In the life of our Barn Buddies series so far, we have met Thoroughbreds with all sorts of unusual companions. Cats, dogs, ducks, goats, sheep are all favorites. I'm not sure anyone can top a 17.2-hand yearling named Foozie, who belongs to decorated writer and Paulick Report Horse Care contributor Denise Steffanus. When he was growing up, Foozie's best friend was a wolf.
Steffanus had long held a fascination with wolves and was intrigued one day in the mid-1990s when she drove by a kennel that appeared to hold a bunch of wolves. The owner was getting ready for a new round of puppies and Steffanus asked if she could have one. A few weeks later, she picked up a tiny, two-week-old cub that was 94 percent wolf hybrid and six percent Alaskan Malamute. She named him Navarre, after a character in the 1985 film Ladyhawke.
Hybrids with greater than 90 percent wolf blood must be taken from their mothers before their eyes are open or they won't bond to humans, so Steffanus bottle-fed Navarre every two hours for a month, carrying him with her to her barn at Cincinnati's River Downs, where she trained horses at the time.
“I made a playpen for him with straw bales in my empty stall,” Steffanus said. “The other people in the barn told me that when I went out to the track with a horse, he'd howl the whole time until I got back — a tiny, little ‘Wooooo.' One day, a security guard was walking through the barn and heard him. She stopped to investigate, then immediately ran to the racing office to complain that I was violating a track rule that barred dogs.
“The racing secretary's name was Warren Wolf. He dragged his rule book off the shelf, threw it on his desk in front of her, and said, ‘You show me where it says wolves are barred from the backside.'”
Even though he was handled from the age of two weeks, Navarre never let anyone forget he was a wild creature — and a dominant one. Wolves don't bark, and only growl or howl to communicate. Over time, Steffanus learned the differences in the tone of Navarre's growls to gauge his mood, though she admits most of her friends never quite got used to him.
“There were just a few of my friends who would get near him,” she laughed, noting that Navarre was always on alert and prone to growling at anyone who came down the walk, whether he'd seen them before or not.
Steffanus likens their relationship to that of a stallion and his handler; her safety depended upon mutual respect between them, and she always had to be a little on guard.
“It was a very delicate balance,” she said. “Because of course, if I let him get the better of me, I was in trouble because this animal could have probably killed me in a minute or two minutes flat, literally.”
That didn't mean Navarre was vicious. He was protective and gently playful toward Steffanus's cats and dog, and affectionate with her. Every evening after work, he'd leap up in front of her and throw his front legs around her in a type of hug.
“He was extremely affectionate,” she remembered. “Oftentimes I'd be sitting watching television and he'd come jump up in my lap, so now there'd be this 36-inch, 100-pound wolf sitting in my lap, looking down at me sort of whimpering because something was bothering him. I'd have to hug him and reassure him.”
Navarre was also clever, and one of the most intelligent animals Steffanus has ever encountered. He could sense nervous energy in visitors to her house, and if they wanted to stand anxiously or pace, he would gently lead them by the hand over to her couch and give them a shove to encourage them to sit down. When he grew tired of visitors, he'd take their hand and lead them to the front door.
Because of his penchant for intimidating people (which Steffanus said he seemed to find amusing), Navarre wasn't the type of pet she could throw a harness on and walk through Petsmart. He did go on a road trip with her when he was about a year old and frightened a restaurant employee.
“We went into a drive-in, a Hardee's or something, and I ordered him a plain hamburger,” she said. “When I got around to the window to pick up our food, the girl said, ‘Is he going to bite me?' and I said, ‘If you don't give him his hamburger, he will.'”
Steffanus lives on a farm in Central Kentucky and was afraid her neighbors might mistake Navarre for a coyote and shoot him if she let him roam freely. At night, he slept in a crate in her room, not because she was afraid of him, but because he enjoyed quietly opening all the chest of drawers in the room and pulling her clothes onto the floor to make a bed for himself. During the day, Navarre had a large outdoor run and outside kennel where he could stay while she worked. His run bordered one of the horse pastures and unsurprisingly, most of the horses turned out there stayed well clear, Steffanus suspects because they could smell him. She was stunned when one yearling, a goofball named Foozie, became curious enough to approach Navarre. The two would play, lunging back and forth on their respective sides of the fence, spinning and wheeling together nearly every day.
“Foozie's a very strange individual. His head is not wired like other horses,” said Steffanus. “Wolves are their natural predators, which is why [the other horses] would get all snorty and wide-eyed around Navarre. But Foozie didn't. Foozie loved him.”
One of few things that did (and still does) frighten Foozie was buzzards. He finds them disturbing enough that he will turn his head to look skyward before leaving the barn each day.
Navarre died in 2008 at the age of 14, an advanced age for a wolf. Foozie still lives with Steffanus, though she says to her knowledge he has not befriended any more wolves.
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