Wolf Therapy: “Rewolfing the Heart”

“I am not what you think you see. I am the wolf.” – Hansol Jung, Wolf Play

“Many people talk about the wild heart, or ‘rewilding’ the heart, but I prefer to talk about rewolfing the heart. When was your wolf heart awake and alive?” – Teo Alfero, Wolf Connection

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In our work so far, we’ve taken a look at adoption dissolution and the potentially damaging effects of such an extraordinary life event. In an earlier post, Ilana noted that one of the ways individuals survive through post-traumatic stress is by dissociation. In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk also calls this depersonalization. A traumatic moment can cause someone to lose some of their physical sensations, and sometimes progressively, their sense of themselves. Healing begins with reconnecting the body’s sensations with a sense of safety.

As Wolf Play unfolds, Jeenu reveals that he is not a child, but a wolf: first to the audience, then to Ash and Robin. It’s clear from the start that his connection to the animal goes far beyond a childhood infatuation: he relates to the wolf because of its capacity to survive in extreme circumstances. But why a wolf? Why not another powerful, fighting animal, like a lion, a cheetah, or a bear? Wolves are resilient, cunning, and adaptive, all qualities important for Jeenu: “The wolf knows that he is alone, that all he has is his paws and his cunning to survive in the ever-changing environment.” There’s something about the spirit of the wolf that keeps Jeenu grounded, even in the tumultuous moments of being re-homed.

Photo by Yannick Menard 

We don’t know if Jeenu has ever seen a wolf in person, but people who have say that the experience can be awe-inspiring. In Acton, California, less than two hours outside of Los Angeles, an organization called Wolf Connection provides people with the opportunity to come face-to-face with a pack of wolf-dog hybrids. Their work, termed “Wolf Therapy,” is accessible for individuals, companies, and other groups who are seeking an experience that could connect them with nature, but at their core, they are a youth empowerment program for kids and teens who have faced trauma — not unlike Wolf Play‘s Jeenu. The group’s founder, Teo Alfero, published a book in 2019 (The Wolf Connection), in which he talks about the principles and methods that make up the therapeutic experiences offered at their ranch. He says:

“We have personal histories and experiences that influence the choices we have made and will make. But we humans often distort or repress our past experiences, which renders the truth of who we are and where we are in our lives elusive… Experiencing a living wolf may not be possible for most people, but I believe that connecting with the real-life stories of wolves and humans can help us reawaken our wolf heart and reconnect with our life purpose.”

Just like how dogs can be great service animals or emotional support animals, wolves have some of that same natural intuition to nurture and comfort another being in need. The folks at Wolf Connection have successfully demonstrated that being welcomed into the pack and falling into step with them on a hike, while also learning about the wolves’ stories (often the wolves have been neglected or mistreated by humans) can allow people to feel at ease with their own circumstances. The organization has helped people navigating cancer and terminal illnesses, addiction, and especially youth who are in treatment for mental illness and/or are living in an unstable environment.

Images: The Wolf Connection

Since beginning in 2009, Wolf Connection has grown in popularity, and its close proximity to Los Angeles has enticed local nature lovers and even movie stars. Comedian Whitney Cummings, who after the death of her father was looking for an experience that would guide her through her grief, found Wolf Connection and penned a beautiful piece in the New York Times about her experience:

“The night before, I went into a wormhole of wolf photos for inspiration, but nothing prepares you for seeing a real [wolf], much less touching one. So much of what we look at now is airbrushed, laced with a complimentary filter and color-corrected, but encountering a wolf in the flesh makes you realize how all those ersatz finishes, meant to improve the image, actually kind of ruins it. In the quest to make things flawless and beautiful, we remove the grit and spirit, the qualities that actually make them interesting.”

The marks of a wolf — their coarse, mesmerizing coat, their earthy, calming scent, and their piercing gaze — can open the heart, and protect the soul.

“Wolves are an extremely adaptable species. Wolf is one of the few that survived the last ice age. Pluck from the desert and throw into a sea a wolf will never drown a wolf will survive.

But it takes TIME.

It takes TIME.”

A Guide to the Legal Terms in Wolf Play

In rehearsal, we’ve been digging into the feelings and intentions behind the characters’ actions, and how they affect young Jeenu. We have come to realize that while Jeenu’s situation is deeply complicated, the adults around him are all acting out of their own version of “extreme love.” Although Ryan and Ash both have reservations about getting a child from an unregulated internet forum, Robin says to Ryan, “Why? Because we’re bypassing some kind of institutional governmental system?” She sees Jeenu’s photo on the post online, and feels compelled to rescue him from the internet and bring him into their home. Regardless of how he wound up on this platform, he is there and in need of a family.

