Making friends with fauna
Large enclosures sit on either side of a woodland trail that winds through 60 acres of wild land in Wilmington. These enclosures house rescued wolves, bears, foxes, bobcats, porcupines, lynxes, crows, coyotes and bald eagles. Most are debilitated and cannot survive in the wild. They have found shelter at the refuge. Some of these animals will stay as permanent residents at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, others will be rehabilitated and released.
Curious visitors start an interactive journey in animal education at the welcome center. A smiling, masked man sits at the wooden desk, and advises, “We only take donations.” There is no fee to visit, only a suggested donation, and people are generous. The refuge is mainly funded by these personal donations. The organization does not receive any money from the city or state.
The welcome center is a cozy cabin with photo covered walls, picture books about wildlife and a coffee and tea station. In the center of the room sits a long wooden table covered in animal hides, antlers, snakeskin and a bear skull protected by a glass lid. A live Barbary falcon named Nelson is perched in the corner. His neighbors are a tarantula named Harry, a bearded dragon called Toothless, a turtle by the name of Galadriel and whoever enters his home at the welcome center.
Fifty thousand people visit this refuge per year from all over the world. That is a lot of new friends for a falcon to make.
As you exit the welcome center cabin, the sun hits the trail ahead of you. It is peering between the surrounding trees. The crunch of distant footsteps and childlike chattering hints that you’re heading in the right direction.
People have stopped to watch Zeebie and Kiska, two gray wolves in their enclosure. They are the first animals we meet, and you can immediately see the difference in their personalities. Kiska is pacing the perimeter of the fence, and Zeebie is resting on a wooden hut.
Zeebie and Kiska are about to eat breakfast. It is 10 a.m. and Steve Hall, a man with gray facial hair and a voice booming with enthusiasm, is strolling into their enclosure with his travel mug.
“They’re mainly fed deer killed by cars,” Steve Hall, co-owner and co-founder of the refuge, says. “Drive carefully but not too carefully.”
He is about to present a “wolf gathering” talk called “Wolves as Keystone Predators & How We Developed Dogs Out of Wolves.”
Hall explains the difference between the wolves, who are now trotting behind him, and a pug. It is less than 1%.
“All dogs are gray wolves. People say ‘you mean they’re like gray wolves?’ No, they are gray wolves,” Hall says.
Steve and his wife, Wendy Hall, bought the land the refuge sits on in 2000. They moved from New York City a little over a year later. Their goal was to drastically change their lives. Before the move, Steve was a public speaker for Avaya, a telecommunications provider. Wendy was a geriatric nurse and massage therapist.
Hanna Cromie, the general manager of Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, became familiar with the refuge when she was a volunteer at the center. At the time, she was earning her wildlife sciences degree from Paul Smith’s College. She stayed in the Adirondacks after graduating.
She emailed Wendy asking whether there were any openings for internships or jobs at the refuge. Wendy replied, “How soon can you get here?”
She started as an intern and was hired about a year ago.
“Things were a little wacky and there was a lack of leadership and structure,” Cromie says. “I kind of fell into that role sort of naturally.”
Cromie, Zeebie and Kiska start every morning with enrichment, which is species-appropriate stimulation. There are two miles of trails north of the wolf enclosure where they walk and trot through the woods of the property. All of their enclosures exceed industry standards, but it is not as vast as the wild. Engaging in activities with the wolves keeps the animals happy and healthy. After enrichment time, it is time to eat. Cromie feeds all of the animals. She has recently gotten more involved in the rehabilitation process.
The Kayla Hanczyk Education Center was recently built on the property. The building was constructed in memory of Kayla, a young woman who passed away from a rare form of biliary cancer, March of 2019. Kayla was only 25 years old. She loved wolves, so her family asked instead of sending flowers, people donate to the Cancer Research Center and the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge in her remembrance. The refuge received so many donations for wolf food that they were able to build the memorial center in her honor.
The center will be used for educational programs and events of all kinds. Wendy Hall describes it as a place to ponder, a place to meditate and a place to celebrate. People have expressed interest in getting married there. It sits a few inches from a wooded landing showcasing Whiteface Mountain and an emerald treeline.
A primary mission for the owners, Wendy and Steve, is to educate the public on wildlife and the ecosystems which they rely upon. This education may promote healthy methods to coexist in a peaceful and symbiotic way.
Their main goal has always focused on rehabilitation for their visiting animals. Guests are not able to meet bears that are being rehabilitated. Untamed bears need to remain afraid of humans to adjust when they are back in the wild. They have two captive bred bears, Luvey and Ahote, that guests are introduced to from a wooden overlook. These bears joined the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge family when they were only ten days old. They are about to turn five. They are used exclusively for educational purposes. Steve spends countless hours waiting on the open patio deck waiting to teach curious visitors about the black bears.
“You can do a lot retroactively with rehab,” Cromie says. “You can do a lot with animals that have already been hurt, but really the more important thing is prevention. The only way to accomplish that is through education.”
Cromie believes it is important for the public to realize how integral ecosystems are. They are critical for human survival.
“The reality is that this stuff inherently is important even without its use as a resource to us,” Cromie says. “Our mission is trying to get that appreciation into people so that they will take the tools that we can give them and go out and spread that themselves.”
As we spoke, Wendy turned to speak with a guest about the falcon, Nelson, sitting a few feet away.
“That’s a Barbary falcon,” Wendy Hall says. “It was donated to me by a falconer who, because of coronavirus, could no longer afford to keep it. [the falcon] was gotten so he could propagate, so he could have little baby barbaries. But he and the female didn’t get along. He says ‘can you take it?’ I said ‘absolutely’.”
Nelson is going on about eight years old and he looks almost exactly like a Peregrine falcon, but smaller, so they give almost the same presentation in terms of their aerodynamics, the shape of the wings, the shape of the tail and how they hunt for food.
The couple are currently building a geodesic dome, a half sphere shaped structure made of a thin shell material and composed of triangular elements, for vacation rentals on the property. They are building it in memory of Wendy’s close friend who was one of their first volunteers. It is called the Wolf Dome.
They will rent it as a “glamping” experience. The dome is close enough that guests can hear the wolves roaming their enclosures throughout the night. The property is on the west branch of the Ausable River. A rack with green, blue and yellow kayaks and canoes sits alongside the river for guests to use, as well as a six-person hot tub.
The money they make from the vacation rentals will go back into taking care of the animals.
“That’s what we’re all about,” Wendy says. “Recycling the money right back to the wildlife.”
When they retire some day, Wendy and Steve Hall will pass it on to someone they believe can maintain the facility with the love, passion and care for wildlife they have.
“Steve and I are pretty old. But we founded this place,” Wendy Hall says. “We will pass it on to the young people that are deserving of it.”
The pair don’t seem to be in any rush, though.
On most days at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, you can find Wendy or Steve giving a speech, or answering a question about an exotic animal. As much as the community relies on the center for education, the animals rely on the refuge to protect them until they’re back on their paws or claws in their native and wild homes. If they cannot survive there, they will spend their days basking, eating, prowling and playing at the refuge. Every morning, they will rise for enrichment time and wait for curious visitors to come learn from them.
Story by Alana Penny and Heaven Longo
Photos by Jade Nguyen