Mark Johnson – the wolf whisperer

By Anthony Welch

Mark “Wolf” Johnson never set out to open a wolf rescue.

Back in 1996, a friend of Johnson called and said he had some wolf pups.

“I said, ‘I want one,’” he said.

So Johnson and his late wife Cheryl took in the 4 ½-week old hybrid wolf Cheyenne into their home.

“She was going to be my only wolf, because of all the legal problems of owning a wolf. Next thing you know, I’m rescuing wolves and wolf dogs,” he added. “When I first got Cheyenne, I had never had a wolf. I didn’t know much about them. I started buying books and reading and learning all the things I could.”

And so the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation was established in 2001. The rescue, located in Guffey, has rescued 50 animals since that time, according to Johnson. Cheyenne quickly became the face of the rescue and became known as “the healing wolf,” because of her ability to connect with peoples’ emotions and needs, Johnson said.

“People saw what I was doing with Cheyenne and they started bringing me animals,” Johnson said. “I just started taking them in and helping them all I could.”

Cheyenne passed away Feb. 2, 2009, but met more than 22,000 people in her lifetime, according to Johnson. One example of how Cheyenne touched peoples’ lives was a hiker who lost his toes to frostbite during a failed hiking trip in the mountains.

After meeting Cheyenne, the hiker returned to hike that same trail that cost him his toes to heal emotionally. The hiker credited Cheyenne for encouraging him, Johnson said. Cheyenne was also a key companion to Cheryl in her final days, as she fell victim to cancer.

The nonprofit organization is committed to the caring for and survival of wolves in as natural an environment as possible. It provides sanctuary and rehabilitation for wolves who have suffered from injuries or abuse, and permanent sanctuary for those unable to be released back into the wild. The organization relies on financial and volunteer donations.

Johnson offers private tours of the rescue to the public – free of charge. Tours are by reservation only. Of course, donations are welcomed and there are T-shirts, hats, posters and other souvenirs available for purchase.

“I enjoy the education part of offering tours,” he said. “I can change people’s minds many times. They come up here with many negative thoughts about wolves and then I change it.”

The tours get people up close and personal with some of the wolves. That includes going into their pens, petting them and getting kissed by them.

“Let wolves kiss you. If you back away, it’s an insult,” Johnson added.

On this writer’s visit to the rescue, my wife Ashley and son Jaxson thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the wolves. My son’s favorite – Thor – is a huge beast of a wolf who has throat issues, which affects his bark and sometimes his eating, according to Johnson.

Nevertheless, the animal was quick to come in for some petting and gave my son a huge kiss.

“He just got ‘Thor-ed,’” Johnson said. “We have shirts that say that. We did time him one time, and he ate an entire chicken in 19 seconds.”

The animal then rolled over on his back, much like a dog, allowing my Ashley and Jaxson to rub his belly.

Johnson gives four tours a day in the fall and spring, five a day in the summer and two a day during the winter. He and his current wife Catherine live on the property. They live off their social security. All donations and money made in the gift shop go to the wolves. Volunteers aren’t paid, however they’re fed.

The couple makes trips down to Colorado Springs every Monday and Friday, where the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market on South Academy donates all its old meat.

“My wolves eat better than I do. The other day they had filet mignon, they had brisket, they had crab cakes,” Johnson said. “I’m stuck with Ramen. It’s a good thing I went to college. I know how to cook ramen.”

It takes around $50,000 a year to operate the rescue. The 35 acres it sits on outside of Guffey was donated to Johnson. He’s currently trying to raise money to purchase a larger, 188-acre chunk of land down the road, so that he can take in more animals. The past few years, Johnson has had to turn away a number of wolves due to lack of room.

He also has hopes to build dorms and a kitchen for volunteers who help out at the rescue. Thus far, he’s raised around $100,000, he said. There is a GoFundMe link online where people can donate: https://www.gofundme.com/f/188-acres-for-rmwf.

Many of the animals Johnson takes in have been abused and neglected. It sometimes takes a while to socialize them with people. Johnson has been bitten a dozen times or so, but it’s never been anything too serious.

“The bites don’t hurt,” he said. “What hurts is the numbing shots they give me at the hospital.”

Before opening the rescue, Johnson, who turns 72 soon, worked a variety of jobs.

“You name it, I’ve done it. I watched my dad who for 37 years worked the same job, didn’t really like it and didn’t get promoted for the top position. I learned it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Johnson said. “I’ve done anything and everything I wanted to do. I’ve been in real estate, I’ve been in retail, used to restore and operate steam locomotives for a living.”

That included working on trains for television shows “Wild Wild West,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Bonanza,” “Little House on the Prairie” and ran the trains for the movie “Back to the Future 3.” Johnson was also a volunteer firefighter for 30 years.

Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation’s motto is: “Dedicated to the preservation of those who came before us.” That’s been Johnson’s passion for the past 18 years.

“We encourage an interest in and an understanding of wolves by providing opportunities for people of all ages to interact with wolves and learn about them, how to live safely with wildlife and to understand the important role we humans have in the continual survival of wolf populations,” he said.

Volunteers are always welcomed – of all ages!

“We have an 82-year-old who comes to help from Phoenix,” Johnson added.

To volunteer, visit http://www.rmwf.org/volunteer.html. To make a donation, visit http://www.rmwf.org/donate.html.

To schedule a tour, call 719-660-5480. Visit the foundation’s website at Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation.

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