Little Red Riding Hood was wrong—at least according to the owner of the Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Florida, where for a $25 fee, humans get to hang out with a pack of wild dogs.
“The wolf is not the bad guy but indeed a very important keystone species,” Cynthia Watkins told the Associated Press. She and her husband, Wayne Watkins, have raised 30 gray, arctic, and British Columbian wolves to learn to behave around humans. The goal is to turn people into champions for the animals, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service removed from the endangered species list in 2009, over the objections of wolf advocates.
Is the preserve safe? According to the owners, kids under the age of six aren’t allowed, guests watch a video before getting close to the animals, and trained wolf handlers preside over the tours.
“We are not some little roadside zoo,” Watkins told the AP. She estimates that 10,000 people visit the 430-acre preserve every year; none has been reported to be harmed since Seacrest started out as a small conservation effort in 1999.
It's part of a growing industry that facilitates the close interaction of humans and wildlife in the name of advocacy. Swim-with-a-dolphin attractions have been especially in demand.
“Swimming with dolphins, whether wild individuals or those in captivity, is increasing in popularity,” says the Whale and Dolphin Conservation website. “Unfortunately, most participants in these activities are unaware of the problems surrounding them, and the negative impact on the animals involved.”
In April, a sheriff’s deputy shot a British Columbian wolf that escaped from the Seacrest preserve after a flood washed out the enclosures. According to Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the officer couldn’t get near enough to employ a tranquilizer. The Watkinses are petitioning officials to open an investigation into the wolf’s death.
Meanwhile, experts are questioning the safety of the preserve.
“They are still unpredictable, because they are wild animals,” Dave Mech, a senior research assistant at the U.S. Geological Survey, told the AP. “Wolves are not like dogs. Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, and that unpredictability and wildness is taken out of them because of the breeding.”
Anti-wolf activists promote the killings of the species. In March, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed a law that would create a committee to lead the slaughter of 500 of the state’s 650 surviving wolves.
“By teaching tolerance and respect for these important wild species,” Seacrest’s website reads, “we hope to educate the public on the vital role these animals play within the natural world, and cultivate a passion to protect them in the wild.”