Field Notes

This is an interview I gave about my upcoming film,  Maggie and Me: My Life with the Wolves, to LifeOnTERRA in September 2014.

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Tell us a little about your current project.

Have you ever been licked on the face by a wolf? I first experienced it at an educational program in Boulder, CO. After the director of Mission:Wolf (a captive wolf sanctuary) spoke about wolf biology, behavior & reintroduction, he brought a live ambassador wolf named Rami into the room. Everyone held their breath as she wandered around the room, picking just a few people out of the audience to greet. I was one of the lucky few, and I’ll never forget the intensity of her bright yellow eyes as she touched her nose to mine. That moment, coming eye-to-eye with Rami and feeling her tongue on my cheek, changed the course of my life. It taught me just how powerful a single moment of connection, of profound understanding, can be between a person and a wild animal.

Now, nearly 15 years later, I’m working on a film that explores this bond. Two new rescued wolf pups named Tiger and Rosie are growing up at Mission:Wolf, trying to learn how to be ambassadors, and I’ve spent much of the last year filming their exploits. Delving into their story, and that of my time living at the sanctuary and travelling as a wolf handler, will hopefully create a rich picture of what can happen when humans and wild animals come together, accepting each other for what we each really are.

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What exactly is Mission:Wolf?

Mission:Wolf is a sanctuary for captive-born wolves and wolf-dog crosses, deep in the mountains of southern Colorado. Lots people think that since wolves are related to dogs, that they can be kept as pets, movie stars, and guard dogs. Sadly, it’s just not true. The wolves are inevitably killed or abandoned because they destroy the house, become escape artists or chase the neighbor’s cats. Mission:Wolf provides a peaceful home for up to 40 of these failed pets, and works to educate people about the realities of captive wolves, wild wolf ecology, and sustainable living. I lived at Mission: Wolf for six years, working as their education director and animal caretaker. Each new season brought it’s own rewards and challenges: hordes of summer visitors, surviving the winter snows in a tipi, saying goodbye to resident wolves as they passed away from old age, cutting up a thousand pounds (literally) of meat for the wolves each week, and raising orphaned wolf puppies.

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So, I heard you lived on a bus with wolves?

Yep… during my first summer at the refuge, we took in two homeless wolf puppies named Maggie and Raven. They were extras from a movie project who were essentially abandoned to live in a tiny pen the size of a chicken coup. The day they arrived at Mission: Wolf, the two bewildered pups stumbled into our kitchen and promptly fell asleep on my feet. When September rolled around, instead of returning to the real world and looking for a sensible job, I climbed onto the Wolf Bus with Maggie, Raven, and a couple of other brave wolves. The next six weeks turned into a crash-course in puppy development, human psychology, public relations, governmental bureaucracy, and childhood education.

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What’s surprised you the most about filming at Mission:Wolf?

I think I’ve been most surprised by how easy it’s been to go back. I was really nervous about returning to the refuge for this project for a number of reasons… working with a new staff that I’d never met, wondering if any of the wolves would remember me, and, more than anything, how I’d cope with so many of “my” wolves having passed away since I left. But the new staff and volunteers have been incredibly welcoming and really excited about my film. The wolves greeted me like a long-lost family member. And while I still haven’t worked up the courage to visit the ridge-top graveyard where all of the past wolves are buried, it’s been wonderful getting to know the new kids on the block. Now my only worry is how I’ll tear myself away from little Rosie, Tiger and the rest of the sanctuary when it’s time to work on a new film.

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Give us a behind the scenes snapshot of what life is like in the field.

Haha… where do I start? I’m guessing that life behind the scenes at Mission: Wolf is rather different than most shoots. Since I worked there for so many years, I’ve ended up splitting my time between filming and helping run the refuge. On any given day at the sanctuary I can be found: answering emails, giving tours to visitors and school groups, cooking for a crew of 15, attending staff meetings, leash training wolf-dogs for fire evacuation, cleaning and filling wolf water tubs, leading fence-building projects, butchering a dead cow and hauling buckets of meat to the wolves, writing new state regulations for housing captive wild animals, restocking merchandise in the visitor’s center, feeding and grooming our six rescued horses, and helping supervise visitors as they meet the ambassador wolves. All the while trying to film the chaos. Filming at the sanctuary has definitely been the most fun, and by far the most challenging, project I’ve ever experienced… especially with little Tiger and Rosie taking every opportunity to tackle me, slobber on the camera, and steal the mic. At one point I was filming an interview with the director in an enclosure with some of the wolves when Rosie climbed on my shoulders from behind and started chewing on my head and pulling my hair while Tiger kept ramming his face into the camera. It’s not the steadiest of shots, and there’s a rather large nose-print on the lens, but it definitely captures what it’s like to live with wolves.

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What type of equipment are you using?

