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Featured Wolf | Ambassador Wolves | Other Wolves | The Alaska 9 | Departed Members | Cassidy & the Oakland 6

Rescuing Royalty by Paula Watson

The story of Cassidy and the Oakland 6

Cassidy is beautiful. She wasn't always. In true Cinderella fashion, Cassidy went from rags to riches. Her journey is partly my own.  It, in some measure, represents what I do every day at WolfWood. Her story is not about magic wand waving. Like any true transformation tale, it is about strength and sorrow, resilience and risk, kindness and cruelty, hardships and harmony and yes, fate and fortune. Life lessons are not species specific.

In the beginning, Cassidy lived in a meth house in Calif. She wasn't just kept in chains. She was chained to her brother, who was chained to the wolf next to him. In all there were six animals chained to each other, neck to neck. The captives were thrown unopened cans of refried beans to eat. Cassidy was a skeleton of skin and bones, kicked and abused, kept for breeding so her puppies could be sold for easy money. She spent her whole life in misery. When the police finally raided the drug house, they found the scared and starved wolves. They transported all six to a local shelter. She couldn't have known, but in this place is where the battle for a better life began. Instead of killing Cassidy outright the staff of the shelter called me.

When I got the call there were six wolves that needed immediate help. I was overwhelmed. WolfWood was not in a position to take on a rescue of this size, and I was in no shape to save anybody. We had just moved the refuge to its new location in Ignacio. That move had taken everything I had, physically, emotionally and financially. I was exhausted. I was heartsick. I was broke. I was looking forward to some time to rest and regroup. Instead I got a notice from the county that WolfWood was not in compliance with some vague regulation, and a group of ranchers wanted me out at any cost. They began a campaign of harassment and hate mongering. I was devastated but I was determined. I couldn't have known, but in this place is where my two-year long battle for a better life began. We had moved in the summer of 2002, the summer of the Missionary Ridge Fire, and my corner of Colorado was burning. While not in any immediate danger, at night we could see the flames hugging the hilltops along the horizon. During the day, the smoke hung in the air like a heavy blanket. Having already survived one major forest fire in my life, the heat and smell of burning set my nerves on edge. I remembered the scream-like sounds of blazing trees and could hear them in my head. I didn't sleep. The wolves and I were anxious and agitated. The wolves and I paced. At the time of the phone call, when Cassidy's story and mine converged, we were both at a low point, our lives in ashes.

In any quest there are trials and triumphs. Cassidy and her pack had found people to champion their cause. The staff at the shelter kept the wolves alive. They cut them apart from each other. They publicized their plight and raised money in the local community. A staff member who was five months pregnant volunteered to transport all the wolves. She and her husband rented a motor home and drove them the twenty hours to WolfWood. While Cassidy had her heroes, I had mine. In smoke clogged mornings, our friends, Mike and Barbara, hauled rolls of chain link through the forest. We didn't have any roads yet and Cassidy's enclosure would be at the very top of our property. In record-breaking heat we cleared oak brush, dug postholes and laid down ground wire. With backbreaking effort we hauled up five-gallon jugs of water to mix bag after bag of concrete. We pulled fencing until our hands blistered. We stood by with shovels and pails while my husband, Craig, welded bracings and corners. We were racing against the clock; the wolves were coming, ready or not.

It was a sight to see the rig roll into WolfWood. It had been a rollicking ride. The wolves had figured out how to open their crates, or just tore them apart, and so had spent most the trip running around loose in the back of the motor home. The drivers were pretty sure they were not going to get the deposit back. Despite our efforts, Cassidy's new home wasn't ready yet, so they helped us move the wolves into three separate holding pens. I had to bolt cut the remaining chains around their necks. Cassidy could not even hold her head up; her neck muscles had become atrophied. And so Cassidy began the first step toward her recovery: physical rehabilitation. While in the holding pens, she and her pack were given shots, examined by the vet, put on a high protein diet and dewormed. Intake forms were signed. Cassidy's knights in shining armor stayed to help work on the enclosure before heading home. They had overcome Herculean obstacles to deliver Cassidy safely, and now it was up to me. 

While getting the wolves physically healthy is my first priority, it is not always theirs. Cassidy's howls and cries to be with her pack urged us on to finish her new pen. It was quite an event when she was reunited with her family. She was the belle of the ball and they literally danced with excitement at all being together again. They slowly gained weight and grew stronger as they reestablished hierarchies and renewed relationships. It was a time of celebration for Cassidy and me. We did it. We had both struggled to get to this point, the next step: emotional recovery.

