Wolf-dog begins a new life

Days after his capture in Pennypack Park, Levi is in quarantine in Lancaster County, not yet ready to run with the pack.

Posted: July 09, 2012

LITITZ, Pa. - Levi, the hybrid wolf-dog who eluded capture in Pennypack Park from March until 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, is not seeing any visitors these days.

That's the word from Speedwell Forge Wolf Sanctuary, where Levi lives in quarantine in a 10-by-10-foot enclosure.

The gray wolf-Malamute can hear the barks, growls, and howls from the 44 other gray wolves and hybrids on the place, a private, nonprofit sanctuary licensed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

If he were suddenly thrown in with one of the packs of wolves that roam 22 acres of securely fenced Lancaster County land, he'd be torn to pieces in two minutes.

Gradually, then, Levi will be introduced to the others, to whom he could eventually explain how he was collateral damage in a love story gone sour: how his owner, Kasey Lyons, who didn't have a permit for Levi, was visiting from Florida with the animal; how Levi had been a gift from Lyons to his former fiancee; how the two broke up; and how the fiancee said she no longer wanted Levi.

It's not clear whether Levi escaped or was set loose.

This is not a story that Darin Tompkins, head caretaker at the sanctuary, likes to hear. Wolves - even hybrid ones - don't make great pets, Tompkins said.

"I asked the guy [Lyons], 'What do you know about wolves?' " said Tompkins, who spent 72 hours trying to capture Levi, who was ultimately caught with a humane foothold trap by agents of the Game Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's APHIS Wildlife Services division.

"The guy says, 'Well, the man I bought him from said to not put him in a corner and not to beat him.' "

"Then I say, 'So, you know nothing about wolves, do you?' "

Lyons could not be reached for comment. It's not clear whether authorities will fine him for not having a permit for Levi, which is the law for hybrids in Pennsylvania.

For what it's worth, "the owner was very cooperative," said Dan Lynch, wildlife education specialist from the Game Commission's Southeast Region office who was part of the capture. "He told us, 'I just want to make sure that he is going to be safe.' "

Now he is. Animals are never sold or given away from the sanctuary, and they stay their whole lives.

As it happens, Tompkins did run into Levi as he was searching the Pennypack woods during the week. With the animal a few feet in front of him, Tompkins noticed a rubber toy on the ground that Levi had apparently filched from a nearby yard.

Tompkins picked up the toy and pretended to play with it, to lure Levi. But the hybrid moved farther into the brush and out of sight.

Tompkins stood there, trying to catch a glimpse. Suddenly, he heard a twig snap behind him. He turned to see Levi, who'd quietly sneaked around Tompkins - as wolves will do - and planted himself just five feet away.

"They play games, and he was playing with me," Tompkins said. Quickly, Levi fled, only to be captured later.

At the sanctuary Thursday, Levi was scheduled for a veterinarian visit, as well as for rabies, parvo, and distemper vaccinations. For all that, someone had to muzzle him. Tompkins was that someone.

"That's always fun," said Tompkins, 46, who acknowledges that the wolves and hybrids at the sanctuary really don't like him.

No matter how many pounds of meat or deer roadkill he offers the animals - they collectively eat as much as 600 pounds a week - they snub him or snarl, since they associate him with needle shots and restraints.

Levi and Tompkins have something in common, though: Love brought Tompkins to the sanctuary as well.

He's the partner of sanctuary owner Dawn Darlington, whose late father, William, started the sanctuary out of a passion for wolves in 1980.

Tompkins and Darlington have known each other since they were 14. Six years ago, Tompkins came to work at the sanctuary, part of a 125-acre estate, and learned about wolves on the job.

While no one at the sanctuary is formerly trained in managing wolves, "they are a legitimate sanctuary, the only one we know of in Southeast Pennsylvania, and that's why we got them involved" in Levi's saga, Lynch said.

Darlington, 46, inherited her father's ardor for the mysterious and powerful creatures. "I grew up with them," she said. "They're part of me."

A paralegal living in Los Angeles for a while, Darlington felt compelled to return to the property and carry on her father's sanctuary mission.

Darlington runs a bed-and-breakfast on the property, and organizes public tours of the wolf enclosures, including a monthly full-moon tour. The $12 to $20 fees help keep the sanctuary going.

Facilities like Speedwell Forge serve an important purpose throughout the country, said Jess Edberg, wolf expert with the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.

"A lot of people desire to own a wild animal but don't have the time or resources to do so," Edberg said.

After animals reach sexual maturity (eight months to three years in hybrids; one to three years in pure wolves), they can change from being playful companions into obstinate, intense, territorial creatures who are difficult, if not dangerous, to manage.

At that point, people often release the animals illegally into the woods, have them destroyed, or send them to sanctuaries.

From Red Riding Hood on, people have affixed wolves with a bad rap. The truth is, in the wild, wolves try hard to avoid humans. But wolves or hybrids raised near people lose their fears and can attack people, or their pets.

Hybrids are, in essence, confused animals whose nature can be unpredictable.

"It's definitely a risk to have a hybrid in your home," Edberg said.

Things didn't work out for Levi in someone's home. Things might work out better at the sanctuary, though.

"He's freaked out now," Tompkins said, "but we'll calm him down and take care of him."

Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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