This project presents some rather unique challenges... it’s safe to say that wolves and camera gear don’t mix well. Even though all of the wolves at the refuge were born in captivity and have grown up with humans, most are still so skittish that I’m using my Panasonic AGAC 160 with a Raynox 1.8x converter lens to shoot at the equivalent of 1200 mm to avoid scaring them. Of course, the ambassadors pose their own set of problems. They’re endlessly fascinated with the camera and the fuzzy wind covers on my mics. Rosie yanked one right off the camera last summer and had a blast playing keep-away with it. And Tiger’s favorite trick is to pluck lav mics right off of collars. So Rycote’s Overcovers have been my saving grace – they allow me to stick a lav to the inside of someone’s shirt, safe from the wolves’ teeth.

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Have you had any particularly rewarding moments while filming?

There’ve been so many! But maybe the most memorable and meaningful for me was the first day we introduced the pups to the adult ambassador wolves. I’d been at the refuge for about two months, filming the pups every day to capture their adorable antics and get them used to the camera. Now that they were big enough to climb on the kitchen counter and wreak havoc in the house it was time for them to move outside. But, little Rosie and Tiger were so overwhelmed by the big wolves that they didn’t know what to do with themselves. Tiger eventually hunkered down in a corner, ears flattened and tail tucked in submission as the other wolves sniffed his back. Rosie, on the other hand, ran in giant circles trying to get away before finally leaping into my lap. She stayed put for the rest of the afternoon, counting on me for protection from the monsters. I’ve never been so flattered in my life… and while holding a wolf pup in my lap made focusing the camera rather difficult, it also lead to some of the best footage I could have asked for.

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How much of the field production work are you personally involved in?

I’m essentially doing all of the field production myself, having spent much of the last year and a half living at Mission:Wolf filming and bonding with the pups. While I wish I had a crew, my budget is small and it would be hard to ask them to live in a tent at 9000 ft. at the end of a 14-mile-long dirt road, butcher livestock, teach large groups of little kids, only shower once a week, and brave weather extremes ranging from 100 degree blistering sun to bone-chilling ice fog for months on end. At the same time, it’s also hard to beat getting kisses from a wolf puppy or falling asleep to the sound of 38 wolves howling goodnight… it’s a rather magical place, and a great place to remember what’s essential in life.

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Have you encountered any crazy or dangerous moments in the field?

So far, the most danger I’ve faced has been being loved-to-death by the wolf puppies. As they reached 2 months old and grew steadier on their little legs, Tiger and Rosie started jumping (literally) at the chance to meet people. They didn’t realize that my skin wasn’t as tough as theirs, so they took to nipping my nose and lips with their needle-sharp baby teeth when saying hi. One morning, Tiger hurled himself at my face as he was running down a hill even though I was sitting down. His huge paws hit first (ooofff), then his teeth (ouch), then the weight of the rest of his body (gah). Try catching a flying wolf puppy while holding onto a camera!

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What does the immediate future hold for you after Mission: Wolf?

That would be editing all of the footage! Since the refuge is completely off the grid and operates off of solar power, I can’t really do any editing for my thesis while I’m there. I’m also hoping to get hold of the historic video tapes of the refuge over the last 25 years, as well as some coverage of Ambassador programs from the last couple of years and go-pro footage that shows the wolf’s perspective of a program. So, my immediate future seems to include many, many hours sitting in the edit bay on the computer.

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What is your favorite aspect of filmmaking?

My favorite part of filmmaking is crafting the story… whether that means writing the proposal, treatment and script, shooting the footage, or creating the final soundscape.  While the process of finding your story amongst hours and hours of footage can be unbelievably daunting and frustrating, seeing the final product, the story you envisioned, come to life on the screen is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

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What's your dream project?

Really, finally getting to make this film about Mission:Wolf is a dream come true. The time I spent traveling with the ambassador wolves and seeing the profound effect they have on the people they meet is what convinced me to go into film in the first place. While I don’t expect any film to take the place of real, genuine experiences with nature or wildlife, I hope that they can fill in the gaps. There just isn’t enough time or resources for Tiger, Rosie and the rest of the ambassador wolves to meet everyone face-to-face and create the same level of connection I experienced with Rami all those years ago. Ultimately, I want to create films that explore the complex relationships between humans and animals and promote wildlife conservation.

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What has MSU's Science & Natural History Filmmaking program been like for you?

The program and all of the people associated with it have been wonderful! I am continually inspired to push myself further and try more and more challenging projects. I think we’re all trying to impress each other and live up to the amazing projects that have come before. I’ve always wanted to make this film about the wolves, but the MFA program is what gave me the skill and confidence to finally tackle it. Perhaps my favorite thing about the program has been the unique opportunities it’s given me… I got to work with Bob Landis & Bill Campbell on my last film, and I just watched my very first shot to make it onto broadcast TV in a National Geographic show (coincidentally on a solar-powered TV at the Mission: Wolf sanctuary)!

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If you could be any animal, what would it be?

I think I'd be an albatross. They're beautiful birds and the freedom of floating and flying on the ocean winds would be wonderful.

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