We Hung Out with Wolves in the Florida Panhandle
At the Seacrest Wolf Preserve, you can cuddle up to some friendly beasts.
All photos by Joey Prince
A stone's throw north and inland from the bong-and-airbrush wonderland of Panama City Beach lays Seacrest Wolf Preserve in rural Chipley, Florida. There, married wildlife advocates Wayne and Cynthia Watkins run the roughly 20-acre preservation homing over four packs of pure wolves with names like Princess Moonstar, Spirit Prince, and Legacy along with a host of other wild animals. But unlike many other conservation efforts, the Watkins invite visitors to come face-to-fucking-face with these creatures they often call "wolf ambassadors."
Behind two state-mandated fences—one eight, and the other ten feet tall—a menagerie of breeds like Arctic, British Columbian, and Gray clomp around in separated packs. Many are biologically wired to accommodate climates much cooler than the Florida Panhandle's sweaty armpit, so they spend a lot of time in the natural springs Wayne rerouted into small ponds beneath towering oak and pine trees. It's apparently enough to keep them kicking and in (mostly) good spirits.
"They're just like us. They're just like humans," Wayne, a gruff Vietnam vet, often says on the Saturday tours he leads. The tour waiver reiterates the sentiment: "As humans, we experience different emotions and moods. Wolves also experience these same feelings. Please be respectful of our awesome Seacrest wolves. Talk softly, move slowly, and be attentive." That last rule meant that on a recent visit I was unfortunately not allowed to run with the wolves, a trope that sounds metal as hell, but probably would have gotten me eaten.
A series of dirt roads lead to the Oaks Farm property, which swallows 430 acres. Cynthia's grandson Hunter, a bulky young man in a DIY Superman muscle shirt, welcomed us to the premises with genuine warmth. He explained he'd been "helping out" the past four years but the wolves had always been part of his life. They've been important to his grandmother for a long while and the appreciation trickled down the generations.
Cynthia's teenage love for the elusive canines eventually carried her to a conservation effort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the early 90s, where she met her first wolf in person. "I saw the wolf ambassador and I was so stunned I heard nothing else," she told VICE. The "wolf ambassador" term is part of the Watkins' M.O.: wolf education and dispelling ancient smacktalk of the majestic animals. "I heard nothing. I was just drawn to him. He was just lying by the handlers. I went over and knelt down beside him. I asked if I could touch him and he said yes," Cynthia recalled. "I reached down and touched a pure wolf for the first time. I felt his energy. I saw the incredible entity that it was. It was a spiritual experience for me. I had tears in my eyes. It was profound. It changed me. It changed my life."
After her then-husband died shortly after her visit west in 1994, Cynthia was introduced to Wayne and the two married in 1996. Wayne moved Cynthia and the Siberian Huskies she'd spent a decade breeding to the Oaks Farm, a property he purchased while active in the military and settled upon retiring. He originally used the land to raise cattle, but when rattlesnakes wiped out the Husky bloodline Cynthia spent years developing, they replaced the cows with wolves.
In 1999, an at-capacity zoo contacted the Watkins about taking on a wolf rescued from domestic captivity. "[The previous owner] had a license. Believe it or not, this wolf lived in a pen that was barely higher than the top of his back. He could hardly turn in it," Cynthia says. "And he was in his own urine and his own feces. It was such a tragic situation so we stepped up to the plate. Initially, we were just gonna help out with a few sad cases like that."
Seacrest Wolf Preserve, Inc. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and 100 percent legal in its wildlife preservation efforts. They are also involved in breeding, and offer educational training for other preservations like Lakota Wolf Preserve in Columbia, New Jersey and Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The public component of their wolf-keeping began "almost immediately," she says. "It started down by our house where those temporary enclosures are." The Watkins continue to start the pups out in their home in order to familiarize them with humans right away — generally around ten days into their lives. "If they're with Mom when their eyes open, they'll be so wild you can't touch them. But we breed with great conviction," Cynthia says. "Their eyes open and they look into the face of a human and they're loved by all the visitors. Our goal is to imprint as many human scents, smells, and sounds on them as we can. So that's what happens. All they know is human love and human activity."
Because of the Watkins' diligence, I saw about two dozen pure wolves calmly interact with around eight dozen people. They not only tolerated the attention, they genuinely seemed to enjoy it. Wayne leads the human swarm into a series of enclosures where participants are expected to follow strict clothing and technology regulations forbidding leather and cellphones ("They'll grab those quick!" a volunteer told me, before erupting in sinister chuckles). Instead, folks may take photos via nearly-vintage disposable cameras available for purchase in the gift shop. Visitors range from a wily, high school youth group on a "spirit quest" (their wording, not mine), families with small children, goth teens on dates, heavily made-up recent FSU grads, and a few solo-riding adults.
