Seacrest Wolf Preserve offers an unforgettable experience
Words by Cara D. Clark
If you ask Lindsey Banks, Little Red Riding Hood of fable fame was a liar. As director and licensee of Seacrest Wolf Preserve in northwest Florida, Banks is leading a mission to debunk the old stories that cast wolves as villains.
“In stories told about wolves, they huffed and puffed and blew the little pigs' houses down, or they ate Grandma in Little Red Riding Hood,” Banks says. “Wolves are misunderstood. They’re very social, and we’ve seen that they can die of a broken heart. Wolves are also incredibly smart animals. They’re frontal cortexes are larger than ours. And they do everything they can to avoid people in the wild.”
The primal howl of a wolf calls out to something atavistic in humans, perhaps harking back to those days when mankind forged a bond with canis lupus thousands of years ago. Despite that long-standing relationship, the native wolf population in the Southeast has long been silenced, and Seacrest Wolf Preserve’s mission is to reconnect with what has been lost.
“Seacrest offers an educational opportunity that is so unique,” Banks says. “We’re one of the larger preserves in the lower forty-eight states, and guests are allowed to be part of the pack. These wolves have been imprinted on, so they are highly human-social, but not domesticated. When people meet them, you see a variety of responses. The biggest response is that people who have been scared of these animals for one reason or another are no longer afraid. The big bad wolf isn’t scary when you get a kiss from one.”
With a mission of “Education through Preservation,” Seacrest aims to build a bridge between native wildlife and humans, creating an understanding and appreciation of the role these creatures play in an ecosystem that mankind has unbalanced.
“Wolves are a phenomenal keystone species,” Banks says. “We’ve killed them out in Florida. But they are so important to our ecosystem. Everything is entwined. You need predators to keep everything in check. If you get rid of the fox, the mice population will grow.”
Banks says red wolves were native to southern states from Florida to Tennessee and have been killed out to a critically endangered level with no populations in Florida or Alabama. Many of the wolves at Seacrest have been born on site through educational breeding programs.
The preserve includes North American grey wolves, timber wolves, the British Columbian wolf and the Arctic wolf.
With twenty-two wolves on the property—divided into packs—guests engage in an immersive experience with the wolf ambassadors in the reservation-only educational tours.
It’s a multi-faceted learning experience,” Banks explains. “It’s tactile learning, verbal learning, visual learning. We give people all of the information and answer any question. When they actually hear the wolves howl or have a wolf put its paws on their shoulder, they’re amazed.”
The preserve was founded in 1999 when a conservation-driven couple, Wayne and Cynthia Watkins, saw an opportunity to rescue a wolf neglected in a northern zoo and had ample space on their 430-acre property in Chipley, Florida. Neighbors began to hear the wolf howl and were curious about the efforts underway nearby. As visitors came to see the wolf in person, Seacrest was born as a preserve for these creatures who are antecedents of the modern-day dog.
The current nonprofit preserve sits on roughly seventy leased acres of large natural enclosures with ponds and varied terrain, allowing the wolves to fish and swim as they would in the wild.
Donations through visits, monetary gifts, and online gift shop purchases provide funding to feed the carnivores a diverse raw diet of chicken, hamburger, lobster, pork, and scallops.
“In the wild, these are feast-or-famine creatures who may go a week without eating,” Banks says. “Feed-ups here are one of my favorite times of the day. These guys get hand-fed, and they can be finicky. Some like the meat bone-in and some bone-out. One wolf will not eat pork with a bone. They have unique tastes and personalities, just like people.”
Banks says that in the wild, wolves generally have a lifespan of three years, while those in the preserve live as long as seventeen years.
“These animals are the staff’s family,” she says. “The bond you build with these animals is one of the most unique and incredible things I’ve ever experienced.”
Banks, a vet tech who visited Seacrest as a paying guest in the VIP experience with the wolves, says she never left. She immediately started volunteering at the organization and then was hired as a staff member.
In 2016, the Seacrest rescue began taking on other animals, including foxes, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, and Virginia opossums. Sometimes, they find people have left animals at the gate—either because they took them on as pets and couldn’t handle the responsibility or found them in the wild.
The small animals also play a role as ambassadors to help people learn an appreciation of the wild creatures with whom we share our world. The coyotes are not part of the interactive experience and have a more solitary nature.
“Coyotes, like wolves, are very misunderstood,” Banks says. “We’ve encroached on their territory so much that they are having to adapt to living in neighborhoods. We talk about the importance of coexisting with them. We have killed the wolf population, which would have kept the coyote population in check. We’ve done a lot of disservice to wild animals and created the problems that exist with coyotes.”
Private VIP tours are available for a minimum of two people. The cost is $250 for the first two and $150 for each additional guest. Learn more at www.seacrestwolfpreserve.org