I am always in awe of the wolf's capacity for reconnection, the strength of their spirit to move beyond terror to trust. Cassidy and her pack spent the next few years living in harmony, amongst themselves and with us. I changed their names, as I almost always do with new arrivals. The wolves sometimes associate their original names with abuse, or have very inappropriate names, like "Jaws," as in the case of Cassidy's brother. I spent as much time as possible with them in the final stage of recovery: socialization. None of the animals at WolfWood are candidates for release back into the wild. They have all been connected with humans, for better or worse, mostly worse. Because the animals here will live out their lives with me, I do the opposite of a release program and try and socialize them as much as possible. Everyone at WolfWood works hard on this phase, and despite their horrific past, Cassidy and her pack responded quickly to all the attention given them. Volunteers, tours and students were all allowed in the enclosure and were treated to love, affection and kisses from the wolves. The pack touched many lives and brought joy to each other and us. Cassidy's battle against opposition was over, and so was mine. The courage, love and hard work of our supporters had won out. Cassidy and I were finally safe. We were finally home.

This is not the end of the story, but the next few years were a happy interlude, that Camelot time that makes memories, makes it all worthwhile, makes it possible to continue on. What followed afterwards was a hard time for Cassidy and me. The wolves began to suffer the consequences from their former abuse. Over the next year or so, three of the pack developed aggressive bone cancer in places where they had been kicked and beaten. The other side of great love can be great sadness, and it was with both of these that half of Cassidy's family left me. The remaining three, Big Timber, Cassidy and Misty, began to fight so I had to split them up, and Cassidy had to live alone. I tried to introduce Cassidy to several new suitors, but she deemed them all unworthy and would have nothing to do with any of them.

By now Cassidy had become the perfect example of a full-grown, healthy female wolf. I had begun to use her as an ambassador wolf, taking her out to our educational events. This is how she was dubbed "the Princess." Cassidy would come to the events with the other animals, but only under very special circumstances. She had to have one of her favorite volunteers with her at all times. Not one to mingle with the crowds, she had her own, special 10x10 pen assembled, where one at a time, people could come in to see her. With her volunteer in attendance, she would allow herself to be petted and admired. She had earned her special treatment. In the summer of 2006, Cassidy finally met her handsome prince, Bronte. It was love at first sight. They made an impressive pair. At visits or events, Bronte would work the crowd, regally holding his huge head up for anyone to pet, allowing himself to be fawned over by even the smallest child. Cassidy still held court, separated from the rabble who wished to pay her homage.

In this year, as the story continues, Cassidy and Bronte are inseparable. However, probably as a result of abusive trauma to her head and toxic meth fumes, Cassidy started having seizures. Bronte alerted me to her problem by calling me in a loud insistent voice, in a tone I had never heard him use before. He called me every time she had an episode. The vet recommended we split them up, warning that Bronte might attack Cassidy while she seized. Not being a member of Cassidy's court, we forgave him this misconception. The princess would not be separated from her Bronte, sick or not. Cassidy is on medication and her seizures are under control. For now, my life revolves around Cassidy's need for her pills, twice a day, every day, without fail. Her ambassador duty is over, although on good days she still likes to go on stage, admired from a distance, by an assembly of school children.

It is now the winter of 2008. Cassidy and I have been together for six years. We started in doubt and desperation, but together, came to a place of grace and gratitude. It is eight o'clock at night and icy cold outside. I leave my warm couch and don my suit of coat, hat and gloves. I put the pills in a hotdog and begin the snowy trudge up our property to the very top where Cassidy lives. This nightly ritual is just one more tie that binds our life stories together. As I approach her pen, she is waiting for me, and in the full moonlight I see her majesty. After all we have both been through; I have only one thought in the end. Cassidy is beautiful. 

Postscript - In 2010 Cassidy had a seizure she could not recover from. Even though we rushed her to the vet and tried our best, we could not save her. Cassidy was very special, and there are no words to describe the breadth of our love or the depth of our sorrow over Cassidy no longer being part of our lives. Bronte was with her till the end. We hold her memory in our hearts and miss her every day.

Bronte, while not part of the Oakland 6 pack, was instrumental in Cassidy's care at the Refuge.  His love of her, combined with the sense of security his large size and gentle heart gave her, allowed Cassidy to live a joyful life.  Bronte never really recovered from the loss of Cassidy and he passed in 2011.

Early in 2013 the final two members of the Oakland 6 pack, Big Timber and Misty, departed. Age and time had taken their natural toll. The pack lived a long, healthy and safe life at Wolfwood.  For that, we are grateful.  That is what Wolfwood Refuge is about.

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