Tsitsikamma, South Africa—
Signs pop up as you head deeper and deeper into the fairytale-like forest.
“Wow, look how big your ears are,” one reads.
“Wolves can hear up to 16 km (52496.00 feets) in nature,” another says.
Red paw prints are painted on rocks here and there, and you half expect Little Red Riding Hood to appear under the canopy of trees at any second. However, for the three women who live in the enclave at the end of this Garden Route road, life is anything but a fairytale.
They run the Tsitsikamma Wolf Sanctuary which was born out of a very real need to offer abandoned wolves a haven.
Robin McDonald (39), Francette Jerling (35) and Amritha Djohoun (66), have made it their mission to care for wolves that have been bred as exotic pets and then discarded when their true wild nature became evident. The women would have preferred it if there wasn’t a need for a place like this.
“We don’t enjoy keeping wolves behind electric fencing. They should be free to roam their natural habitat – not here in South Africa,” Francette says.
Robin, on whose family-land the sanctuary is located, says they try to keep the animals as wild as possible.
“I’m the only one who goes into the enclosures and I do so only once a month or so. People have offered us a lot of money for wolf pups, but we’re not a breeding farm.”
However, elsewhere, wolves are bred for sale as exotic pets and it’s big business. Wolves with yellow, brown or amber eyes are considered genetically purer while those with blue eyes indicate the presence of husky genes.
Breeders can charge up to R35,000 for a pup. The practice of breeding wolves for the market is abominable to these three women.
“The animals in our care are here because of peoples’ ignorance, and greedy breeders,” Robin says.
The trio work with other conservation organizations to put a stop to wolf-breeding in South Africa, including the HuskyRomi Wolf Sanctuary in Reitz in the Free State, but it’s an uphill battle.
Pureblood wolves are brought in from overseas to be crossbred with a variety of dog breeds. Pups with dog DNA aren’t considered true wolves by South African authorities, so people don’t need a permit to keep one as a pet. However, it’s usually just a question of time before a wolf or half-wolf gives in to their natural instinct and bites someone – and that’s when they end up here.
There are 30 wolves at the sanctuary at present and, as a concession to raising awareness of the animals’ plight, the women allow us to enter, male wolf, Ra’s enclosure.
He jumps up against Robin like an overgrown lapdog but growls in warning at the rest of us. Ra has been here for six years and has formed a special bond with Robin.
These days he shares an enclosure with Luna, the oldest bitch at the sanctuary. Like the other males, he has been neutered.
Each enclosure houses two wolves because they’re pack animals and get lonely on their own. Grass and wildflowers cover the ground of the enclosures and half barrels provide shelter from the elements. The wolves have names but don’t respond to them – they’re just named so that ‘good Samaritans’ can sponsor individual wolves.
“This is Moon. She can be moody sometimes,” Francette says, pointing to an animal in another enclosure. Her mate, Benjamin, is muddy from playing.
Francette busts a few myths about wolves, such as that they howl at the moon.
“They howl at any time of the day or not at all,” she says. “It’s a way of communicating that they’re feeling sad or that they’re in pain.”
We’re told to speak quietly and avoid sudden movements. It’s drilled into us that these are wild animals – they may appear shy, but they’re unpredictable, and we need to be on our guard.
The sanctuary is part of a farm where Robin’s dad, Mickaeel, and her late mom, Cathline McDonald, started a vegan commune decades ago. Both were qualified medical doctors but chose to focus on natural medicine.
In 2000, Mickaeel came across a wolf chained up at a backyard breeding operation. He freed the animal, which he called Nikita, and brought it back to the farm. It wasn’t long before word went around and he was contacted about taking on other abandoned or neglected wolves.
The McDonald’s bought a second plot of land and that was the start of the non-profit organization – the first in South Africa for wolves. They opened the reserve to visitors in 2001 to help fund their charity and raise awareness. Day visitors pay R250 per adult, R100 per child and R150 for pensioners.
Robin was just 18 when she started working with the wolves on the family farm, but she’s also a trained emergency services worker. Following her mom’s death, she was left to handle most of the sanctuary’s operations, which is why she says Francette and Amritha were heaven-sent.
Francette wrote her master’s thesis in zoology about the endangered hornbills of the Bushveld. She met Robin’s dad on one of his upcountry travels, heard about the sanctuary and decided to get involved. She moved in shortly before lockdown and also teaches yoga in Knysna and works as a wellness coach.
Animal-lover Amritha became involved in the sanctuary after moving to the Garden Route from Senegal, where she used to live.
There are nine homes on the farm and they’re also planning on erecting huts for overnight visitors. Several volunteers live in the houses and help the three women take care of the wolves – and there’s a lot to do.
The workday starts early. At 7am, fresh eggs from the farm chickens are collected for breakfast, and then it’s time to start processing the carcasses of cows, horses and donkeys – donated by local farmers – which are fed to the wolves. The wolves eat the equivalent of an adult cow every two days – which is ironic, considering the vegan commune origins of the farm.
“We will do anything the wolves need,” Robin says. “At first, it took me six hours to cut up a carcass. Now I can do it within an hour.”
Francette prefers working in the communal veggie gardens but she’ll help with the meat when she needs to. “The sanctuary doesn’t accept just any animal,” she adds. She tries to find pictures of a wolf’s parents to tell how much wolf they have in them, and they keep only ‘mid to high-content wolves here’.
“We try to re-home those that don’t have much wolf blood in them,” Francette says.
Sadly, those with fewer wolf DNA are sometimes sent to the SPCA if they can’t adjust to domestic life and many must eventually be put down.
That’s why these three women are so devoted to their sanctuary and will keep educating people and raising awareness about the plight of these animals.
“If people leave here understanding why wolves aren’t meant to be pets,” Robin says, “then I consider it a job well done.”
Edited by Diane Walsh