I’ve been in this game long enough that I’m always shocked when someone comes to me with a story of animal exploitation that I’ve never heard of. And yet, it happens, far more often I’d like. There is, apparently, an inexhaustible number of people eagerly awaiting their chance to “teach” the public about the animals they’re exploiting. Which brings me to the Great American Frontier Show: Wolves of the World. I had never heard of the show, which was founded by a man named Michael Sandlofer, a number of years ago. Mr. Sandlofer passed away in 2016, so I will be as respectful as possible in the writing of this article. The article will, however, be honest, and forthright.
The Sandlofers have owned and trained captive wild animals for entertainment purposes for decades. They even had performing bison at one point. From as early as 1979, they’ve had animal shows performing for audiences, at a price, while claiming the animals were all “rescues” and that they were “educating” people.
Finding articles about the Sandlofers and their shows was easy, but I quickly learned that none of those articles contained more information than that the show was “educational”. Those claims were accompanied by quotes from either Michael, or Sharon like “Wolves are the most misunderstood animals in the world.” and “If you look at wolves up close, you’ll see that their two center toes are longer than the others,” Sandlofer said. “That gives them better traction when they’re on the hunt.” and this gem “Many just don’t understand the pyramid of life cycle and the part these wolves play,”. That last one got a long snarly breath out of me, because by just a few articles into my research, the doublespeak and incorrect information provided made it clear that 1) the Sandlofers did not, and do not, actually know much about wolves, and wolf biology, and 2) the interviewers and authors of the articles either didn’t know, or didn’t care, enough to fact check the information provided by the Sandlofers.
For example, Michael and his wife are described as “having been involved with animal rescue and conservation for decades”. However, aside from Mr. Sandlofer’s participation in the saving of a beached whale back in 1981 (totally commendable) there are no references to the Sandlofers “rescuing” animals by anyone other than the Sandlofers themselves. And while the Sandlofers claim that their animals come from “an animal rescue organization” I have been unable to find any rescue group who works with them, nor have I been able to find where the Sandlofers have ever named the organization. At the time of the whale incident, Michael Sandlofer was a deep sea dive instructor and worked with the North Wind Museum, which he founded in 1979. The North Wind ran the “All-Star Animal Revue and Circus” for a number of years.
Most articles note that Sandlofer was “awarded the prestigious Rolex Award” for his conservation efforts. However, when I went to the Rolex site, and checked their records, Mr. Sandlofer is not listed as a Laureate (winner) of any Rolex award, in any year. I did, however, find this write up, which clearly states that he received an honorable mention from the award in 1984. Still noteworthy, and respectful, but it’s not the same as actually being named a Laureate.
I finally decided it was probably best to just check out actual videos of the Sandlofers’ show. So I spent about three hours, cumulatively, watching Sharon put on the Wolves of the World show. I also watched a great many commercial-style video spots of Michael Sandlofer hocking his show, encouraging fair grounds and entertainment facilities to book them because of the “huge crowds” they draw. The performances I watched ranged from the years 2012 to 2016 and took place all across the country, captured by attendees. At least one was put on by the Sandlofer’s daughter, Benna. Here are some fast bullet points I got from all my screen time, which I’ll explore further.
- The shows run about 20-30 minutes, but on average, 15+ minutes of that time is spent simply introducing the animals one at a time, or in sets. Many shows state specifically that all of the animals are Eastern Timber wolves.
- Sharon is the primary handler. Her husband refers to her as the “Wolf Whisperer” *cough* *Lion Whisperer influence* *cough*
- Both Sandlofers repeatedly use the term “positive reinforcement” to describe what they call their “training method” while also repeatedly stating that “you don’t train wolves”.
- They call the actions that the animals perform “behaviors” rather than “tricks” insisting that they are all “natural behaviors” while also stating that they “train” the animals “to perform the behaviors for their enrichment.” But each time they say this, they add “but you don’t really train wolves.”
- About half the meager wolf biology and scientific information provided by Sharon is either wrong, or extremely simplified and misleading.
- The shows always ends with Sharon offering the audience the chance to (for more money) take photos with “a wolf pup” and “tour their “den” trailer”.
- Despite that the Sandlofers repeatedly refer to their animals as wolves, and as “the pack” I found no evidence that the animals are ever housed together in a functional pack, even off the road.
- From 2012-2016 the script of the show remains virtually unchanged, with Sharon reciting the same lines over and over again, almost verbatim, despite that over those years, science’s understanding of wolves has increased and changed. The only real alterations are in the backstories of some of the animals. But the new information provided often directly conflicts with the biographies and information given in previous shows, indicating that the Sandlofers change facts to suit situations.
