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Florida preserve brings wolves, people together

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 1, 2014 at 9:39 am •  Published: August 1, 2014

CHIPLEY, Fla. (AP) — At Seacrest Wolf Preserve in northern Florida, billed as the largest such facility in the Southeast, owners Cynthia and Wayne Watkins say they raise their wolves to become accustomed to humans — and for a $25 fee, they even let visitors mingle with a wolf pack.

It lets wolves become ambassadors for their species, they say, and helps people become advocates for wolves.

"We offer one of the rarest opportunities in the world for humans to see wolves up close and personal," Cynthia Watkins says. The Watkinses estimate that Seacrest, near the small town of Chipley, gets 10,000 visitors a year.

But some wolf experts worry that Seacrest may be allowing wolves and humans to get too close.

Dave Mech, a senior research assistant with the U.S. Geological Survey who has spent decades studying wolves, says allowing visitors to enter a wolf pack enclosure isn't safe.

"They are still unpredictable because they are wild animals," he said. "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."

A worker was attacked and killed by a pack of wolves in 2012 at a wildlife park in Sweden. A Canadian biologist was killed by wolves at the Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Preserve in 1996.

Seacrest requires visitors to watch an educational video before they interact with the wolves, has trained wolf handlers on hand during every tour and doesn't allow children under 6 to take the tour, Watkins said.

"We are not some little roadside zoo," she added.

The Seacrest preserve grew out of her passion for raising huskies, the sled dogs with a wolf-like appearance. That evolved into providing a home for wolves in need of relocation and later into a captive breeding program.

The 30 gray, Arctic and British Columbian wolves, with names including Utah, Rio, Liberty and Spirit Prince, are separated into packs. Each pack has several acres to roam. On a recent afternoon, Cynthia Watkins sat on a log bench surrounded by seven howling gray wolves. Watkins joined in their howling and pet and kissed each of them.

"Little Red Riding Hood was wrong and the wolf is not the bad guy but indeed a very important keystone species," she said.

Seacrest also provides wolves to education programs around the country.

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