From day one, Brittany stepped onto the sanctuary and sunk deep into the family cultivated for almost 30 years by the many who have come and gone. With each new individual to join the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary Family, the sanctuary is blessed with new perspectives, innovative ideas, and the opportunity to move forward onto the next stage of the organization’s development as a reputable and compassionate rescue. Those currently involved with Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary as a member of the team, cannot wait to see how the sanctuary evolves and grows in the coming years.
For our dear howling supporters wishing to get to know Brittany McDonald as the new Executive Director, I asked the following questions to which she responded. Please enjoy!
What inspired you to apply for the Executive Director position?
Wolves have been my greatest passion ever since I was a little girl, and with that love came a desire to learn all that I could about these incredible yet often misunderstood creatures as well as about the people that choose to dedicate their lives to protecting them.
In fact, I was around 8 years old when I first began writing letters to wildlife biologists and wolf sanctuaries across the country seeking to learn more about their efforts and how I might one day follow in their footsteps. To this day, I still have an entire binder stuffed full of cherished correspondences, brochures, posters, and even photos of wolves from various facilities.
In the years since then (and widely thanks to the Internet), I have become extremely familiar with most
of the rescue facilities across the United States, including Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, which was instantly one of my favorites. With the organization’s unwavering dedication for ensuring that the animals will always come first, I have been a supporter of our work for years and have continued to watch the sanctuary transform into what I would consider to be one of the most reputable in the country.
In addition, it was obvious, even from an outsider’s perspective, that the individuals at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary have created an especially unique human culture: One that seeks to value its people as much as its rescues within an environment that encourages open communication, shared ideas, trust, respect, and honesty. Over the years, I have learned that each of these values are extremely important to me, especially in my chosen career, and as a whole. It was these major belief systems—that aligned so well with my own—that inspired me to apply for this position.
What excites you the most about being the Executive Director at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary?
More than anything I am so excited for the opportunity to contribute to Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary’s philosophy that the animals always come first, but in my own unique ways, and I feel such an incredible sense of gratitude knowing that through this opportunity, I am literally living out my dreams! Not only do I get to wake up every morning and spend my day caring for a species that captured my heart years ago, I get to do it alongside an amazing group of like-minded people who want more than anything to see this organization continue to grow and succeed.
That being said, my deepest thanks go out to all of the passionate and dedicated people that came before me and wove together a history that is rich with passion and dedication. It’s because of them that Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary has such a strong foundation from which my team and I can continue to build. It’s incredibly exciting to know that because of what has already been put into place, we are that much closer to reaching the goals we all wish to see in the sanctuary’s future.
How has your experience been thus far with training?
Getting to know all of the ins and outs of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary has been a rollercoaster, but in the best possible ways. My first two weeks were focused primarily on Animal Care training, and while this isn’t my first time working with animals in a sanctuary setting, every facility operates differently, and with 57 rescues at the time, there was a lot to learn! Thankfully, my overall excitement made training feel like a breeze, and by my third day I was well on my way toward memorizing all of the animals and the core components of the daily routines!
In addition to animal training, much of my time has been spent getting to know my new team. Specifically, learning what each person and department is responsible for, any goals they are currently working towards, and how I can best support them in accomplishing those things. I have been working to absorb as much information as I can about the hopes and dreams everyone has for the future of the sanctuary, and with each conversation that unfolds I find myself growing even more excited about all of the possibilities I see laid out before me!
Have you experienced a special connection with any of the rescues at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary yet?
Yes, actually, and while I could probably go on for ages about all of them, I’ll try to narrow it down to the ones that are most significant to me:
- Since my first day of training, I have felt drawn to high-content wolfdog, Draco – more than any other animal at the sanctuary – for reasons that I can’t explain. An incredibly shy boy, he has only ever allowed Crystal Castellanos (former Director of Operations) to touch him, but after witnessing his unexpected interests during a random enclosure inspection (in which he even let me touch his nose!), Crystal made the decision to train me to be his primary caretaker!
