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Of howling wolves and chilly winds

Kenneth Wong

“I lived my childhood dream of running, playing and sleeping with wolves. I cannot do justice by describing with words just how amazing it was to wake up in a tipi to the sound of wolves’ howls echoing through the valley, to breathe in the cold, heavy mountain air, to step outside to the immediate view of the mountains and wilderness as far as the eye can see.”

This was Kenneth Wong’s description of his time as a volunteer staff member at a non-profit wolf sanctuary in Southern Colorado, United States. Having graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Business & Commerce, Kenneth left for the US in August the same year. His six-month stint would see him travelling and living a lifelong dream of working in the outdoors.

1. What kind of volunteering work did you do in the US?

I spent the whole winter as a volunteer staff member at Mission:Wolf, a non-profit wolf sanctuary in the remote foothills of the Wet Mountains in Southern Colorado. It houses wolves and wolf-dogs, giving them a safe home with one male and one female per enclosure. The sanctuary also served to educate the public on conservation, sustainability and connecting with nature, as well as their role in the ecosystem.

My work was a mix of animal care, education, non-profit management, facilities, and vehicle maintenance and sustainability. I adapted quickly to the various tasks required to keep a sanctuary of 30 wolves running - processing meat and feeding the wolves; giving tours to visitors from all over the world; handling finances, office tasks and correspondence; fixing vehicles, facilities, and building things; maintaining compost and crops for the staff; maintaining solar panels for power; processing vegetable oil for vehicles. While I was there, I lived in a tipi with a wood stove in it and was provided resources to make my own meals.

2. What prompted you to go to the US?

Ever since I was little, the wolf has been my favourite animal. I love its symbolism of the mysticism of nature. So whilst I was finishing up my degree, I began my search for volunteer opportunities at wolf sanctuaries in the US. Besides the US being where my girlfriend was studying at, one of the biggest reasons was that the wolf is native to the beautiful wilderness of North America. Native Americans have revered the wolf for generations. Thus, beginning my journey there seemed a fitting tribute to the link between man and nature.

3. Why is wildlife conservation important to you?

I have the utmost respect and love for nature. I would love for nothing more than to be able to enjoy the outdoors in its pristine glory for the rest of my life. The way that humankind lives right now is not just unsustainable, but also an insult to the bounty and beauty of the world we live in. Carbon emissions, uncontrolled climate change, deforestation, poaching and game hunting, and the lack of awareness are just some of the ways we are destroying the balance of our global ecosystem. In the last 40 years, Earth has already lost half of its diverse wildlife. Conservation is our civic duty, to sustain the beauty and balance of the environment for our fellow man.

Once numbered in the tens of thousands, the wolves in North America today, number only in the hundreds. The sad thing is that ranchers and hunters have been taught to shoot them on sight, not aware of their role in keeping an ecosystem in check through a phenomenon called the trophic cascade.

4. What did you take home from the experience?

My overall experience was a beautiful one in many ways. I can safely say I learned many new skills a typical Malaysian would not have had the chance to. I learned to swing an axe, repair trucks, weld metal, fell trees with a chainsaw, gut and process an animal for its meat (mostly cows and horses for the wolves), operate a tractor, cook, compost, etc.

I also had many new experiences - good, bad, and weird. I’ve been greeted by wolves teeth to teeth; seen the Milky Way and a myriad of stars completely cover the night sky; not showered for weeks as water was limited; sat in on a Native American ‘land-cleansing’ pipe ceremony; learned how to set traps for huge rats in my tipi; and have even been covered in cow urine, due to puncturing the bladder of a dead cow while gutting it.

I lived my childhood dream of running, playing, sleeping with the wolves. I cannot do justice in describing just how amazing it is to wake up in a tipi to the sound of wolves’ howls echoing through the valley, to breathe in the cold, heavy mountain air, to step outside to the immediate view of the mountains and wilderness as far as the eye can see. The best part of the whole thing was going in with the wolves.

Like humans, every wolf has its own personality, some liked me and some did not. Some would barely honour me with a greeting, while some would linger around me affectionately. It was an absolute privilege to have been there.