From the other side, we’ve learned about some of the reasons why Peter and Katie decided to re-home Jeenu using the internet, rather than working through official government channels. Peter says that if they went to court, “he might slip into the cracks of the system, so it’s just simpler, this way, it seems? And uh, affordable, a lot more.” The latter point speaks to the crux of why families, like the ones reported on in the Reuters exposé, turn to unregulated re-homing: adoption and family law can be wildly expensive. When Peter changes his mind, however, and his interactions with Shephard-Michaels clan escalate, we do see him place his faith into the court system, which he was originally so ready to renounce.

Because this practice is murky legally, it’s important for us to understand how it works, and just how much the characters in Wolf Play understand what they’re taking part in. This post serves as a glossary for some of the legal terms used in the play’s account of Jeenu’s re-homing. While not all reported instances of this phenomenon occur exactly the same way, these components are crucial in our understanding of what happens to Jeenu.

[Illustration by Dante Terzigni for City Journal]

Adoption dissolution: the termination of a previously legalized adoption. This phenomenon is often lumped together with the term adoption disruption, which more accurately is when an adoption already-in-process ends before it is legally finalized. For our purposes, Jeenu is going through the dissolution of his adoption by Peter and Katie and is in the process of being “re-homed” elsewhere.

Power of Attorney contract (pg. 11) – delegates authority for the care of a child (such as the right to consent to medical treatment for
the child and to enroll the child in school) to the new
caregiver. It is not intended to transfer custody permanently, and is most often employed when a parent cannot care for their child for a period of time, such as due to illness or military deployment. Also called durable power of attorney (pg. 88).

Affidavit of waiver of interest in child (pg. 13) – a formal document used in certain states when a parent desires to relinquish all parental rights to their child. Not official unless signed by a judge or court official. In Wolf Play, the affidavit that Robin signs is notarized by a government official in the state of Arizona, although it does not meet the state’s laws for adoption and custody transfers. Usually, both parties involved with the notarization of this waiver would need to be present at the time of signing, so in this circumstance we don’t exactly know how official this document actually is.

Information fraud (pg. 85) – the act of misrepresenting oneself and one’s personal information on any legal documents. Peter accuses Robin of lying about her marital status with Ash, and tries to use this as a way to prove their wrongdoing and inability to take care of Jeenu.

Domestic partner (pg. 88) – Peter describes Ash as Robin’s “domestic partner” which intentionally delegitimizes Ash and Robin’s marriage. Although what Robin states on page 87 is correct – “Under the federal laws, state laws forbidding joint adoption by same-sex couples is illegal,” the judge cites their “non-traditional family structure,” as a stress on Jeenu’s emotional wellbeing.

Petitioner (pg. 85) – the party who is bringing a case or argument to the court

Speculation (pg. 85) – an objection made in court when a witness is prompted to answer a question that they may not know the answer to, thus potentially creating false information.

Temporary custody of the state (pg. 88) – when parents lose custody of a child, or a child is without any familial guardian, the state in which the child lives must assume custody of the child until they are placed with an adoptive family. When in the care of a foster parent or home, treatment facility, or group home, the state usually retains custody of the child.

Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children – a contract between all 50 states that aims to keep track of the cases of children in the foster care and adoption systems, even when the child is being moved across different states. This ensures a structure for deciding who is responsible for the care of a child who is moved out of state jurisdiction.

In our production, we imagine that the scene in court takes place in California, because we see Jeenu back at home with Robin and Ash in San Francisco the next day. In the court systems of California, adoptions (both with an agency and independent) must be legalized in the presence of a licensed social worker and two witnesses. Also in both circumstances, a home-study of the adoptive family must be performed by the county or state department of social services (and this usually costs around $4,500 in fees, excluding attorney or counseling fees). So although we still have some questions regarding exactly how the exchange of Jeenu’s custody and the notarization of the documents manages to go unnoticed by the legal system, we know that his re-homing does not comply with California’s adoption laws.

At the center of these adults’ decisions, whether initiated out of this “extreme love,” or something else, is a human life, a boy. First brought to a new home in America from South Korea, and then released to whoever on the internet happened to find and connect with his post, Jeenu is on the hunt for stability and peace. Designed to keep children safe and cared for, the legal system, while imperfect, prevents a child like him from being put though any trauma or harm, and in Wolf Play, we see what happens when challenging the system goes too far out of bounds for an easy solution to come about.