could help them, he could help himself. "I made a wonderful change," he said.
Since working with the animals, he's begun reconciling with his ex-wife and reconnected with a son, now 19, whom he'd lost touch with. His son didn't trust him at first, McDonald said.
"It took some work by both of us. It took a lot of forgiving," said McDonald. "I'm back with my family doing things I love to do."