Hello all! We are very pleased you have joined us for the Monthly Howl! August has been a busy month so we apologize for the delayed July edition. The Monthly Howl was created to give you a vicarious taste of what it is like at Wild Spirit and to keep you informed of the previous month’s activities, success and challenges. For July, we wanted to give you something a bit different and geared towards helping you better understand an important and vital piece of the sanctuary: our volunteers!
For 25+ years, volunteers have been a fundamental part of WSWS. Without volunteers, things would be very difficult and effectively caring for over 65 animals year round would not be possible. If it were not for the immense generosity of the human spirit, and the willingness for complete strangers to leave behind their homes to come serve disenfranchised exotic animals, the sanctuary would likely not exist.
The accommodations at the sanctuary are not superb, the environment can be harsh, and the work can be very hard. You would consider it a miracle that people actually come here to face down all of the obstacles for no pay! Yes we do offer free room and board, but even those resources are modest because our primary focus is taking care of the rescues, so our monetary resources are predominantly transferred in their direction. Yet, year after year, selfless human beings make it out to the high-desert, New Mexican wilderness to take care of rescued animals in need.
Becoming a volunteer here is not easy either! Applicants first send their cover letter and resume, are then sent an application and then they face a panel interview, with 3-4 interviewers, consisting of challenging and at times, intimate questions. Our application process is thorough so that we can weed out individuals who we feel will not transition well into becoming “part of the pack”. We bring only those we feel are committed to the cause, are generous of spirit and are able to acclimate to communal living.
For those unfamiliar with sharing a living space with complete strangers, the move into the bustling and bubbling volunteer sphere at WSWS can be a bit of shock. We have one 700 SQ foot kitchen that is sometimes shared by up to ten people! We only have two shower rooms (both located in the campground), making shower time a dance as we all attempt to get our showers in before all of the hot water is used up and trek back to our dwelling. Although we provide food, we do not buy junk food. We strive to supply only “real food” for our volunteers, as we consider junk food to be a waste of the precious and limited resources supplied by our trusted donors. Housing units are rustic and can be considered by some to be primitive. Only two of our current units have kitchens and both are occupied by staff members. Many of our housing units are not on grid power and subsist on the bare minimum provided by solar panels that were donated or purchased years ago. We believe it is quite a feat of the human spirit to be able to give selflessly while expecting very little in return!
The interview process and environmental challenges are only the tip of the iceberg endured by our volunteers, as arriving here is only the beginning. Every person with an interest in working with the animals must undergo a 2 week training process, with days lasting up to 13 hours in the summer. They must learn the intricacies of sanctuary life, the layout of the land, the names of every single animal and what medications they take, and know where every single lock, chain and clip belongs. It can be a difficult process for some. At the end of their training period, volunteers are required to pass two exams, one written and the other verbal, with 100% accuracy. This way we can ensure that our rescues will get the quality of care they deserve and what we have come to be known for.
Working with our animals is a privilege, not a right, and it is one that must be earned over time. In fact, being accepted as an animal care volunteer does not guarantee that one will be allowed to work with the animals, and it especially does not mean that one will work one on one with a wolf! The staff has implemented a habitat “maintenance scale” moving from Beginner maintenance (relatively safe) to Very High maintenance (relatively risky). There is no guarantee that an individual will move beyond Low maintenance habitats which consist of dogs, New Guinea singing dogs, foxes and low-content or shy wolf-dogs. We do not train volunteers on animals based off of their desire, but instead train based off of the needs of each animal.
Every habitat has specific training parameters known only by a few select staff members, and much of it is knowledge gleaned over years of working with specific animals and by working “in the trenches”. The skill set required to work with higher maintenance animals is broad as one needs character traits of humility, intuition and empathy, as well as the clear understanding of the particulars needed from each individual animal. If a volunteer cannot display this unique combination of traits, it can be the case that the individual will not move to higher maintenance habitats and may spend their 6-month commitment with “safer” animals. This possibility must be accepted willingly as it is important to realize that our bosses are in fact the wolves, wolf-dogs and other canines, as it is them who we are working for.
If one has never been out to the sanctuary in person, it may be difficult to appreciate how isolated this area is. We are two and half hours away from the largest city in New Mexico and at least an hour away from any town. It is possible for one to experience cabin fever, home sickness and romantic loneliness while spending 6 months or more in a remote location, working one’s tail off in a thankless job. The animals we work for do not say “thank you” for their 365 days of consistent care.
Despite all of the potential stumbling blocks, the reward can be immense if a volunteer is willing to cross these bridges with an open heart and tenacious spirit. Based off of the testimonial of hundreds of volunteers over the years, we know that few experiences can compare to the pure, soul enriching, joy that comes from the selfless work, freely given to the wild canines that reside here. The bonds that can be built with our rescues may last a lifetime. For many, the rescues that volunteers connect with become dear cherished friends; some even consider them on par with family. Few things can be as rewarding!
Strong human connections are often forged here as well, and sometimes even lead to marriage! Most of us get to know each other rather intimately as we spend nearly every day with one another, share three meals at the same table, and often spend much of our free time together as well. Robust and animated conversations abound and playful banter is the norm. To volunteer here is to truly become a part of a family that is connected by one singular and deeply entrenched purpose.
Many leave here feeling as though they are stronger, more capable and mature individuals. Not much at WSWS is easy, but as the old axiom goes, “nothing good comes easy”. The difficulties and rewards at WSWS are special and unique amongst animal sanctuaries. To volunteer here is not just a trial by fire, but also a living tradition where you can become a part of a pack and do truly meaningful work.