“Little Red Riding Hood lied. It’s not a big, bad wolf.”
Those were the impassioned words of Cynthia Watkins in her introductory speech to visitors at the Seacrest Wolf Preserve, located in rural Washington County, 40 miles north of Panama City Beach, in the Florida Panhandle. Watkins is co-founder of the preserve, a non-profit organization that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. For the past two decades, she’s been a woman on a mission to protect wolves, preserve their habitats and dispel the myths about these magnificent creatures.
Watkins co-founded the preserve in 1999 with her conservationist husband, Wayne Watkins, who died in 2017. The 430-acre property has separate habitats for Gray, Arctic and British Columbian wolf packs. Each fenced-in enclosure, which range in size from two to four acres, contains a variety of terrain with spring-fed creeks, ponds and watering holes. The wolves at Seacrest are previously captive animals that were either injured, mistreated or once kept as pets. The pups born at the preserve are often relocated to educational facilities around the country, so the number of wolves on site frequently changes.
To allow visitors to get up close to the wolves, Seacrest offers the Wolf Encounter Tour available by reservation on Saturdays only. The 3.5-hour tour, which includes up to 150 people, provides a rare opportunity to have direct contact with wolf packs in their natural habitat. While it’s billed as a family-friendly attraction, children must be at least 10 years old to take the tour.
“These aren’t wolf-dogs,” Watkins stresses. “These are full wolves.”
Nevertheless, the wolves at the preserve have been conditioned to being around people from an early age.
There’s a strict dress code posted on the website that should be reviewed before showing up. In general, wear long pants that cover the ankles; regular pullover shirts that cover the neck, shoulders and torso; and close-toed shoes but no boots. Leave your leather, fleece and down at home. And cameras are forbidden, including cell phones. For an extra fee, a staff photographer will capture your wolf encounter.
All these rules can make one feel anxious about meeting a wolf face-to-muzzle for the first time. Once inside the habitat, under the guidance of trained staff, though, these concerns melt away as you slowly become part of the pack during the tour. The ultimate payoff is the highlight of the visit: a wolf kiss.
While not technically a kiss, it sure feels like one. Watkins calls it the “muzzle greeting.” Wolves are curious animals and they want to inspect anyone new to their environment. That’s why visitors are asked to empty their pockets before going into the habitat. The wolves can sniff out things like lip balm, sunscreen and packs of gum, none of which are good for them.
The first thing you’re asked to do when entering the habitat is to have a seat on a log, a rock or the ground. The staff then encourages the pack to greet you. Since wolves are nocturnal creatures, they usually lounge or doze in the shade during daylight hours. Treats are used as an enticement. Once the wolves realize new people are in their habitat, they become curious. After a muzzle greeting or two, they might even become affectionate and playful. The alpha wolf usually remains aloof, keeping a close eye on the proceedings, occasionally coming in for a friendly nudge or curious sniff.
After the initial greeting and photo-taking session, the tour proceeds through the habitat while well-informed guides share their knowledge about the animals. As you explore their habitat, the wolves follow, scamper off, come back, splash in a pond and play with each other. They also like to demonstrate their howling abilities after the guides encourage the guests to begin a group howl. By the time you’re done, you will be on a first-name basis with Dreamer, Iasha, Yuma and Echo, to name a few.
The tour ends with the Small Animal Adventure in a separate enclosure. Here guests can interact with skunks that won’t spray, foxes, raccoons and other small animals. There is a concession where visitors can purchase lunch and a gift shop selling wolf-related memorabilia.
During the week, private VIP tours are available for groups of two to six people. For guests who want to stay overnight, a primitive cabin and campsites for tents and RVs are available on property adjacent to the preserve. Overnight guests are not permitted to interact with the wolves outside of their scheduled tour. Volunteer opportunities are available for church and civic groups.
While you’re in the area, here are some other sights worth checking out:
Falling Waters State Park. The park is home to Florida’s highest waterfall, which drops 73 feet into a sinkhole. To get a closeup view of the waterfall, visitors can hike down a boardwalk that descends into the sinkhole. From the viewing platform, it’s possible to see a rainbow beneath your feet. Pine Ridge Campground at the park is located on a hill that’s one of the highest points in Florida. ($5 per vehicle. Camping $18 per night, $6.70 reservation fee. 1130 State Park Road, Chipley, Florida. 850-638-6130, www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/falling-waters-state-park.)
Holmes Creek Canoe Livery. Rent a canoe and paddle to Cypress Springs, a 65-foot-deep spring with a cave system popular with snorkelers and divers. Visitors paddle there to see the crystal-clear blue waters and go swimming in a pristine natural spot inaccessible by vehicle or motorboat. (Vernon Park, C.E. Miller Landing, Main Street, Vernon, Florida. $35 rentals include shuttle service. 850-210-7001, www.holmescreekcanoe.com.)
IF YOU GO
Seacrest Wolf Preserve. Wolf Encounter Tour, $35. Saturday only; reservations required. VIP tours, $500 and up. Campsites, $25. Spirit Cabin, $125 and up. 3449 Bonnett Pond Road., Chipley. 850-773-2897, www.seacrestwolfpreserve.org.
Where to eat
Katie’s Kafe. Popular local lunch spot near the wolf preserve serving pizza, subs and burgers. $7 and up. 2184 Pioneer Road, Wausau, Florida. 850-638-8998.
Skins and Bubba’s. Barbecue, Southern-style veggies and breakfast in downtown Chipley. $7 and up. 1458 Main St., Chipley, Florida. 850-638-4227.
Washington County Visitor Center. 672 5th St., Chipley, Florida. 850-638-6013, www.visitwcfla.com.
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