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Humane Society Member Shares Love of Wolf-Dogs

Jennifer Ackley has a website where you can actually hear a wolf-dog howl, and certainly it’s the only one where Dakota’s dulcet howls sound forth.

A visit to the Wolf PAWS website will introduce you to Ackley’s mission: rescuing and providing a sanctuary for unwanted, abandoned or otherwise abused wolf-dogs. Located in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains of east Tennessee, the sanctuary was founded in 2013.

"The wolf is neither man’s competitor nor his enemy. He is a fellow creature with whom the earth must be shared," says David Mech, senior scientist with the Biological Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey. You could say this is the sanctuary’s mantra.

"When I was a young girl growing up in North Carolina," Ackley said recently, "my best friend was a German shepherd. He and I would spend hours together. It was then I knew that I wanted to work with animals."

A longtime St. Thomas resident, Ackley has been active in the local Humane Society. She is all business when discussing her career at Ackley Communications, but it’s a different story when it comes to animals. The passion takes hold. She is eager to tell you about Wolf PAWS, about wolves, wolf-dogs and her other love, the less exotic white shepherds.

Ackley moved to St. Thomas after college, taken by the island’s natural beauty. "I’ve always been a water girl," she said.

She began a career with Ackley Communications starting in 1990. "It was on-the-job training, in administration, bookkeeping and management," she said. "After we consolidated some of our commercial businesses a while ago, it freed my time where I am able to pursue my own desires."

It was while serving on the board of directors at the Humane Society of St. Thomas in the 90s that Ackley began to realize her gift for working with animals. "I saw that the dogs were in need of obedience training," she said. " And they needed to learn kennel manners to become adoptable pets."

She made it her business to see the animals received that training, working with a trainer at the shelter here to help the dogs get adopted.

"I found I really enjoyed that," Ackley said. "I got a lot of satisfaction from seeing the dogs blossom under our care. I enjoyed the interaction."

In 1996 Ackley adopted a white shepherd from the Humane Society who was lost after Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. "I’d really never owned a dog," she said. "It was a new experience. I took her, Pookie, to a basic obedience class and then continued the training on my own. She was 9 at the time and she lived to be 13, when she had a stroke."

Ackley majored in psychology with a minor in animal behavior at North Carolina University at Chapel Hill, little knowing how instrumental it would become in her later vocation.

"We studied primates at a wonderful zoo, large enclosures," she said. "My main interest at the time was to understand what they were saying. We can communicate with them in a kind of body language."

This communication is a rare gift that has carried over in Ackley’s relationships with the wolf-dogs.

Her interest in wolf-dogs evolved with her husband, Gordon, who was aware of the animals and wanted the challenge of raising one. That one has now become a small family.

The challenge has now become Ackley’s life’s work. She and her husband founded Wolf PAWS in 2013 in an ideal location in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains to provide a permanent sanctuary for the wolf-dogs in a natural environment.

The organization had cause for celebration this July when it became a certified Tennessee Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation after the IRS classified it as a public charity. All contributions to Wolf PAWS are tax-deductible under section 170 of the Internal Revenue Code.

The wolf-dogs are notoriously difficult to raise, Ackley stressed. It’s not like raising a cuddly puppy. The animals are wary, intelligent and born escape artists, she said.

The dogs are not to be adopted; the sanctuary is their home. Ackley communicates with them and she can pet the animals, something other handlers cannot do. It’s a sensitive process. Ackley has paired the animals for companionship and she says they thrive on it.

The sanctuary provides an environment where the animals can be studied by individuals and educational institutions to further understand their needs. It helps dispel myths about the "Big, Bad Wolf," in order to help preserve the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) from becoming endangered once again.

Ackley said the animals get the “high life as far as wolf-dogs go and I think they know it.”

“We provide them with ponds and pools for swimming, logs and boulders to climb on, luxury sleeping accommodations and fine dining. And the enclosures are sufficiently large to allow them to run freely and get their daily dose of exercise and play."

The Wolf PAWS website depicts the dogs’ luxuriant lives in detail, along with just about anything you might want to know about the animals’ history, training and campus activities. It also has the link to Dakota’s howls.

Ackley’s continuing education services extend to Think Pawsitive Dog Training Services, which offers private training in St. Thomas as well as Tennessee. She is an active member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) and attends their annual conferences.

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