The Heart Can Journey Where the Ego Cannot

The first few times I saw Hopa, he was charging the fence with a bark fierce enough that sent whoever was passing by to lift slightly out of their shoes. This was Hopa’s way of saying back off or step away from the fence or just get the hell out of my personal space. There was nothing polite about his request. To say Hopa’s charge was startling is a bit of an understatement. Though other wolves at the sanctuary have more polite ways of asking you to leave them be, just like people, how animals and humans respond to the world at any given time depends on their experience up until that very point in time.

I didn’t exactly know what to make of this gorgeous, noisy, black exotic animal with the golden eyes, but man was I was attracted to that bad boy. When you’re an animal lover it can be hard to accept an animal not liking you, especially when you know all you want to do is love on it. Just like in any dysfunctional relationship, it’s hard to be the one that sometimes pays the price for the damage and pain that someone else inflicted.

What I was beginning to quickly understand with wolves was that having any relationship with them was never going to be under the ordinary circumstances I was accustomed to with domesticated pets. It’s kind of like the Greaser’s and the Soc’s from the Outsiders. Both come from a long line of very different experiences. One is given everything it needs to survive and succeed, while the other has to fight for it. I knew if I wanted to so much as look Hopa in the eye one day, I was going to have to do this on his terms. In order for me to understand just what those terms were, I had to learn to listen to what was being said underneath that fierce snarl. How was I going to do that?

Being around Hopa sort of reminded me of this gorgeous badass that was in my 10th grade science class, the one that didn’t pay much attention to me, except to pick on me and embarrass me. Why did I have to fall for the one I couldn’t get close to? There were plenty of other nice guys that were interested in me. My friends would try to ‘boost my ego’ by telling me it was his way of flirting, that he was just shy and insecure, and being mouthy and making a spectacle of himself was just his way of getting noticed. Perhaps there was truth to that. Ultimately that badass guy in my science class was really just bad….in addition to being an ass. So I had to ask myself why I pursued him in the first place. Did I think I was going to be the one to ‘save him’ from whatever might be damaging him? I mean, who doesn’t love to save the underdog? Was it simply because nothing hurts more in 10th grade then rejection, so the need to be accepted exceeded my own self worth? Or is that certain people just try to see the best in others, because we know deep down there is pain and suffering at the root of the misbehavior? Where that need was coming from took me a long time to decipher. Eventually I learned I wasn’t a martyr and it was kind of egotistical to think it was my job to save him. It took me a long time to realize the only person I could change or save was myself.

So thirty years out of high school, I had to ask myself once more, is this need for acceptance from this wolf, or any of the wolves, about the needs of the animal or is it about me? Am I still carrying around that damaged ego?

The next few times I was at the sanctuary, I didn’t pay much attention to Hopa. I walked by his enclosure and looked the other way, but I knew he was there running the length of the fence, daring me to approach him, just so he could tell me off in his own Hopa kind of way. But I was busy reevaluating my need to befriend this gorgeous badass, when I had other wolves that had already accepted me. I could go enjoy sweet, loving Dancer who joyously rubbed her body up against mine, pushing Rebel out of the way as he tried to give me kisses, because she wants all the loving to herself. Or Jenna who nestles her snout into my neck or rigorously rubs her head against mine until she gives that infamous punk rock hairstyle. There’s plenty of others to go love on and be loved by, so why bother trying to connect with the one who could take you or leave you?

I walked by Hopa’s enclosure numerous times the following days, it’s impossible not to when his enclosure is in the middle of the sanctuary. With about two feet of space between us, and a very tall chain link fence, Hopa continued to follow me along the fence line just begging me to make some attempt to connect with him. He was ready for me. I could feel the energy behind the fence, but I vowed not to give Hopa the opportunity to charge me and went on with my day with the wolves I did have a relationship with. But don’t think I didn’t notice him. Don’t think I didn’t know he was right there on the other side of that green mesh. Don’t think I didn’t want to approach him, just as I did that hunky badass in my science class.