The main shtick of the Wolves of the World show (aside from being the “Only traveling wolf pack in America”) is that wolves are “the most misunderstood animal in the world”. In addition to being a painfully hackneyed phrase, it simply isn’t true. There are thousands of misunderstood animals in our world. The wolf is just one of them. To describe the wolves and their importance to the environment as being “misunderstood” by Americans is like saying Jews and their importance to humanity was “misunderstood” by Hitler. The hatred and savagery directed at wolves in American history has little to do with them being misunderstood, and everything to do with them being blamed for things they had nothing to do with, and thusly sanctioned for annihilation. And just as with the Holocaust, wolves were systematically exterminated for their perceived worthlessness. Sandlofer, when she does touch on the subject–something that doesn’t even happen in every show–states that wolves were targeted for hunting because “man saw them as competition”. That is, to put it mildly, an extremely narrow and simplistic perception of the matter, and a largely modern interpretation of modern wolf conservation issues, not historical ones.
In the 1700s, explorers were not concerned with the idea that wolves were going to eat all of their deer or other food staples. In the 1800s settlers were not concerned with sharing food with wolves, so much as saving their livestock from the perceived danger of wolf attack. During hard winters, this ended up being a literal danger. In the 1900s, professional wolf hunters were not concerned with how many deer a wolf pack ate, so much as how many dollars they could get for each wolf killed.
The mass extermination of wolves was driven, not by their “competition” with human hunters, but by the desire for cold hard money, as well as old world fears and hatred, which early settlers brought with them from Europe, where wolves had already been effectively exterminated by 1680 in Scotland, 1786 in Ireland 1707 in Switzerland, and so on. By the late 1800s, wolves were all but extinct in most European countries, and those still alive had been driven into Russia.
True wolf extermination efforts in America did not even begin until the 1870s, and that period of violence lasted up into the 1950s.
To present the idea that wolves were killed by “settlers” because they were viewed as “competition” for a food source, or perceived as dangerous to humans, implants visions such as this into the minds of listeners:
When in reality, the intentional butchering of wolves is a much more recent event, and one that was driven by outright hatred, monetary gain, and sport. (both historical and modern wolf extermination shown here)
Sandlofer’s noble intonement that “Native Americans were really the only people who truly understood wolves. They thought of the wolf as their brother.” is also an idealistic fabrication of “white thinking” (usually presented while mood-setting Native American pipe soundtracks are played for the audience) The relationship between American Indian Nations and the wolf was, and remains, complex and deep, and not always friendly. Some Nations admire the wolf and respect it, but rather than see wolves as “brothers” they see them as warrior spirits which can be invoked by wearing wolf hides, or tails tied to themselves as they go into battle. The Cheyenne Wolf Warrior society are an example of this.
Other Nations, most notably the Navajo, feared, and continue to fear, wolves, believing them to be human witches in disguise. They believed that a Navajo witch became a wolf by donning the skin of a hunted wolf. Navajo werewolves are, even today, often blamed for murders, mutilated bodies, and raiding graveyards.
Unlike Sandlofer’s presentation of American Indians taming wolves and turning them into todays breeds (it should be noted that there are many dog breeds older than the recorded history of North American Natives) the reality is that bringing wolves into camp rarely worked out, as the camp dogs (which Sandlofer’s timeline insinuates wouldn’t have existed yet) killed the pups, or superstitious tribe members stole them away and cast them out. It was far more common, particularly amongst the Cree, for children to find a wolf den, and approach it, at which time the adults would move away–with no recorded attacks on the children–and then the children would dig the pups out and play with them before returning them to their den, and retreating so that the adults to return.
To get back to the “educational” value of Wolves of the World, Sandlofer repeatedly says that you “don’t train wolves, you ask them to do something and hope they do it”, while at the same time openly giving the wolves verbal instructions, and rewarding them with food when they obey, which is the literal process for training through positive reinforcement. The conflict of her statements is obvious. She is, in fact, training the wolves. Or, to be more correct, the wolfdogs.
Image of the Sandlofer’s animals taken from this undated article, where they’re described as Timber wolves.
It’s obvious to anyone with some expertise that virtually every animal in the Wolves of the World show, is actually a captive bred wolfdog, not a full-blooded wolf. Despite that the show describes the pack as “all Eastern Timber wolves” in this 2012 video, none of the animals are full-blooded wolves.