5. What was your biggest challenge there?

All the usual warnings of culture shock and expecting racism did not ring true for me. I was made to feel welcome, even in the town nearby where we got our groceries. My challenges were more physical.

For one, the weather there was harsh. I arrived at the sanctuary at the very end of the fall season, so I had about two weeks to adapt to the cold before the full winter chill hit. Sometimes it would get as cold as -5`C in the day and as cold as -20’C at night before the wind blows. To adapt quickly, I would wear shorts as often as I could and do pushups whenever I felt cold. I would constantly be wearing three layers of clothing, plus something to cover my ears.

Also, I was at such a high altitude - 10,000 feet above sea level - that people could exert themselves easily doing physical activities. I had to remember to stay hydrated and eat properly to avoid altitude sickness. On the plus side, I built up my strength and stamina significantly while I was there. I hiked for miles across the plains and aspen forests around me in my free time and did calisthenics daily.

6. Was there anyone you would share everything with, or who inspired you?

There were seven other staff members living at the sanctuary, with other past members dropping in every now and then to help out for a few days. I got along with most of them. We took trips together once in awhile, from bowling nights at a nearby town, to visits to the iconic city of Denver, to soaking in hot springs in the frigid mountain air. I got along really well with one in particular, a girl from Iowa. We still keep in touch as she still works there.

Also, M:W’s director, Kent Weber, was my great mentor. I can honestly say Kent is the most unique individual I have met. This cowboy hat-wearing ex-architect taught me the way around tools, how to ride dirtbikes, how to live with the wolves, how to live and love the American outdoor. He even gave me love advice! Kent trusted me with huge tasks I had no prior experience with, knowing that I would succeed. I am very thankful to him for boosting my self confidence.

One thing that stands out in my memory is Kent entrusting an entire building project to me. We had just raised the funds to order the materials for building a geodesic dome, an enormous structure that would allow us to sustainably grow crops all-year-round. It was a testament to the blend between engineering, design, and conservation. Even knowing that I had no prior experience with construction, Kent made me foreman on that project. I must have spent dozens of hours poring over the instruction manual, prepping and checking tools, and actually working away at that structure. We got it up in three months and it passed the local council’s building inspector’s inspection.

7. What are the qualities that you learned one MUST have, to do voluntary work?

Firstly, you have to understand that while you’re there for a great experience, you’re ultimately there to contribute. You’re not just there to look good and take pictures. Going there with such a mindset will only hinder your team. Be passionate about the cause you are volunteering for, do your best to be a valued, contributing member of the team, and the experience will be its own reward.

Secondly, understand that for this kind of outdoors, labour-intensive volunteer work, one has to be reasonably fit (or you’ll be whipped into shape the hard way, as I have seen happen). In my time there, I had to acclimatise - living on the slope of a hill 10,000 feet above sea level - get used to the harsh weather, work from sunrise to sunset and do backbreaking tasks.

The most important quality to possess is probably being able to live in a community. It doesn’t matter if you’re on good terms with your fellow volunteers, living together for weeks on end plus having different cultures and perspectives will definitely result in some arguments.  A particularly frustrating workday could have everyone cranky and a simple disagreement could result in a shouting match. Wolves are emotionally sensitive creatures, so it was especially essential for my team that we speak our minds without shouting or using aggressive body language. It’s funny, but being forced into practicing proper conflict resolution and open communication techniques actually made it easier in the long run, in turn making community-living easier.

8. Is there any advice you would like to give to those who aspire to go on a journey like yours?

If you get the opportunity to get involved with a cause that you are passionate about, do it. If it’s unconventional, people might talk. Working in conservation and the outdoors, for example, is not a popular career choice in Malaysia, but you would have achieved a personal goal. You’re going to hold on to that for the rest of your life.

Kenneth Wong is currently interning in the Digital Transformation team at Coca-Cola Refreshments. Wong was previously in Planning & Strategy and Copywriting at Leo Burnett for six months.

In line with developing global citizens and work-ready graduates, Monash Malaysia encourages students to actively engage in an internationalised world, developing cross-cultural competence and ethical values.

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