But unlike that hunk in my science class, all these years later I knew enough about myself to know that I’m not all that powerful to change another, that I can only change myself in such a way that promotes harmony with another, and only if they’re willing to participate. If I approached Hopa in such a way where I thought I was special, I thought I was the exception to the rule, then my ego would be the driving force of that approach. Being in a place of harmony with Hopa or any of the animals needs to always come from a place in the heart and soul. I didn’t need to be told twice hey don’t stick your hand out to the fence, or hey don’t make eye contact with Hopa. I’d witnessed the results of those actions enough times. I wasn’t exempt.

As the days went on and I passed by Hopa’s enclosure, I released the need to one day win him over. I checked myself if you will. I walked briskly along his fence line, repeating the words, Hopa’s such a good boy, leaving in my wake my intention of kindness, as I let go of any expectations. That’s it. That’s all I had to offer. I looked at Hopa as a story that would unfold in its own time. Not mine. There was no facade that I was miraculously going to see through. I knew Hopa was the animal he was because of his life experience and I am the human being that I am because of mine. I knew that Hopa, like all of the animals at the sanctuary, and like me, had a variety of needs all determined by the experience we have in this life, and when you bring the sum of those two experiences together, well that is what makes each relationship unique and what is required to bring harmony to that relationship will never be what it is for someone else. For the person who gets charged by Hopa and the person who gets kisses, the sum of their experience is completely different. I witnessed others loving on Hopa and how much he enjoyed the human contact. The sum of their experiences presently adds up to something different than mine. When I can contribute something different and Hopa can contribute something different, perhaps our experience will lead us to a place of greater harmony and trust.

I learn something new each and every day that I spend with the animals at the sanctuary. I learn how very clever they are. How quickly they learn voices, how they recognize a person’s scent even if they’ve only been around them once. How they know when a person has entered the sanctuary long before that person has neared their enclosure. I knew Hopa could hear me, he could see me, he could smell me. For the time being, this was good enough for me, because a thousand baby steps will still move a person forward and get them to their destiny, but I’ve lived long enough to know that its in the journey where the true magic happens.

One day during training at the sanctuary, a small shed was pointed out to us near Hopa’s enclosure. It contained rakes and other tools. Hopa’s water bucket hung on his fence just across from this shed. I started going into the shed, even when I didn’t need anything out of it, just to get a peek at Hopa. I would open it and with my back to Hopa’s enclosure, I would talk to him, even when I couldn’t see him. I knew that he knew that I was there. He could hear me, because wolves are always listening. They always know you’re there.

As the days went on and I made my way to the shed, I would see Hopa from the corner of my eye watching. It should embarrass me to confess this, but I would squat down and talk to the dirt between my feet, never looking in Hopa’s direction. I would tell the dirt what a good boy Hopa was. I would tell the dirt that I understood that Hopa has his own story and I want to understand it. I would ask him to understand mine. Oh, the things we do! Hopa sat by. Observing. Listening. We were communicating. We were slowly creating a harmonious space between us.

When I was in the Navy, we frequently went on gun shoots for target practice or to qualify as marksmen, sharp shooter, or expert. In pre-deployment exercises we would work in teams with one person firing an M60 while the other fed the bullets into it so it wouldn’t jam. We also practiced throwing hand grenades into ditches. I can’t even begin to describe that feeling of pulling the pin out and looking at that live grenade in my hand. Just thinking about it makes my heart thump against my chest. There was no room for carelessness or pride. When you’re with a partner, you’re praying they make no mistakes. You pray when they pull their weapon from their holster and point it, that the safety is on. You pray when they pull the pin, they don’t drop the grenade between you. So before any of these exercises began, the firing squad leader would always shout out (along with some bleep words), you better check your ego at that door behind you before you touch any one of these weapons! Because lets face it, when the goal is to qualify as expert shooter and I’m one of two girls shooting next to fifteen guys, most with more experience than me, they’re thinking this girl better not outshoot me. Ego has crept into this space where it shouldn’t be, making it anything but harmonious, making it dangerous and vulnerable. I saw enough comrades get thrown out of an exercise because they weren’t participating to better themselves, but were participating to prove they were better.

According to Websters, Ego is defined as a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. I can understand how a damaged ego might put people at risk. The focus becomes winning something over another to prove something to self. Sure, competition is motivating when you’re downhill skiing, or when you’re running a marathon, but it has no place at a gun shoot, and it has no place at a sanctuary with animals that in many ways, aren’t all that different from a weapon. Some days the safety is on, other days it might be off. And we must never assume that it’s on.