In contrast wolfdogs (as I suspected most, if not all of the Sandlofers animals were when I first saw them) are the product of multiple generations of selective breeding between other wolfdogs in a manner which sustains a high percentage of wolf genetics, but provides a more doglike personality, and tractability. Because domestic dogs were taxonomically recategorized in 1993 as a subspecies of Canus lupus, wolfdog proponents say that they’re no different from other domestic dogs, and wolfdog are now recognized by the UCA. If you follow I.C.A.R.U.S. you’ll know our position on this matter. I have included informational links on wolfdogs to show the definitive differences between them, and captive wolves, for the purpose of this article. And this article is not about wolfdogs, it’s about the misrepresentation of wolves by the Sandlofers in their show.
In order to confirm my hunch about the wolfdogs, I sought out and subsequently secured the expertise of an established professional within the wolfdog community. They were, understandably, dubious about speaking with me, considering I.C.A.R.U.S.’s position. However, when I explained my situation, they were willing to help me, as the misrepresentation of wolves, and wolfdogs, is bad business for anyone devoted to genuine conservation.
My contact was able not only to confirm that at least four of the Sandlofer’s main animals (Cody, the “hero wolf” Phoenix, Cheyenne, and another unnamed animal) are, in fact, wolfdogs, but also that those four animals were not “rescued” by the Sandlofers. They were, in reality, bought by Sharon and her husband a number of years ago. Furthermore, my source was given to understand that sometime shortly after the Sandlofers purchased the animals and began describing them as “rescues” they were approached by the former owner, and asked to refrain from calling the animals “rescues” since they had been purchased.
Yet, in virtually every video, or interview I found about the Sandlofers they steadfastly, through the years, have continued to describe their animals as “all rescues”. Likely, this is because “rescues” are far more sympathetic to the audience than purchased animals. The Sandlofer’s daughter, Benna, goes even a step further in this 2014 video, not only repeatedly calling all of the animals “wolves” but also stating that a number of them are “wolves” people got as pets, and then became afraid of and couldn’t handle. As none of the Sandlofer animals are even full wolves, this is, apparently, another fabrication of fact, possibly to then allow the Sandlofers to “encourage” conservation by suggesting that wolves don’t make good pets. Which is true, but irrelevant, since the Sandlofers don’t have full blooded wolves.
The only bit of truth, it seems, to the Sandlofers’ backstories of their animals, is the rescue story wherein Cody saved a child from drowning. That, my source stated, they knew to be a true story. My contact went on to say that as far as they know, Sharon still keeps her ear out within the wolfdog community for any animals that might be available to secure and add to the show. It is not, my source explained, uncommon for many of the “sanctuaries” which offer “wolf” interactions, to shop around for wolfdogs and wolfdog puppies to purchase for their programs, as wolfdogs are more outgoing, where wolves are incredibly shy, and wolfdogs are much more inclined to follow an established routine, when properly socialized and trained.
This is not surprising for those of us who are aware of the duplicity of pseudo-sanctuaries, but it was enlightening to hear it from the “opposite side of the fence” as it were, and I’m grateful to my contact for all the help they provided to me.
In the 2012 video, the animals Sandlofer refers to as “the boys” are all wolfdogs, bred in captivity and derived from several generations of wolfdogs at minimum. While Sandlofer offers lengthy histories for the other animals, she states that she “doesn’t really know the story” of these animals (there are about five) but that they “came from West Virginia” and that they “desperately needed help and we were there to give it.”
The owner of the show doesn’t know how she ended up with a batch of wolfdog puppies–which she’s introduced to her audience as full-blooded Eastern Timber wolves? How is that even possible? She goes on to say that they’ve had “the boys” since they were babies, and that she raised them herself, which makes them easier to handle and work with.
Fast forward to this video of the 2016 show, and Sandlofer is now telling the audience that “the boys” are all brothers, about five years old, and all came from the same (undisclosed) place in West Virginia, and she points out that they “look different” because “they’re wolf-hybrids”. Confusingly, however, some articles from around the same still have the Sandlofers stating that “the animals in their show all are eastern timber wolves.” While other articles quote the Sandlofers as stating that they are wolf-hybrids.
After showing off “the boys” Sharon then introduces three young pups, two boys and one girl, whom she states “have been really interesting” because they’re only a year old, and they’re the first young animals she’s gotten to work with because normally they only get older rescues. So now we have two separate shows performed four years apart both containing young animals that Sandlofer states are the “first” young wolves or wolf-hybrids she’s ever worked with.
On top of that, Wolves of the World seems to have offered photo opportunities throughout the years, each with a puppy or set of puppies, which, of course provokes the questions where are the puppies coming from? What sort of pups are they? (the Sandlofers refer to a pup named Lobo as half Arctic wolf and half Timber wolf, at one point, then call him a full Arctic wolf in a different instance) And where are they going?
