By Peter Genovese/The Star-Ledger
At the end of a half-mile trail reached by a twisty country road in Knowlton, one of your best-loved childhood stories crumbles into the dust of myth and fairy tales.
Little Red Riding Hood, it seems, never had anything to fear from the Big Bad Wolf.
“There’s never been a documented attack by a wolf on a human in North America,” says Jim Stein, standing at the entrance to Lakota Wolf Preserve, home to River, Raven, Cheyenne and 18 other wolves.
“All those stories you’ve heard about Little Red Riding Hood and grandma are not true,” he adds.
It’s not clear what effect this information has on a group of kids from Jefferson School in Summit visiting the Lakota Wolf Preserve this morning. They seem spellbound by the presence of such beautiful, wild, mysterious animals; fidgeting is at a minimum. When Stein tosses a piece of freeze-dried beef liver into the enclosure, two timber wolves, Night Song and Black Star, suddenly spring to their hind legs, resulting in an excited “oooh” from the schoolchildren.
“We have Arctic wolves, timber wolves, tundra wolves,” Stein says in his calm, quiet voice. “But no red wolves — they’re endangered. And no werewolves.”
The bearded Stein — part Mr. Rogers, part Grizzly Adams — runs Lakota Wolf Preserve with the help of his girlfriend, Becky Mace. It may sound like a fun job, but it isn’t.
They feed the animals, to the tune of 50,000 pounds of meat a year (“Wolves,” Stein says laconically, “are programmed to eat”). There are regulations to follow, medical records to keep, fencing to be repaired and roadkill to be rounded up for food: deer for the wolves, squirrels for the bobcats kept in a separate enclosure.
When Hurricane Irene struck, the couple spent the night in their Suburban on the property, checking the treeline every hour to make sure there was no damage.
“It’s a farmer’s schedule, seven days a week,” Stein explains. “Vacation — we go away separately. Some guys may think that’s great, but it’s not.”
There are wolf preserves or facilities in Connecticut, New York, California, North Dakota, Colorado, Florida and elsewhere. Dan Bacon, founder and a co-owner of Lakota Wolf Preserve with his wife, Pam, had visited a wolf facility in Montana and found himself “very upset” with the conditions.
“They were kept in small cages, 8 by 10. I told Pam, ‘This is no way to live.’?”
They acquired two wolf pups from North Dakota and opened a wolf facility in Colorado, relocating to New Jersey in 1997. Lakota opened the following year. The Bacons found an ideal location in Knowlton; the preserve is reached by a half-mile trail from the parking lot at Camp Taylor Campground, minutes from Route 94 and a world away from the Jersey most of us know.
If you can’t do the half-mile hike to the preserve, Stein takes you up in his old N.J. Transit bus, which he bought at an auction for $1,000.
Lakota does not breed its wolves, but sometimes takes in puppies from other facilities. The preserve supports itself through donations, and fees for its hour-and-a-half-long Wolf Watches and two-hour photo shoots run for many years by Dan Bacon, a professional wildlife photographer, and now run by his son-in-law.
Lakota’s wolves are not the only ones in Jersey. There are four wolves in the Wolf Woods at Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange — three pups and an adult male, according to the zoo’s website. There are seven wolves and wolf dogs at Howling Woods Farm in Jackson, a breed-specific animal shelter that rescues and places domestic bred wolves and wolf dogs. It’s not open to the public, but visits can be made by appointment.
“Wolves will eat anything from a mouse to a moose,” Stein tells the wide-eyed Summit schoolchildren. “They’re not pleasant when they eat. They take down their prey and tear off pieces and swallow it whole.”
There are three tundra wolves (Princess Jo Jo, Kimba, Shania); five Arctic wolves (Storm, Autumn, Sequoia, Orion, Tala); three British Columbia wolves (Tikaani, Tamron, Kayla); and 10 timber wolves (River, Keysha, Raven, Apache, Cheyenne, Oshicca, Black Star, Teeko, Night Song, Shilo).
Asked what he admires most about wolves, Stein replies, “Their intelligence and power.”
There are four packs, each kept in separate enclosures. The wolves never leave the preserve.
“People come here and say, ‘We saw (your wolves) at the fair, in cages.’?” Stein says. “They never leave here. This is their home, their territory. We let them be a wolf. We don’t put them on display.”
Is there a more misunderstood animal than the wolf? Maybe not. They don’t howl at the moon, Stein will tell his tour groups; if wolves howl during a full moon, it’s because they’re hunting.
Comments from visitors include, “Do they eat people?” or “I saw one in my backyard.”
“There haven’t been wolves (in the wild) in New Jersey in 100 years,” Stein explains. “But there are coyotes.”
The wolves are the main attraction at Lakota, but don’t miss the resident bobcats (Santa, Bobby and Cache) and foxes (Tonka and Sierra).
“Bobcats have big feet,” Mace says. “They can hit a big groundhog in the head and knock it out.”
The bobcats eat chicken parts, bluefish and twice a week get a special treat: a dead squirrel. No, Becky tells the kids, she does not hunt squirrels; they come as roadkill.
And the foxes — maybe you don’t want to hear about the foxes. Oh, Tonka and Sierra are cute enough, and they love their dried apricots, but they’re making Becky nervous.
“The thicker and fuller the coat comes in, that usually means it’s going to be a bad winter,” she says. “Normally the little female fox does not have a full tail until mid-November. She’s had it for two months.” She smiled grimly. “They’ve never been wrong.”
Lakota Wolf Preserve
Where: 89 Mt. Pleasant Road, Columbia, Warren County
When: Starting Monday, wolf watches take place Tuesdays through Sundays at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. You must arrive a half hour before start time. No appointment for individuals and families is needed for Saturdays and Sundays. All groups must have an appointment weekdays or weekends.
How much: $16.05 (tax included) for adults and $7.49 (tax included) for children ages 2 to 11. Credit cards are not accepted.
More information: Call (877) 733-9653 or visit www.lakotawolf.com.