By Faye Roland
Some people bring home stray cats and dogs, but almost 30 years ago, Nancy Smith brought home a black leopard. Moondance, the young 3-legged leopard, became the first inhabitant of what is known as Shy Wolf Sanctuary in Collier County. Tucked back on a dead-end road in Golden Gate Estates, the sanctuary is a haven for rescued, abandoned, and unwanted exotic animals. Nancy and Kent Smith, now in their 70s, share their home and the few acres surrounding it with up to 60 animal residents and a daily rotation of dedicated volunteers.
The Shy Wolf Sanctuary defines its mission as: “To heal hearts and minds through rescue, sanctuary, and education.” The resident population is predominantly wolves and wolfdogs, but also a Florida panther, a rare New Guinea Singing Dog, and smaller animals such as raccoons and foxes. Many come from owners who find that exotic creatures don’t make good pets when after about a year, Nancy Smith explains, the unusual pet “starts to think for itself.” She lovingly describes the resident animals as “the bottom of the throwaways,” being neither wild nor domesticated.
On a cool Saturday morning recently, while proudly telling a visitor that she is “not just a grandmother, but a great-grandmother,” Nancy Smith shovels fresh sand into the spacious cage of Rocket, one of the resident raccoons. Wearing black jeans, a sweatshirt with Shy Wolf logo and high rubber boots, Smith fits right in with the many volunteers who swarm around the property with wheelbarrows, rakes, and shovels. She commends the volunteers, ages 18 to 80, for their service. “They do everything, and they’re all here because they love the animals.” She adds that the process of caring for distressed animals and earning their trust is a healing process for both the animals and the volunteers.
Volunteer JoAnn Burns concurs, saying, “We get back so much more from these animals than we give.” Sitting on the ground stroking Mohan, one of the ambassador wolfdogs who visits schools and other facilities, Burns adds, “Going home and taking a shower at the end of the day is good, but the best part of my day is being here.”
The greatest reward, says longtime volunteer Judy Rakocinski, is when an animal that has been abused and traumatized “finally comes up and gives you wolf kisses.” Along with hands-on animal care, volunteer opportunities include community outreach and administrative tasks. The planning for a November fundraising event called “Wolfstock” is underway; volunteer support is also needed for that.
The sanctuary is in the process of purchasing a larger piece of land not far from its current location. It is expected that next spring, the reserve will move to a 17-acre property with buildings that can be repurposed while new construction takes place. The increase in space will allow community participation and educational programs to be expanded, and will open up new opportunities for volunteering.
Note: Because Shy Wolf Sanctuary is a private facility, walk-in visitors are not accepted.
More information is available at shywolfsanctuary.org or call 855-SHY-WOLF
A longtime teacher, Faye Roland began her writing career as a Boston Globe contributor and editor of corporate newsletters. She now works at The Village School in Naples and tutors students in Language Arts.