HARTBEESPOORT, South Africa – Three years ago Zeev, Stark, Raven and 13 other Canadian gray wolves raised in South Africa and living in a game reserve seemed doomed to die until a foundation was created to save them.
The All Hearts Foundation (AHF), in the resort town of Hartbeespoort north of Johannesburg, is a sanctuary for almost eighty animals, including rescue cats, dogs, a horse, two pigs and a turtle.
The pack of rescued wolves, who belong to a threatened species of northwestern America, has steadily increased its brood and includes a hybrid that is half Canadian gray wolf (also known as the Mackenzie wolf or northwestern wolf) and half Arctic wolf.
There is also another small crossing between a German wolf and shepherd.
“No captive environment is a quick solution or fix, but it’s better than the animals being in compromised situations.
“We are trying to really work hard to push that sanctuary vibe out to people so that animals have an enriched life where they are basically living a natural and wildlife as possible in a natural environment that is fit for them,” Lexi Austen, who founded AHF with her partner Ronnie Austen, told Efe.
Both knew the owners of the reserve that was the former home of the wolves and when it fell into bankruptcy the Austens rescued the park in a bid to avoid the animals being auctioned in the wildlife market for hunting.
In South Africa, a country where reserves and game preserves of all kinds thrive – including those that offer the option of shooting large predators – wolves are an exotic species.
The species adapts well to the environment given the average temperature ranges are similar to those of an American summer.
The problems in adaptation stem elsewhere.
Although South Africa has proven to be a great ambassador for conservation for indigenous animals, such as lions or the threatened rhinos, conservation efforts with non-native species has not been as successful.
The possession of exotic species is widely regulated and although it is not common knowledge the Austens confirmed to Efe that many wolves were living on South African soil.
“We are finding a lot of breeders within the country, there are many many wolves in our country and they are being sold as pets, which for us is the biggest concern because it’s still a wild animal at the end of the day.
“In my personal opinion, a home environment isn’t ideal for a wild animal so if you are wanting to have these exotic animals in your care then try enriching their lives by owning a farm where they are living in natural habitats and they are not being kept as solitary animals, as wolves most certainly aren’t.
“They are pack animals so they definitely need their own kind to thrive,” Lexi urged.
Even in cases where captivity has tamed the wolves to adapting to life with humans, as is the case with the AHF pack which are fed prizes by the Austens using their hands, these animals suffer greatly when living in isolation.
“Our key goal going forward is to educate the public on the fact that the exotic (animals) in our country do not have the same rights that our indigenous species do,” the former teacher, who thanks to the sanctuary has been able to merge her two main passions, teaching and wildlife, said.
“To control the amounts (animals) coming in and then being breed within the country is the biggest problem because you’ll have somebody with a permit to maybe import two and then those two seven months later have babies and then they get sold and because they are exotics no permits are required to keep those species except in two provinces that I’m aware of currently,” Lexi lamented.
Only two of the nine South African provinces imposes these types of controls when it comes to exotic species, generating a large legal vacuum that leaves animals unprotected, she added.
But for now, AHF is still a developing project that survives on donations and has yet to solve major financial challenges, such as finishing buying the property where it now houses the pack.
The pair are also hoping to raise enough funds to make reforms that would make the grounds more comfortable for the wolves, currently confined in two shallow enclosures with water ponds.
“We are really trying to strengthen the sanctuary environment so that animals have a rich life.”