GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Visitors at the sanctuary are greeted with a chorus of howls from wolves penned on both sides of a dirt path. On the way in, the incessant howling is what co-founder John …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Visitors at the sanctuary are greeted with a chorus of howls from wolves penned on both sides of a dirt path. On the way in, the incessant howling is what co-founder John Knight calls a conversation between packs, alerting other wolves that the guest is not a familiar face.
At Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary, 60 wolves dwell in separate enclosures the size of football fields, with underground dens, pools and wooden structures that resemble wolf jungle gyms. They feast on about 300 pounds of meat a week. Knight interacts with each wolf every day.
Whatever pop culture says about wolves, the 10-arce Big Oak Wolf sanctuary is a peaceful place. In 13 years running the sanctuary with his wife Debra, Knight has had 13 surgeries. He’s still recovering from an accident prior to Hurricane Irma that left him with a broken clavicle. It all started with two wolves.
The sanctuary’s wolves have a multitude of personalities and backgrounds. Some are abused and neglected, so they are aggressive and always on edge. Some freeze and others quickly pace the fence line of their enclosure.
Other wolves have had few negative interactions with humans, but they’re still leery. Though they look the part, Knight’s wolfdogs are affable and approach a stranger without hesitation.
A wolf’s brain is estimated to be 30 percent larger than a dog’s brain. Knight likens their intelligence closer to humans and lions. Wolves are the one animal that shouldn’t be shown off in a circus, he said. He pointed out the sanctuary is not a zoo and accepts money from donations.
“Wolves are the one animal in the planet that should not be exhibited,” Knight said.
An example is Knight’s relationship with the arctic wolf Kyra. He took her in when she was badly abused, in poor health and quick to strike. Though she responded to the positive care Knight provided, he noted she is very dangerous. He shows the scars to prove it, but not without a smile to show it’s worth it.
“All it takes is one look in your eye or one mannerism to trigger (wolves),” Knight said.
Knight, 58, has documented his journey with the wolves in his 576-page book, “The Sanctuary.” Knight had a tumultuous childhood with an abusive mother and a strict religious childhood, and he dealt with his issues later in life with substance abuse. Through loving the wolves and gaining their acceptance, Knight said the major lesson of the book was overcoming a traumatic past through finding acceptance through God in a similar way – from condemnation to grace.
In addition to his past as a body building champion, Mr. Jacksonville 1994, and writer of fitness, nutrition and golf programs, Knight wrote the book for people who suffer from condemnation and fear from religion, and who were afflicted or affected from addiction like he was.
“Abused wolves will come into a pack and transfer anger issues onto their pack mates, who pass it on to other packs next to them. The disease of addiction is passed on, in thinking and behavior, to afflicted and affected members to pass it onto their children, who become afflicted,” Knight said. “Your grandfather could be an alcoholic and your mother not have any issues with alcohol, but the thinking and behavior is passed to (her son) who is using opiates.”
A product of fire and brimstone sermons, Knight said he only recognized God through fear at a young age. With that environment, he never thought he was good enough and felt the need to constantly prove himself. The experiences with wolves, Knight said, was like God telling him, “This is the way I feel about you, not the way she told you I felt about you.”
“I want to paint a clear picture of God’s grace for people through Jesus of how the wolves respond to grace extended to them,” Knight said.
As a wolf and wolfdog pace his backyard in union, one in front of the other with a periodic howl, Knight wonders what the world would be like if families and workplaces talked to each other about sensitive issues more and confessed their faults. Pride is the problem, he adds, and humility is the solution.
Knight said the $85 book is a donation that will help with day to day operations, feed the wolves and pay for veterinary expenses. He said it takes about $6,000 a month to adequately run and staff the sanctuary with two full-time employees and three part-time employees.
“It’s been an incredible journey out here,” Knight said. “The learning curve is on us and we adjust ourselves for [the wolves’] needs. We meet them where they are.”
The book is available at bigoakwolfsanctuary.org.