79-year-old Werner Freund has a unique gift. The ex-paratrooper and now wolf-researcher from Germany can get along with wolves so well, it’s almost like he’s a member of their pack. In fact, it’s been 40 long years since he started living among wolves and rearing them from pups at his ‘Wolfspark’ sanctuary , located in Merzig, in the German province of Saarland. The close relationship between Werner and his wolves is quite obvious from pictures of him leaning back on his haunches and howling, and of the wild beasts eating meat straight from his mouth.
Wolves are generally a feared species; come into close quarters and your chances of making it out alive are quite slim. But things are different in the case of Werner. It’s like they’ve accepted him as one of their own. When Werner is around, his wolves are actually playful, docile and submissive towards him. Perhaps it’s because he’s successfully asserted his dominance as the alpha male in the pack. The park is inhabited by wolves from six different packs around the world, including Siberian, Arctic, Canadian, European and Mongolian ones. They were mostly acquired as cubs from animal parks or zoos and hand-reared by Werner.
It may seem gross and unnecessary, but there’s a reason why Werner feeds the wolves with his mouth. The feeding routine is unique – he first howls, calling on his pack to come for the meat that he has procured. The raw meat comes from a steady supply of slaughtered deer that he keeps handy to feed his packs. The hungry wolves excitedly make their way, heeding to their leader’s calls. Werner makes sure that he sinks his teeth into the meat first, sealing his position as the dominant male each time – just like in the animal world where the alpha male always gets the first cut. The hungry wolves wait and watch obediently and proceed to snack on the raw meat only once he permits them to.
Photo: Michael Schönberger
Feeding first is the only way that Werner can make sure he maintains the respect of the pack. And it works. When the wolves are not feeding, they play around with him and joyfully lick his face as a sign of subservience and acknowledgement. These gestures sometimes hurt Warner, as the wolves show their delight by violently poking their muzzles into the corners of his mouth. Sounds scary, but it’s nothing more than a rough greeting. Werner has scars, pockmarks, and sometimes even comes away with a black eye after these encounters, but he says the intimacy is needed to become one with the pack. “If I didn’t live such a wolf-like life, I’d never be able to connect with the wolves,” he says. In fact, he is constantly acting the part. “I noticed early-on that dominant wolves behave arrogantly towards the rest. As a human, I’m not arrogant, but as a wolf I am. It’s the only way I can maintain my position at the head of the pack. So Werner will get down on all fours, growl at a threatening wolf, look away nonchalantly when a challenger approaches, and sometimes even resort to biting.
Photo: Michael Schönberger
The wolf that Werner is always wary of is the one directly beneath him in the hierarchy. Since wolf packs constantly shift the position of power, he needs to make sure he is not attacked if there are changes in the ranking order. So while he might be comfortable enough to take a midday snooze with his furry companions, he must always be careful to notice even slight signals that might warn of a change in his position. After all, in the eyes of the pack he is still an outsider, but with the exclusive place above the alpha male. Even so, Werner does not meddle in a pack’s internal squabbles. “When I enter their fenced-in territory, I only go to the alpha wolf or his mate,” he says. “If I go to the others, it could be read as an attack. I don’t want to challenge their hierarchies. What they do is their business and I try not to get involved in their fights. If two wolves are having it out, I may go between them if it gets too rough. But I try not to, since I risk being attacked.”
Werner established the snowy, 25-acre wolf sanctuary in 1972, and has raised more than 70 animals since then. Currently, there are about 29 of them at Wolfspark. There’s a video that shows Werner playing around with his wolves and it’s sweet to see how well humans and animals can really get along. If you thought it was only in the movies that wolf-men transformed into wolves, well, Werner is the perfect example it can happen in real life (minus the CGI effects, of course).. “Yes, I’m an animal,” he says quite cheerfully. “When I’m not with the wolves, of course I’m human; but with the wolves, I’m a wolf.”