A strong gust of wind is answered by a chorus of wolf howls in Southern California's high desert.
Wearing hoodies and well-worn sneakers, city kids make their way up a mountain. Navigating the high desert terrain can be a challenge for some, and a few lag behind. Leading the way is a wolf named Malo.
For many of the teens who find their way here, Wolf Connection's Youth Empowerment Program is their last chance; they have been kicked out of school, or have been in gangs or in and out of foster homes.
When program leader Amanda Beer asks the kids for just one word to describe their strengths, those with the toughest exteriors struggle. They fidget and giggle.
Beer looks past the brims of baseball caps and scans their faces. "The wolves never doubt themselves," she says. "They always have their own back. And they also have each other's back. So, let's hear, 'This is who I am. This is my strength.' "
A tall boy who has kept his eyes focused on the ground finally speaks, softly at first, and then a second time. "Aggression," he says. At that moment the wolves in the nearby compound begin to howl. The wolves often respond this way. And when they do, the teens sitting in the circle are respectfully silent.
One of the teens is Charlie. (We're not using the last names of the juveniles because some of them are victims of abuse.) A knowing smile crosses his face. "Sometimes they howl just to encourage us, to show us, you're not alone," he says. "I've learned a lot from them, like how they deal with their traumas and stuff."
Charlie has had his own share of trauma. "When I was younger, my mom had a bad boyfriend," he says. "He was a pedophile. My mom first got with this person when I was around 5."
A human-animal connection
When the kids listen to the stories of the wolves, they often hear their own stories, says Teo Alfero, founder of Wolf Connection. "These wolves and wolf-dogs come from abuse, neglect and mistreatment. And the youth we serve come from abuse, neglect, mistreatment and abandonment."
The wolf Charlie gravitates to is Koda, who had been abused and chained to a pole as a roadside attraction in Alaska. "And I feel how Koda feels," Charlie says.
Over the course of the eight-week program, the teens interact closely with the wolves and wolf-dogs, forming a strong bond, according to Beer. They begin to believe that if the wolves can heal, so can they. "They start standing up straighter," she says. "They come in with a smile and maybe even a hug or they laugh and tell you a story. We watch them transition."
Those positive social and emotional outcomes were the subject of two studies conducted by Claremont Graduate University. They found that the teens grew in self-reflection and insight as well as in the ability to open up and trust others. Researcher Piper Grandjean Targos says that as part of the evaluation, they also spoke with teachers who reported an increase in positive social behavior in the classroom, from turning in their homework and attending classes to reacting more appropriately to conflict.
Learning to trust
Near the end of the two-month program, the group meets in a sharing circle for the last time.
Strong winds buffet the large canvas yurt where they gather. Inside, the teens are sitting on folding chairs. Some of their stories come in a rush, others in bits and pieces. The kids with the defiant bravado weeks earlier are quieter. Some have tears in their eyes. An occasional yelp from the nearby wolf compound punctuates their voices.
Leihla has been listening to their stories. She pulls the sleeves of her sweatshirt over her hands. Her voice is soft. "I don't really like nobody, or every school I went to I never liked, but knowing a lot of your guys' stories? I don't know how to say it, but it touched me."
The petite 15-year-old says that in the beginning, she wasn't hopeful that she would finish Wolf Connection's program. "I didn't think I was going to be able to like be around so much people for that long," she says. A single wolf howls.
Leihla talks about a wolf named Mikey, shy and not comfortable around people. When he first arrived at Wolf Connection, he was small and undernourished. "After getting to know his story, what kind of wolf he is ... " Leihla pauses and her face lights up, "I was like, that's my wolf."
Leihla's story? That she's keeping to herself. "That's something I don't share or don't want anybody to know 'cause I don't want nobody looking at me different. But with Mikey, it's like, it's OK."
During their last time together, Mikey — the wolf that didn't trust people — leans in close to the girl who not that long ago didn't trust people either.