One man of the latter category, a realtor from Tallahassee named David, is a repeat visitor. He guesses he's made the trek to Seacrest at least five times, and always alone. In the Arctic pen, it's immediately clear he's a regular. Two wolves bound to his slight, seated frame and bombard him with affection until he topples back, cackling. Seacrest Wolf Preserve is this dude's Cheers and it's amazing.
"I think they can sense things about you. If you're a nice person, they'll like you," he says. "I just get lonely for them so I'll come and see them. They know me, they do." There's no arguing that. Other visitors only get a wolf near them when a volunteer waves a fistful of ground meat in the general direction—a risky move, but one performed so casually it feels standard.
Most people who visit more than a couple times end up joining as volunteers, essentially acting as the lifeblood of Seacrest, a nonprofit running solely off philanthropy and two part-time employees outside of the Watkins (Wayne muses he spends ten to 16 hours a day every day tending to the grounds and animals). The preserve outfits volunteers in T-shirts featuring fairly intense wolf face imagery and psychedelic tie-dye. The total count of volunteers fluctuates, often including military, pre-vet co-eds, and a shocking number of families. But those who stick around usually do so for a good minute. "[The wolves] will bond with you," Cynthia says. "There [are] some volunteers that've been coming for so long, when their cars pulls onto [the] property, the wolves start howling. The wolves actually know their automobiles."
Upon entering the first enclosure, Mr. Wayne (as the volunteers call him in true Southern fashion) asks everyone to sit and soon the wolves trot out for the first time. They're smaller than Twilight would lead one to expect, weighing only about 90 pounds each. Their sleek, lean bodies move like liquid steel. Their golden eyes are fucking enchanting. They flock to David and pick out a few other favorites to lavish extra attention. Much like domestic dogs, many wolves rub their backs against people's legs and one even rested her head in my lap while I used long nails to scratch between her ears. Her jaw slacked in relaxation and I felt a pride I didn't deserve.
On top of the typical affection fare, wolves like to show love by a "muzzle greeting," something Wayne calls "affectionate and also instinctual." Senior volunteer Michelle Hagan says: "The people with beards, oh my God. They can't get out of there without having a major kiss. It's all about their mouth." Basically, this is where wolves are more like birds than Golden Retrievers: they feed their young by barfing up extra food directly to their mouths. So when a wolf does this to you, you know you're in.
This didn't happen to me during my visit, but I'm not bitter. I swear.
Although Seacrest does a damn good job keeping security tight and their animals—including foxes, skunks, peacocks, and raccoons further down the property—safe, tragedy struck May 2014 when flood waters rose, scaring an alpha male British Columbian wolf named Chaco out of his enclosure. While outside the preservation's grounds, as the Watkins and their team scrambled to find the animal and gently coax a return home, a fish and game officer shot him dead. Sore feelings remain. One volunteer told me Princess Moonstar, Chaco's former partner and mother of his child Baby Chaco, continues to act withdrawn as if in very human, extended mourning. "People may not know it, but Fish [and Wildlife Services] in every state nationwide kill more animals and wild species than any other entity," Wayne says. "The agency that is supposed to be protecting the wild species the most are the ones that kill the majority of them." The Watkins' cite European folklore and fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood's demonic depiction of wolves as perpetuating the fear still intact across the ocean and centuries later. That's part of what this couple want visitors to see: the truth about wolves and how truly gentle and fun they can be.
The tour also features lectures focused on wolves' essential role in various ecosystems, offering hard facts relating to the wolf's key role in the trophic cascade and inviting us to question local and national government rulings.
I ask Wayne about the biggest payoff in founding and running Seacrest, expecting another spiel littered with figures and governmental acronyms. "Being able to come out here at midnight and go into a wolfpack or wolf family of Gray wolves, have one of 'em come up and kiss you and want you to rub him and him interact with you," he says, reclining in a low-slung lawn chair in the snack pavilion. "That's probably the most rewarding thing. They are our family."
Although that's not to say Wayne isn't still a little surprised how his life turned out. "When I was flying missions in Vietnam, do you think I was ever thinking about wolves?" he asks before chuckling and literally walking toward a sunset on the horizon, while the wolves around us burst into another round of howls.