Students at The Sycamore School, a small K-4 independent school on Las Flores Canyon Road, were in for a real learning experience last week when a pack of wolves showed up to campus. Actually, it was a group of wolf-dog hybrids that serve as wolf ambassadors for the nonprofit Apex Protection Project. Loki, Kona, Taboo and Thor have all been rescued and trained by Paula Ficara and Steve Wastell, co-founders of the organization. Apex specializes in rescuing, rehabilitating and relocating captive-bred wolf mixes.
Apex gave a classroom presentation at Sycamore explaining wolf behavior, and showing the students how and where they could touch the wolves. The children observed the wolves outside during the talk; afterward they were allowed to meet the animals up close and personal for an unforgettable experience.
Ficara and Wastell said they have always been interested in wildlife — wolves in particular — and began volunteering at a small wolfdog rescue start-up in LA County in 2009. They eventually left their former careers to become full-time staff members there, and started their own nonprofit rescue organization in 2014 — the Apex Protection Project, located outside Palmdale. Over the years, they have helped more than 75 wolves and wolfdogs, along with developing educational programs and advocating for wolves.
The pair have also presented their educational program to MUSE School, another private independent school near Malibu, and are actively guiding students there who have taken on wolves as a “passion project.” One of the Apex board members is Suzi Landolphi, co-founder of the local Big Heart Ranch; and an Apex fundraiser was held last fall at Malibu Wines.
“Malibu has been very welcoming and open to us,” Ficara said. In fact, they’re looking to move to a cooler climate more suitable for wolves, and their dream would be to have someone offer a space in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The wolfdogs that come to Apex originate from all over the U.S. via a nationwide network of rescue organizations. The animals often end up at shelters, where state laws prohibit them from being adopted out — only a USDA certified organization and/or a 501(c)3 with permits can claim a wolf-mix because of their specialized requirements.
Ficara and Wastell say wolfdog hybrids exist because breeders create them on purpose — it’s illegal to sell a purebred wolf, but not a dog-wolf mix. Wolves are typically bred with Malamutes or German Shepherds because they look similar to wolves. People buy them as pets when they’re cute puppies, but often end up getting rid of them when they’re about a year old.
“That’s when their wolfie behavior starts coming out,” Wastell said. “They have a strong prey drive, they’re super smart, they’re escape artists and they’re skittish — not the best house pet.”
The daily routine with the wolfdogs cared for by Apex includes off-leash hikes in remote areas, including the established pack that visits schools.
“We’ve been pretty successful at building a pack of five that hang out — most are able to play together and spend time together,” Ficara said. “When we bring in a new animal, we keep them on their own for one or two weeks [in an outside enclosure]. Then we start taking them on hikes with the others on a leash. That’s how they bond, but it sometimes takes up to two years.”
When asked what the neighbors think of their wolf-hybrids, they said, “We’ve been really lucky — we live out in the middle of nowhere in a ranching community where everyone seems to have unusual animals — [like] camels. The wolfdogs don’t bark like dogs, and don’t howl that often. Our next-door neighbor’s kids think they’re cool.”
Part of Apex’s outreach and advocacy efforts for wolves includes meeting with ranchers and farmers in various states to dispel the many irrational fears that still surround wolves, explaining “the wolf is not a mythical beast coming to kill you and your family.” Apex offers solutions and ways to co-exist.
It is just such fears that could eventually doom all wolves — allowing them to be shot on sight and even from the air by helicopters in a number of states, which is bringing them closer and closer to extinction.
For more info about Apex, go to apexprotectionproject.org.