By Alfred Lubrano
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
LITITZ, Pa. – The wolf-dog met the media Tuesday, panting but content.
The animal formerly known as Levi was introduced to the public with a new name – Liberty – to reflect his connection to Philadelphia, where he was loose in Pennypack Park from March until his capture July 3.
That’s his third name in five months; when he was only a ghostly, lurking presence in the park, before anyone knew he was Levi, Liberty was actually called Penny. Life has been changing fast ever since for the young animal, believed to be around 10 months old.
Off dog food these days, Liberty is now eating raw meat, as befits a gray wolf-Malamute hybrid. The belief is, in fact, that he is significantly more wolf than dog – chromosomally connected to legendary moon-howling pack animals who live life on their own terms.
Beyond domesticity, Liberty is too cool for obedience school, and too dangerous to be outfitted with bandannas and expected to catch and return Frisbees like some slobbering Lab in the park.
Instead, he currently lives with his dignity intact at the 22-acre Speedwell Forge Wolf Sanctuary, a private nonprofit licensed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Liberty was taken there after being trapped by agents of the commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s APHIS Wildlife Services division.
The animal’s owner, Kasey Lyons, who didn’t have a permit for Liberty – then Levi – was visiting from Florida with the animal last March. Liberty had been a gift from Lyons to his former fiancee.
But love failed, and after the two broke up, the fiancee no longer wanted the wolf-dog. Liberty, collateral damage in the failed romance, suddenly found himself wandering Pennypack Park. It’s not clear whether he escaped or was set loose, although unwanted hybrids are typically abandoned, wolf experts say.
On the hoof and all alone, Liberty survived on pet food he’d cleverly pilfered from yards, as well as on pizza and McDonald’s burgers that neighbors said they threw him.
From now on, though, Liberty will never have to scrounge for a meal again, vows sanctuary caretaker Darin Tompkins, the animal’s spokesman, keeper, and confidant.
“He’s actually doing very well,” said Tompkins, who was petting a relaxed Liberty as television cameras captured the captured beast.
This isn’t to say that Liberty is free of problems, however.
Having been beset by ticks in the park, Liberty contracted Lyme disease, Tompkins said. Liberty also caught bordetella, sometimes called kennel cough.
Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics, but Liberty might be facing joint pain and stunted joint growth, noted Lori Schmidt, wolf curator at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.
Bordetella, a bronchial infection, should be treatable, Schmidt said.
Youth, Schmidt added, is on Liberty’s side, and could help him overcome his Pennypack misadventure.
Tompkins, meanwhile, is concerned that Liberty weighs just around 60 pounds. He should be almost twice that, but months of a poor diet took its toll on the animal, Tompkins said.
Tompkins is rectifying that with a kind of uncooked Atkins diet, which includes that wolf’s delight, deer roadkill.
Some time soon, Tompkins will begin to introduce Liberty to some of the 44 other wolves and hybrids at the sanctuary.
If he receives enough donations, Tompkins may even build a new enclosure for Levi-Penny-Liberty and a few compatriots.
Once the animal is in the enclosure, he may well go full wolf and never allow a person to pet him again, Tompkins said.
“Liberty is used to humans, but he can’t trust them,” Tompkins said. “You can’t blame him.”