As far as the scientific information that Sandlofer recites for her audience, much of it is misinformation, or fragmented facts.
According to Sandlofer a wolf’s “golden yellow eyes see extremely well”. But the reality is that wolves see, on average, as well as a human during the day (they see more tones of gray, and can detect motion faster than we can, but don’t actually see “better”) and some researchers actually believe that wolves might be nearsighted due to the fact that there eyes do not possess a foveal pit. They have more rods than we do, though, and thus see much better than humans in the dark. In addition, the color of a wolf’s eyes range from gold to amber, brown, gray, yellow and even green. Only blue is explicitly excluded from a true wolf’s eye color range, yet Sandlofer repeatedly describes all wolves as having “golden” eyes, citing it as one of their defining features.
Similarly, Sandlofer describes a wolf pack as being “five to as many as twenty wolves” when in reality, a pack can consist of as few as two wolves, and in some cases, under certain circumstances, as many as 40. In fact, at one point, the Druid pack of Yellowstone (and Sandlofer is quick to liken her own wolves to those of Yellowstone) swelled to 37 animals. During the winter of 2010-2011 there was even an unprecedented occurrence in the small town of Verkhoyansk, Russia wherein an exceedingly hard winter forced multiple wolf packs to merge, resulting in an amalgamation of hundreds of animals working together. Even conservative estimates put the number of wolves at over 200 animals, and in their bid to survive the winter, they wreaked havoc on the agriculture of the small town. A far cry from Sandlofer’s 5-20 animal wolf packs.
Sandlofer states that wolves are unique in the formation of their foot, wherein the two center toes are slightly longer, which “gives them superior traction while on the hunt”. In reality, this type of foot conformation is known as being “hare-footed” and all domestic sighthounds, as well as many other domestic breeds possess the feature. It provides more speed to the animal, but also take more energy within the execution of their gait. Domestic dogs with evenly rounded feet (the result of short third digital bones) are described as being “cat footed”.
When Sandlofer discusses her wolves which were “rescued” from a Minnesota fur farm, she states that “fur farms are illegal”. Fur farms are not, in fact, illegal. They should be, but that’s another topic for another article. Fur farms in the US are not only legal, but they’re not even regulated at the federal level. Some states may, or may not have specific protections, but that’s no guarantee. The only possible protection for wolves would be the Endangered Species Act, but wolves do not currently have full protection under the ESA, and the ESA does not protect hybridized animals at all. So just as the Sandlofers are presenting their wolfdogs as full wolves, anyone owning full wolves could simply crossbreed their animals, and thus avoid the issue while still harvesting pelts. And since the Sandlofer’s other animals actually are wolfdogs, it seems plausible that the “wolves” they “rescued” from the supposed fur farm are also wolfdogs. Even if someone is accused of breaching the ESA, prosecuting them is an arduous and slow process, which multiple steps. And it’s not always completely successful.
The Wolves of the World show has, according to articles, and reviews, long been seen as an exciting and educational experience designed for family fun, despite that the “education” they offer is comprised of falsehoods, exaggerations, and outright bullshit. With the increasing popularity of “education through interaction” programs and facilities, it’s likely the Sandlofers will only continue to expand their show, misrepresenting wolves in the process. By foregoing honest facts in favor of showy–and untrue–stories and histories the Sandlofers do no service to current wild wolf populations, nor to conservation itself. In truth, the only suggestions for “aiding wolf conservation” that I ever heard the Sandlofers mention was that audience members should “contact their congressman” and either demand an end to wolf culling, or ask that they not be removed from the endangered species list. Genuine issues and information regarding sustainable wolf conservation within wild populations were never mentioned.
The history of wolves in America is a complicated, often sordid affair that swings from utter vilification and near complete eradication, to glorification, and contrived reverence to the point of absurdity. It’s a subject that far outstrips the inane adjectives of “misunderstood” and “competition” used by the Sandlofers to describe the American conflict between wolves and humans. Likewise, the ongoing biology, and science of wolves, and wolf conservation is an ever-expanding realm of study. And it’s one that faces a constant and ongoing war against the misinformation, lies, and exploitation of groups like the Sandlofers. Those of us fighting to reach the public without the aid of flashy shows and routines will readily meet the challenge, each and every time we face it.
If you would like to know more about the true history of wolves in America, the three books listed below are a great place to start.
For a plethora of scientific articles about wolves, and their conservation spanning decades check out this link.
* The Sandlofers did not respond to my attempts to contact them.