BROOKVILLE, Ind. -- Kathy Baudendistel will never forget the first time she heard a wolf howl on her property.
“I cried. Ohhh, I cried," she said.
"We had a little female that was one of the first pure wolves we had and to hear her howl for the first time, I just sat down and bawled.”
While wolves don’t roam the lands of Indiana, or any other part of the Tri-State, like their ancestors once did, Baudendistel and her husband, Terry, have spent the past 19 years saving the lives of dozens of these four-legged creatures.
They turned the land surrounding their family home in Brookville, Ind. into the Wolf Creek Habitat & Sanctuary, located just about 45 minutes outside of Cincinnati, where they invite the public each weekend to experience wolves up close.
"It's like they can't believe it. People get afraid sometimes when it's time to interact until they realize they're not going to hurt them," Baudendistel said.
She has rescued wolves from all over the country and Canada that were otherwise facing death, but relocating the animals isn’t the only part of their mission.
"It’s how it touches people. It’s how somebody’s scared to death to go in there, but once they go in there and realize how gentle these guys are, they walk away with a whole new feeling."
Running With The Pack
Baudendistel has loved wolves her entire life, but she never planned to make a career out of caring for them.
“I don’t look at it as my passion in life. I look at it as my path in life because everything has brought me to this point.”
She spent nearly 20 years as a manager of a video rental store in Brookville when she decided in 1997 to start a wolf rescue at her home. She and her husband live on secluded property with lots of land, surrounded by woods and a creek behind their house.
At that time, her three children were raised and gone. It was the perfect time to take the leap.
She kept hearing about how wolfdogs (a wolf and dog hybrid) were being displaced in the region, being left to die after their owners no longer could care for them.
“People were getting them as pets and realizing when they matured they couldn’t take care of them,” she said.
Some were even abandoned in the woods.
Peoples’ recklessness with these animals is what prompted Baudendistel to do something to save the wolves.
Owning a wolf or wolf hybrid is illegal in most states, including Ohio and Kentucky, especially following the exotic animal ordeal in Zanesville, Ohio in 2011. In Indiana, a permit is required.
After filing a mountain of paperwork over the course of many months, the Wolf Creek Habitat & Sanctuary was finally established.
Baudendistel started her journey with four rescue wolfdogs that lived in a large pen by her family's barn. Once word spread, there were nearly 40 hybrids under their care within a few years, forcing them to expand in a short amount of time.
“Every day, I still get a phone call or email from someone that has something that needs to be rescued,” Baudendistel said. “But I’ve learned to say ‘no.’ “
Over time, the sanctuary has stopped taking in wolfdogs and now focuses primarily on pure wolves. After rescuing two packs over the years, Baudendistel found the wolves were easier to care for than wolfdogs.
“I can tell when they’re in a good mood. I can tell when they don’t want to be bothered with people…There are a lot of things that are so predictable with wolves that aren’t with a wolfdog."
The sanctuary has 23 wolves and one wolfdog -- all separated within nine different enclosures.
“They all have mates so there are no lone wolves on the property," Baudendistel insists.
With a wolf sanctuary just a few feet from their front door, it’s an understatement to say wolf rescue has forever changed the lives of her family.
Kathy runs the daily operations with the help of about 30 volunteers on and off, but she’s adamant that none of it would possible without the help of her husband.
“He knows this was what I’m supposed to be doing. It doesn’t pay a dime, but it’s so rewarding in so many different ways,” Baudendistel said.
Terry has hand-built nine animal enclosures, installed chain link fences and keeps up with the general maintenance of the property.
“Kathy will even tell you, we first started with just one or two (wolfdogs) to save them from being put down, but for it to get this big? No way. It’s been quite a journey,” he said.
"I'm the Alpha Mom"
The Wolf Creek Habitat & Sanctuary is funded solely through donations, sponsorships of the animals and money from admission fees. Even some of the fencing and supplies for the enclosures were donated from other animal rescue groups.
During hunting season, they receive food donations from local processors who have leftover deer meat. The Freestore Food Bank even donates on occasion.
“When the freezer meat is one day over date, they send it all out here for these guys. So when they’re eating filet mignon and we’re in the house eating hot dogs, I mean it when I say they eat better than we do,” Baudendistel said.
Despite the hard work and financial stresses, the opportunity to help people understand the value of these animals makes the sanctuary a sacred place for Baudendistel.
Every weekend they host groups of all ages and backgrounds on their property to experience an up close encounter with these wild creatures.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions of wolves is that people think they’re killers and that they’re going to chase you down and eat you. They’re so afraid of people that they’re going to stay far away,” she said.
Watching people shy away from the wolves and then warm up to them, is something both Baudendistel and her husband witness almost every weekend. She's even had cancer patients visit to just sit the with wolves as they gently rub against them.
Still though, these animals are wild in nature, and Baudendistel doesn't let herself or the volunteers forget.
They put forth several safety precautions to protect the staff and guests. Volunteers don't go inside enclosures alone unless another volunteer is nearby. Also, every visitor is required to sign a waiver before entering the sanctuary, and must be at least 53 inches tall to be inside an enclosure along with a specific dress code to protect them if a wolf gets playful and jumps on them.
When the wolves fight or establish dominance within their hierarchies, the staff doesn't interfere.
“Even though they get into fights sometimes, which we do in a family, they will actually heal each other," she said.
“The biggest thing and main thing that I love about these wolves is that they’re family-oriented. Everything in them is family."
Baudendistel refers to herself as the “alpha mom” of these wolf families -- a responsibility she doesn't take lightly. She never went to school for animal studies, but credits everything she's learned over the years to the wolves.
They always greet her when she enters their enclosures. They even came to her side when she fell inside an enclosure until a volunteer could reach her to help.
And best of all, they respond to her call.
"I still cry sometimes when they howl. It's amazing. It's how they communicate, how they talk back to me and how I talk to them."
Emily Maxwell visited the Wolf Creek Habitat & Sanctuary in early January of 2016.
For more information on admission or to donate to the Wolf Creek Habitat & Sanctuary visit http://www.wolfcreekhabitat.org/.