During each day of training, Draco has shown me that the interest I have for him is mutual, and every day I’ve been able to give him the teeniest, tiniest scratches on the chin, nose, and cheeks (while also working to ensure that Leia gets the attention she demands of me). Now that I am fully trained on their enclosure, I will be able to visit with the two of them more frequently and watch as Draco’s comfort and confidence grows! I’m hopeful that one day soon he’ll allow me to give him proper pets like he gets from Crystal, but that decision will, of course, be entirely on his terms. Right now, I’m just honored to be in his presence and grateful to know that in his own small ways, he feels safe and comfortable around me.
- Similarly, wolfdogs Bear and Kenai also have a soft spot for Crystal and few other people, but for whatever reason, both boys have taken to me and allowed me to become their caretaker! Much less aloof than Draco, both boys have allowed me to pet them all over and even take them for enrichment walks around the sanctuary, or for visits to our one-acre enclosure.
When it comes to working with animals, they always do the choosing, and I can’t explain how happy I am that these handsome boys have all seen fit to choose me. I can’t wait to see where each of these special relationships will go in the future!
What are your personal goals going forward? What do you want to focus on and see for Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary?
I would absolutely love to improve the quality of life for the human members of the sanctuary. For any of our supporters that may not know, nearly every person that works or volunteers at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary lives on-site, occupying extremely rustic dwellings in the middle of nowhere. Many of these dwellings are without running water or kitchen amenities, and some are without electricity entirely! Therefore, in order to allow for things like showers, laundry, or cooking, staff and volunteers share communal living (and working) spaces multiple times a day. Thankfully, everyone here embraces the mindset of living like a unique family and don’t seem to mind sharing, but the need to leave home and go to work after hours and on days off to prepare meals or do laundry can create a disturbance in work-life-balance that impedes the ability to fully recharge after a long day, or at the end of the week.
Therefore, one of my main goals is to make some major improvements in the available on-site housing options offered to staff, volunteers, and eventually interns. Not only will this improve the quality of living, but also the quality of work that will directly benefit our rescues, for it is only through properly caring for ourselves that we can go above and beyond for each animal.
In addition, an improvement to housing would aid in the development and implementation of an internship program at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary by allowing us to house more people. While we already have an incredible volunteer program that offers benefits well beyond the scope of what is usually provided at zoos and other sanctuaries, I would like to see an increased emphasis on delivering more academically-focused learning experiences, specifically for individuals seeking a career in the animal care field. Some of the topics that I would love to emphasize would be animal behavior, nutrition, habitat design and construction, enrichment, and operant conditioning.
Lastly, I would love to see Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary take steps toward advocating for wolves beyond a captive setting by participating in Species Survival Plan programs (SSPs). These programs involve housing and breeding endangered species with the goal of increasing genetic diversity and, ideally, releasing these animals into the wild in order to increase and sustain healthy populations! As a primarily wolf-centric organization, I would love to seek involvement in specifically red and Mexican grey wolf SSPs in the future.
Can you please share with our readers your academic and professional experiences, including a favorite animal-related story from a past facility?
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in River Falls with a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology and a Minor in Conservation in May of 2015. While still enrolled in school, I spent a summer working as a full-time intern at a wolf facility in northern Idaho where I was responsible for the care of thirty wolves, including a litter of seven newborn pups. Although it was short-lived, my time spent working in Idaho provided a first-hand look at the realities of working with wolves in captivity and through that experience, what was once just a childhood dream began to transform into reality.
Upon graduating two years later, I was offered a full-time position at a GFAS-accredited big cat sanctuary in Nevada where I acted as the facility’s Lead Keeper and managed all aspects of animal care as well as much of the day-to-day operations. Some of my best friends and most valuable lessons were gained at this facility. For example, I learned how to construct enclosures from the ground up—including naturalistic caves, in-ground pools, and elaborate climbing and shade platforms—and I became familiar with the use of power tools and large machinery. Gaining those skills has come in handy more times than I can count, and I have since begun to pass them along to my team members every chance I get!
While I absolutely loved my time spent in Nevada, working with big and small felines, bears, and a number of other species, I also knew that my desire to work with wolves was calling me somewhere new. Therefore, after nearly nine months living out west, I found myself traveling literally across the country where I would spend the next year working at a ZAA-accredited zoo in Virginia.
As one might expect, working at a zoo was, in many ways, vastly different than working at a sanctuary, but the lessons I gained were equally rewarding. Many of these differences were due in large part to the fact that I was responsible for the care of over one hundred species, including big and small cats, wolves, hyenas, primates, reptiles, birds, hoofstock, and even kangaroos!
