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.”