When Annette Johnson sought solace after the deaths of her parents, she turned to an unusual source: Wolves. But, before you question her lucidity, you might want to get to know her “friends” in this keystone species — and they’re a lot closer than you realize.
Seacrest Wolf Preserve was founded in 1999 and, more than two decades later, it has grown from a small rescue to a large preserve situated on a vast tract of land just 45 minutes outside of Panama City.
“When I first came out here, I was in a bad place in my life because of all that had happened,” said Annette Johnson, a volunteer-turned-educator at the preserve. Johnson’s father passed away in 2009 and her mother roughly four years ago. “I mean, it was like they knew that I was going through some things and the loving that they gave me got me out of that and gave me a reason to keep going.”
Johnson has been a wolf fanatic all of her life and said she felt “adopted” by one of Seacrest Wolf Preserve’s tenants, Apache, from her earliest visits.
“It was Forest. He was the first one I ever had that bond with. And, then after he passed away, Apache kind of took me under his wing. That’s my boy,” Johnson said.
Lindsey Banks is the director of the Seacrest Wolf Preserve. After growing up on a large farm in Georgia and working for a time as a veterinary technician, the transition to working with wolves every day was practically second nature.
“They’re very misjudged creatures. Hollywood has turned them into the ‘big, bad wolves.’ They huff and they puff and they blew the little pig’s house down and they ate grandma and they stole our identity,” Banks said. “But, it all ends well because Little Red Riding Hood was really a big liar.
“Wolves are incredibly human-like creatures and we don’t give them any credit for that,” she continued. “So, our mission is really preservation through education, basically building a bridge of understanding between humans and wolves.”
Seacrest Wolf Preserve occupies roughly 65 acres of a 400-plus-acre farm in northwest Florida. Today, the center houses 22 wolves although there’s a capacity for up to 60 if the need arose. Most of the wolves that call the preserve home are gray, Arctic and British Columbian species, alongside an assortment of coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks and foxes.
Part of the education component at the preserve is a hands-on learning experience where visitors can interact with the wolves — engaging in everything from muzzle kisses and cuddles to a “howl-along.” And, while it’s a great way to spend an afternoon, the important aspects of education, dispelling myths and encouraging wildlife conservation are really what it’s about.
“If I had a wishlist, man, that thing would be miles long but the biggest thing I could wish for is that more people would come out here and learn about the wolves and be a voice for them,” said Banks, who has taken a shine to Pawnee in particular.
Seacrest Wolf Preserve is always accepting monetary donations, which helps with the wolves’ food and accommodations. Other in-demand items include weed eaters, lawnmowers and freezers for food storage. You can also visit the online gift shop or “adopt a wolf” on their website at seacrestwolfpresere.org. There are numerous volunteer opportunities to pursue as well.
But, at the end of the day, it’s all about the wolves. Both women remarked about their intuition and understanding.
“We had a woman come out one time and she was pregnant and the wolves were so gentle with her. Apache would just touch her belly with his nose so gently,” Johnson said. “Dreamer, for example, would wait until she stepped away and then jump on her husband but they protected her.”
Annette said the wolves gave her a reason to keep going.
“I got here and it’s like they knew I was going through some things but the love that they give me, the way they can read you and know what you’re feeling, it totally changed my life,” she said. “There’s a healing here.”