Fortunately, the emphasis that the zoo placed on proper husbandry and public education was still very much the same as it had been at my previous facilities, but there was a much stronger focus on wildlife conservation. As such, the zoo took part in breeding programs for several endangered species, and through these programs I was able to watch in awe as baby animals in my care grew up and gave hope to the existence of their species!
One of my all time favorite experiences throughout my time spent working as a zookeeper involves brother and sister African warthog piglets, Adeline and Avery. These little babies were born to a first time mother who, unfortunately, did not wish to care for them. As a result, they would need to be raised by humans, a task that would require round-the-clock care and constant bottle-feedings, meaning that for the first couple months of their lives, they would live inside of a human home.
I was lucky enough to be one of the piglets’ caretakers and the time I spent with them living with me was incredible. Because I have a large dog and wasn’t sure how he would respond to these fast-moving and squeaky little babies, the piglets were kept inside of the bathroom when not at the zoo with me (also because, as you might imagine, they stink!) and they would get so excited to see me whenever I went into the room that they would nuzzle my legs and toes, grunting at me all the while.
Even after the piglets were big enough to start living full-time at the zoo, I would still go visit them every single day, imitating their grunting and giving them all the loving belly scratches they could handle!
In addition to experiencing some incredible animal caretaking lessons, my role at the zoo also allowed me to further strengthen my leadership abilities while working alongside the facility’s Curator. She taught me too many lessons to recount and has since become one of my closest friends. To this day, one of the most important things she ever taught me was what it takes to be the backbone of an organization in order to support the animals, and especially the team.
But perhaps the most valuable thing that I gained from my time spent at this facility was my fiancé, Josh, who worked as a zookeeper as well and as such, never seemed to mind that I was always dirty and stinky.
Today, Josh works as a small animal veterinarian in Las Vegas, Nevada just a short eight-hour drive from Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary.
Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time that Josh and I have found ourselves living worlds apart in order to chase after our individual dreams. The first time came shortly after I decided to leave the zoo—and Virginia—in order to relocate to Texas where I would take on the role of Manager for a small wolf sanctuary. There I would spend a year and a half overseeing nearly every aspect of the sanctuary’s operations and leaving behind my own small legacy.
Most of my time spent with this organization involved a strong focus on improving the lives of the rescues through the development of enrichment and operant conditioning programs, which allowed the animal caretakers to strengthen trust-based bonds, reduce stress, improve animal health and human safety, and increased public engagement and awareness about the work we were doing.
In addition, I take great pride in knowing that I was responsible for developing and sustaining a strong volunteer and internship program that allowed close to one hundred individuals the opportunity to love and care for our rescues. Better still is knowing that with the experience they received, many of those individuals have gone on to become employees of zoos and sanctuaries throughout the state where I have no doubt they, too, are contributing to future legacies.
Stepping into my new role as Executive Director, I am beyond excited to take the lessons I have learned at each of these facilities and apply them to Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in ways that will best suit this organization’s mission, vision, and day-to-day needs.
Can you tell our supporters where your passions lie outside of work?
I am a huge fan of the fantasy genre and much of my free time is spent seeking new ways to immerse myself in imaginary worlds in books, shows, movies, and role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. I also have a passion for writing and last year I completed the first draft of my first novel! I am currently working on revisions and hope to have a more polished product in the near future.
In addition, I am a mom to three dogs (a Siberian husky named Summer and two great pyrenees named Dekker and Ghostie) and three snakes (ball pythons Kirara, Kohaku, and Cloud).
When I’m not nerding out, I enjoy spending time doing almost any outdoor activity, from hiking and camping to enjoying EDM at outdoor festivals.
Are there any additional details you might want to share with the public as they get to know you as the new Executive Director?
The opportunity to step into this role is one that I cherish immensely. I feel that as the Executive Director I have a responsibility to this organization that encompasses not only the animals and the team, but just as importantly, you, the dedicated supporters of this wonderful sanctuary! As such, I’d like to take this time to say a huge and heartfelt thank you to every one of you for the love and devotion you have shown to this amazing organization. We are all so excited to be moving forward into Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary’s newest chapter, and it is my sincerest hope that you will continue to follow along in our story.