But, just like sometimes ego did make its way into a shooting exercise, sometimes it will

make its way into the sanctuary. But if we get honest with ourselves, if we evaluate our motives for doing whatever it is we are doing, if we can be mindful of our intentions, we slowly guide our egos back to the other side of that sanctuary gate. It’s humbling recognizing and admitting when we are acting from a place of ego rather than selflessness.

Lynn and Hopa 02/22/18

Hopa has humbled me. Though ego may help someone to the finish line of a marathon in record time, it will only get someone hurt at the sanctuary. If connecting with a wolf is ever more about our own needs than the needs of that animal, that animal is bound to suffer the consequence. But if our intentions come from a place of love, humility and harmony, we all better our experience.

I’ve learned so much from Hopa. We now have these brief yet beautiful encounters at the fence line by the shed. If he chooses to come to me, he rubs his body along side the fence, welcoming me to scratch his back and pet him through the chain links. We do this most days that I’m there, but some days he chooses not to come to me and I respect that. I know its not about me, but about what Hopa needs in that particular moment. I am filled with gratitude for the moments that I do share with him. Hopa and I are not quite ready to remove the fence between us. It’s a safety net for both of us while we learn to communicate with each other.

Though we aren’t yet at the same place that I am with some of the other wolves, I embrace with a very humble heart where we are at on this spectacular journey.

Hopa’s story


Hopa and Lynn Domenici 04/28/18

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  • Wendy Winkel says:

    This made me cry. What a beautiful way to think about it. Thank you for opening my eyes.

  • Rev. Susan Limongello says:

    Beautifully written story! Thank you for sharing it.

  • Dene Gross says:

    Thank you for sharing your story with Hopa. I hope you get a chance someday to be able to. get his loving acceptance like Dancer. My Mom Kitty Davis who is now 99, & I visited
    the sancutauary last year. We tell as many people as we can to go see it and support your good work.

  • Candice Looez says:

    What a beautiful and inspiring story of acceptance & love.

  • Bev Mullen says:

    That is a beautiful story Lynn. Keep up the wonderful work. Someday that fence will not be between you and Hopa. I just know it. Bless you both..

  • Tim Castellana says:

    I have visited there once and I learned so much. We have two husky malamutes. They are so different from our other dogs and each other, the volunteers are truly amazing.

  • Jean Metcalfe Richtfort says:

    What an inspiring, loving story.

  • Cindy Vandenbosch says:

    Such a beautifully written, heartfelt story. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Michael Upper says:

    Hopa is one of those guys whose bark is worse than his bite. He has a huge heart and doesn’t want “to do the bite” but his life experiences, whatever they were prior to coming to Shy Wolf, taught him that he had to behave in certain ways to keep from getting hurt or just to survive.

    I read somewhere that a good psychotherapist plants the seeds of change in the patient’s thinking so that when circumstances change in the patient’s life they will have a new way of thinking and thus behaving that is constructive rather than destructive…such as attacking and biting.

    Thank God that Nancy and Kent Smith created a safe-space like Shy Wolf for special creatures like Big-Hearted Hopa to go to get the seeds of change planted that will lead to his happiness no matter how long it might take.

    As a volunteer, your work in planting the seeds of change in Hopa is already working. His bark and charging are becoming a little less fierce, a little less frequent, and his intelligent, inquisitive gaze as he looks into your eyes is beginning to tell a story of change that’s coming from his heart.

    Thank you for doing what you do and being who you are Lynn!

    Michael Upper

    • Lynn Domenici says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Michael! Hopa and I got to the point where when I approached the fence he would come to me wagging his tail and licking me through the chainlink openings. I knew it was time! I first had two supervised visits inside his enclosure that went extremely and joyfully well, Then this past week I was able to clean his enclosure with another volunteer that Hopa loves and trusts very much.
      It was almost hard to do anything but play with him! Hopa loves his toys and it was an absolute joy to spend that time with him. Thank you so much for recognizing what exists beyond the surface in Hopa. He is a true love!

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