Standing outside the enclosure at Polar Park, I’m trying to recall whether my travel insurance covers dismemberment by wild beasts. Somewhere behind the wire, hidden from view by the snow-clad vegetation, are five Norwegian grey wolves. These are just big dogs, I keep thinking to myself. And they’ve probably had breakfast already.
“Never, ever, think these are just dogs,” says Stig Sletten, Polar Park’s inscrutable animal manager, in his safety briefing moments later. “Once you’re in with the wolves, crouch down and don’t stare them in the eye. Let them approach you. Don’t stick your hands out. And absolutely don’t stick your tongue out.”
The other two members of my group exchange nervous smiles, as we tuck in loose clothing and practise our best submissive poses.
That we’re about to enter a cage full of ‘socialised’ wolves is all down to Stig and his dedicated team of animal handlers. It was Stig who cofounded Polar Park — the world’s northernmost wildlife sanctuary, in Arctic Norway — way back in 1994. And it was Stig and his team who hand-reared the park’s wolves from birth.
“These wolves have all been brought up to be comfortable among humans,” he explains. “Allowing them to meet visitors is actually a good way to relieve boredom and stress.”
Confident that we understand the strict rules of engagement, Stig opens the enclosure and we all trot in behind him. The Lapland sky is a thick eiderdown of cloud, as fat flakes of snow begin to rain softly downward. We genuflect in thick powder and wait.
Stig raises his head, cups his hands to his mouth, and gives a long howl. Obscured from view, a chorus of howls, yelps and whines begins immediately. Within seconds the pack is trotting toward us, piercing eyes forward, long snouts down, alpha male to the fore.
For an exposed human, the first approach of five grey wolves, socialised or not, is a slightly unnerving, pulse-quickening experience. Stig is right. These are certainly not dogs we’re about to mingle with.
But any sense of trepidation is quickly replaced by sheer delight. Belying their predatory physiognomy, the five wolves turn out to be shaggy bundles of fun and curiosity, as eager to check us out as we are them. Soon human and canine are bonding well, and I can’t believe I’m scratching the stomach of a fully grown female wolf.
Situated about a one hour’s drive from the Norwegian town of Narvik (itself a 90-minute flight north from Oslo), Polar Park isn’t the easiest place to get to. But the situation has recently improved with the opening of the park’s so-called Wolf Lodge, said to be the world’s first luxury accommodation situated inside a wolf enclosure.
That evening, inside the lodge, my newfound friends and I are still on a high after our morning’s lupine encounter. Stig has cooked up a massive pot of bacalao (salt cod) and the red wine is flowing freely.
“There are a lot of negative stereotypes about wolves, both in Norway and across the world,” says Stig, as we sit around the table. “One of our overriding aims here is to educate both locals and visitors about Arctic animals and the value of preserving Norway’s natural heritage. Once they’ve interacted with the wolves of Polar Park, many of our visitors leave with a different view.”
As if on cue, one of the wolf pack from our morning encounter approaches the glass and stares into the room. A wolf’s at the door — but none of us are afraid.