As the young woman makes her way through the Colorado snow, she stumbles across a gigantic wolf. But rather than fleeing in fear, she does a completely unexpected thing. And in turn, the wild animal responds in the most beautiful way.
Kekoa the gray wolf has lived at Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center, some 90 miles south of Denver, for most of his life. He was born in Florida before moving to the dedicated wolf sanctuary when he was still a pup. Center staff thought that both he and his sister Sakara would be perfect to teach people about their species.
Darlene Kobobel founded the wolf sanctuary in 1993 after rescuing her pet, Chinook, from an animal shelter. That shelter had planned to euthanize Chinook because he was a “wolf-hybrid.” So since rescuing her first wolf, Kobobel has worked to provide a safe haven for wolves and wolf mixes.
The center sits on a 35-acre site near the tiny town of Divide. The facility includes a visitors’ center, an education amphitheater and numerous walking trails. And of course, there are also a number of animal enclosures where the wolves live.
Gray wolves are native to North America and Eurasia. However, wild gray wolf populations in North America have been on the decline for decades due to hunting and a loss of habitat. Today, they are most common in Canada and Alaska.
If wolf populations are ever to thrive once more, humans need to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the animals. With this in mind, the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center’s mission is to educate the community about these beautiful creatures. And that’s where Kekoa and Sakara came in.
For their first years at the facility, Kekoa and his sister were ambassadors. This meant staff would take them offsite to use as a teaching tool. However, the center would only be able to use them in this capacity for a short time.
“They were both adopted from a facility in Florida called Seacrest Wolf Preserve,” Michelle Smith from the wildlife center explained to The Dodo in 2016. “We had hoped they would be ambassadors. But sadly, like most wolves and high-content wolf dogs, once they reached maturity they became very shy and ‘retired’ at the ripe old age of two.”
Although wolves tend to be cautious around humans, they are in fact very social animals. They live and hunt in packs and act like families. For instance, when a female gives birth to a litter of pups, the whole pack will chip in to help.
Sanctuary worker Danielle was fascinated by these mysterious animals. She had worked at the center for some years and loved her job. She would even get stuck into the sanctuary’s not-so-glamorous tasks, such as carving up raw meat and cleaning out toilet tanks.
Over the course of her time at the sanctuary, Danielle built up a strong bond with the wolves. “I have always had a passion for nature and animals,” she revealed on the center’s website. “These wolves have my heart and I am honored to have been accepted into their pack.”
Danielle was close to many of the wolves but none more so than Kekoa. As of 2016, the wolf was nine years old and known for his distinctive silver mane and imposing appearance. And although his name meant “brave one,” he was actually rather reclusive.
However, Kekoa had a special place in his heart for Danielle. In fact, the sanctuary worker could often be seen hanging out with the gray wolf and his sister. And in late 2014 a video of the pack together showed just how close the trio really was.
In the footage, Danielle walks through the snow with Kekoa and Sakara. She then kneels down beside the two wolves on the floor. Showing her complete trust in the wild creatures, Danielle allows Sakara to sniff her face.
Before long, Kekoa follows his sister’s lead. Then, without warning, he proceeds to lick Danielle’s face. The supposedly fearsome wolf kisses her all over her face in a heartwarming display of affection. In return, Danielle caresses the animal’s thick fur.
After a while, Kekoa rolls over on his back and surrenders to Danielle’s touch. She proceeds to tickle his furry belly, just like he is a domestic dog. In turn, the wolf paws at Danielle gently, seemingly aware of his strength compared to hers.
According to the shelter’s website, Kekoa “loves to greet visitors with wolf kisses.” However, shelter staffer Smith was keen to point out that this is not normal wolf behavior. “Since he was raised by people and bottle fed from the time he was born, he is very well socialized, meaning he enjoys the company of people,” she told The Dodo.
“This is not the same as domesticated or tame,” Smith added. “He is still a ‘wild’ animal, and he does tend to show it when he is around his sister. A wolf in the wild would not act this way.” Regardless, people around the world found Kekoa’s demeanor adorable, and the video of the encounter went viral.
Since being posted online in late 2014, the touching video of Kekoa and Danielle has attracted more than two million views on YouTube and more than six million views on Facebook. Furthermore, some people credited the sanctuary with showing a different side of wolves. “How sweet is this,” one such user wrote. “Clearly wolves and humans can coexist! This wolf could easily rip her to shreds but instead [he] enjoys a belly rub.”
So despite the fact that many of our fairytales have taught us to fear the big bad wolf, it’s clear to see that there’s more to these majestic animals than their menacing reputation. In fact, there seems to be no reason why humans and wolves can’t live side by side. And if that does happen in the future, perhaps we can say that it all started with a kiss.