LEADER OF THE PACK
Tossing away his weather-beaten cowboy hat, Daniel Weigend throws back his head and howls. Three Canadian timber wolves, as large as miniature ponies, in the pen beside him point sharp muzzles at a buzzard circling high above and howl in reply.
“Not many people know that the Yorkshire terrier descends from the wolf,” Daniel says, fixing me with fierce brown eyes.
Not many people know that wolves mate for life either, or that they use facial expressions to convey their emotions to other pack members – or that they have the most evolved system of organisation in the animal kingdom.
I didn’t know until I visited Daniel’s 40ha wolf lair, in the heart of wild Andalucian countryside an hour’s drive from Malaga. It’s where four different varieties of wolf – the timber, European, Alaskan Polar and tundra – have been given a home. An incredible place, circled by the El Torcal mountain range, it’s probably as close as humans can safely get to untamed wolves.
To reach Lobo Park you follow roads that wind like liquorice, leading across bumpy hills that haven’t changed since legendary Spanish brigands like El Bizco, “the cross-eyed one” – whose deeds are recorded just down the road in Ronda’s bandit museum – waylaid travellers back in the 19th century. Close to the town of Antequera and far from the Costa’s suntanned crowds, this is a region of southern Spain where animals still reign supreme, and driving is full of obstacles. Look out for the spiky backsides of wild boar and striped coats of badgers scampering across the roads, while three-metre-wide vultures swoop down from the skies. I am not kidding.
But it’s the wolves that make the most impact. I am participating in one of Daniel’s extremely popular howl outings, and he shows us how to join in the party. In the presence of these majestic beasts I can’t help feeling humbled, but nevertheless howl as loud as I can. Jon, a fellow visitor, says he can feel the hairs crawling across the back of his neck, while Anna says she wants to wet herself.
Setting up Lobo Park, which also features a petting zoo, horse riding and many outdoor activities, was a brave undertaking for Germanborn Daniel. Having seen their sheep become free-range kebabs for centuries, local farmers were initially dubious about his project to create a space where canis lupus can live “almost as he would out in the wild”. The fear of wolves here has been so strong that loberos, or wolf hunters, roamed the Spanish hillsides right up until the 1970s, reducing the population to just 400 from thousands – although today a pioneering conservation programme has seen that figure rise to 2,500. Armed with guns, nets and staves, the loberos camped out for months, tracking their prey pitilessly. When they finally got lucky and caught one, they were paid a large bounty.