Sunday, October 24, 2021

Shy Wolf Sanctuary

Reconnecting with Nature

You may be familiar with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” and the Big Bad Wolf, which gave wolves a bad reputation.

The fact is that most wolves shy away from people and are not aggressive toward them by nature. In Southwest Florida, Shy Wolf Sanctuary Education and Experience Center (SWS) has been a sanctuary for wolves and exotic animals for over 18 years. For those unfamiliar with the organization, its mission is to reconnect people and animals through education, and so much more.

Founder Nancy J. Smith began rescuing exotic animals, but always felt a desire to educate people and use the captive wildlife to build empathy as well as to teach responsibility and kindness. It is a simple mission to build that connection with people. So often you hear stories about animal owners relocating to a new home that does not accept pets, and leaving their pets behind. Sadly, some pets do not find another home. Chances of adoption decrease further when it is an exotic animal, not able to be released into the wild, or considered a nuisance.

“We provide a very important space for these animals to go because there’s dog and cat rescues and then there’s the zoo, but in the middle lies exotic animals,” Nancy stated. “People buy them at exotic pet stores or they get them from friends and they don’t know anything about them and they realize they bit off way more than they could chew. And some of those [animals] come here. The problem is huge.”

Smith believes that each animal provides a lesson to be understood. She has always felt a strong connection to the animals. Her first exotic rescue was a baby Black Asian Leopard in 1993, named Moonlight, who lost her left front leg because a larger cat was able to reach her cage as they were kept too close. After being saved she lived safely in the care of Smith.

In 1994 Smith saved the SWS’s first four wolves from a zoo being shut down for violations with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Fast forward to 2001 when the sanctuary was established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and Executive Director Deanna Deppen became involved. The facility now has wolves, wolfdogs, big cats, dingoes, racoons, foxes prairie dogs, and more.

Photos by Jesus Calo | A wolfdog Jenna, about four years old, was rescued from a shelter after being a stray for six weeks.

“The animals are born with a purpose, but man takes that purpose away from them a lot of times,” Deppen stated. “So, our animals here, their purpose is to educate people.”

The wolves and other furry residents have housing on a private 2.5-acre property in Naples, Florida. SWS provides a safe haven and rehabilitation to both wild and captive bred wolves, wolfdogs and other exotic animals. There are currently 85 volunteers that support all functions of the organization’s needs. There are various programs and education courses, such as the Healing Hearts Program where SWS partners with local organizations like the Children’s Network, The Woman’s Shelter and Valerie’s House. Here the animals teach people about kindness, feeling gratitude, and the courage to forgive. 

SWS has identified land and awaits zoning approval for the new 29-acre facility in Lee County in order to stay near its volunteers. Currently the animals are housed with no buildings to provide shelter in the likely case of a natural disaster. Once approved, the new sanctuary designs will be a hurricane rated building to house all animals. Storm shelters do not allow exotic animals but SWS will open its doors during a state of emergency. The design provides extra space for more kennels and equipped for temporary kennels or crates to house additional animals (including humans). The plan is to have at least 4,000 square foot habitats with a variety of enrichment that SWS does not currently have for the residents. SWS wants to extend the facility to serve as a resource to the community whether it be for first responders or other community members with their pets. There will be caretakers that provide constant care to both residents and guests.

The SWS thrives on the generosity of the public to continue its operations. Instead of an entrance fee the sanctuary collects donations. It will take plenty of fundraising and government help to reach the new facility goal.

“We truly appreciate the continued support all these years,” Deanna Deppen stated. “We really are a grassroots organization that has been supported by word of mouth and by the community. We want to build a world class facility that is unique right here in Southwest Florida available to our community as a resource in so many different ways.”

The volunteer process is fairly simple and there is always a need for help. You must be 18 or older but high school students can volunteer with parental permission. Most volunteers work in animal care but there is also a need for help coordinating fundraising events, enclosure maintenance, guest services, and help to move forward with the new facility. As SWS prepares the plans for the new location, the organization is interested in partnerships with FGCU students and all students to help design development projects. For example, biomedical engineers are needed for the expansion of a Natural Filtration System. The volunteer packet is available online and the orientation is an hour long. 

“I wish people would open their minds and open their hearts, we’re not that much different from the animals that roam the earth,” Smith commented. “All mammals, they go through neonatal transitional, socialization, juvenile and adult stages, just like what we do. They have personalities just like we do. They need to survive on this planet just like we do and for some reason man seems to think the way to dealing with something is to just kill it and that’s not the way to go. They have a right to live just like we do. There is hope.”

Shy Wolf Sanctuary connects people and animals through its education programs. To volunteer visit

The two-year-old silver tipped red fox, George, investigates the shutter sound. He was surrendered by his owner and now resides at the sanctuary.


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