Struggling to regain the emotional function they have dulled by years of substance abuse
, recovering addicts are turning to an unlikely ally to relearn empathy
and impulse control
The Big Bad Wolf. Or, more accurately, the Big Misunderstood Wolf.
“What’s so incredible about these animals is how they can completely change your world in seconds and make a difference that lasts a lifetime,” says Renee Dutcher, a volunteer at Wolf Connection, a wolf and “wolfdog” rescue and youth empowerment program outside of Los Angeles. The wolves, and wolf mixes known as “wolfdogs,” serve a therapeutic purpose for children, teens and young adults struggling with a wide range of physical and mental health challenges, including addiction.
“They are so powerful and so gentle and caring,” Dutcher said. “When they work with teens and young adults who feel lost, unloved or like they aren’t worth anything, these animals will go right up to them and let them know they’re just as important as anyone else.”
It is not the role in which wolves are typically cast. From an early age, starting with Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, we’re taught that wolves are to be feared. They are depicted as ferocious, blood-thirsty creatures that hunt humans and kill for sport. In reality, wolves by nature are shy, intelligent, sensitive and fearful of humans. There are virtually no reports on record that suggest wolves have ever been a threat to people.
Misconceptions about wolves led to their near extinction throughout most of the United States in the 1920s. As European settlers depleted wolves’ natural food supply – elk, deer, moose and bison – and wolves began feeding on livestock, the campaign to eradicate them began. It wasn’t until the late 1960s when scientists began to understand the broad implications of decimating a top predator that wolves gained any form of federal protection and were gradually reintroduced into the wild.
In all of its complexity, nature is perfectly balanced – and, as we continue to learn, wolves and other top predators play an important role in maintaining that balance. Without wolves, elk, coyote and other prey populations have exploded (each causing its own set of problems). In areas where wolves have been exterminated and later reintroduced, such as Yellowstone National Park, unexpected benefits have ensued. Native vegetation has returned, supplying food to other animals such as beavers, who in turn build dams that provide homes for other creatures and keep the rivers clean. The effects trickle down not only to every area of the immediate ecosystem, but also to the climate and other forces that create the platform for human life.
A Love-Hate Relationship
Decades later it seems we still haven’t learned our lesson. Mixing fear and fascination, some people have sought out wolves as pets. Too wild for modern living (not to mention illegal to own), people bred “wolfdogs,” a mixture of wolves and domesticated dogs, most commonly Siberian huskies, Alaskan malamutes or German shepherds. Some wolfdogs are “high content,” meaning they have a lot of wolf in their genes, whereas others are “low content,” meaning they have a small amount of wolf.
Even when bred with a dog, these animals retain much of their wildness. Wolfdogs have special needs, including complex diets, large outdoor pens, and a high degree of socialization and stimulation. When stressed or bored, wolfdogs can become destructive. Expecting a dog but getting a wolf, some wolfdog owners end up tying the animal to a tree with no socialization or training, or dumping it on the side of the road. As a result, about 80 percent of wolfdogs are euthanized or end up in rescue centers.
Rescued Wolfdogs Help Addicts Recover
The lucky ones end up at Wolf Connection, where the staff spends months working with the animals, gaining their trust and training them to be around other wolfdogs and people. They eat specially tailored diets, exercise regularly and become members of a wolfdog pack.
Wolves were man’s earliest teacher, and there is a great deal recovering addicts can learn from wolves today. Their interactions help repair many of the deficits caused by addiction. As strong communicators with a language of their own, wolves can teach humans about respect, forgiveness, and setting and respecting boundaries. By assisting with their care, recovering addicts experience the rewards of giving back – an integral part of lifelong recovery.
The wolfdogs are particularly skilled at breaking down defenses and opening people up to their own healing process.
“Researchers suggest that after so many generations of co-evolution, our connection with wolves is at the DNA level, meaning that when you see one of these animals, you have a natural instinct to connect and to nurture and to bond,” said Teo Alfero, founder of Wolf Connection. “This takes all of the clients we’ve worked with immediately to a primal level beneath all of the abuse, neglect or negative learned behavior. At this primal level, there’s a natural openness to connect with these animals and to consider a new way of being.”
Without uttering a word, there is a common understanding between wolfdogs and recovering addicts. Drawn to one another by a bond thousands of years in the making, these rescued wolfdogs are paying it forward and helping recovering addicts recognize that they, too, have been given a second chance.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees addiction treatment programs at Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and West Los Angeles, where wolf therapy is offered as part of the young adult rehab program. You can follow Dr. Sack on Twitter @drdavidsack.