by Martha Michael
You might say it was the call of the wild that led Steve Wastell and Paula Ficara to devote their lives to the rescue of wolves and wolfdogs. More than a decade ago, they were a normal married couple, both working and living in the San Fernando Valley. But when Ficara created an e-zine and conducted an interview with a nonprofit wolf rescue, the experience changed their lives.
“We went out there and were taken by the animals,” Wastell said. “We also wanted to give back. … We started volunteering – first on Saturdays, then Saturdays and Sundays, then Mondays … we helped get this off the ground and became the first paid staff.”
Then the couple’s lives began to change. They both lost their jobs and their residence where they had lived for 13 years. Wastell and Ficara were “starving actors” living in Sherman Oaks and had a wolf dog sharing their apartment. (“Tabu” is still with them today.) The landlord wasn’t happy about the resident canine, and ultimately, one of the tenants in the building complained.
“It felt like our lives were falling apart,” Wastell said. “Everything was going in a direction that we thought was downhill, but the universe had other plans. It was the beginning of our new lives.”
They loved their work at the nonprofit and decided to strike out on their own, not because they disagreed with the other organization’s work, but they had a slightly different vision.
“The other one was doing rehab for kids and at-risk kids,” Wastell explained. “We wanted kids to save wolves, rather than wolves save kids.”
In 2015 they established Apex Protection Project in Acton.
“Then people started bringing us wolf dogs,” Wastell said. “We developed a reputation for rescuing wolfdogs and we did more advocacy and began saving wolves in the wild.”
From its inception, Apex has been a three-fold enterprise: education, advocacy and rescue.
“Our wolves travel and go to schools with us,” Wastell said. “We make it safe for all of them and they learn about advocacy, about wolves in the wild.”
Part of the mission of Apex is to demystify wolves, to shatter myths that contribute to fear of the species.
“People assume wolves are aggressive,” Wastell said. “Socially, we’re closer to wolves than primates. They’re social animals. They strategically work as a team. They’re the most functional team in nature.”
Wastell described how scientists have learned by studying wolves.
“The way they treat each other – within a pack they don’t hurt each other,” he said. “The alphas are the parents – mom and dad (not the strongest, meanest, largest). The beta is just the big brother or sister and they help take care of the younger ones. They’re very tribal.”
What we don’t know about the animals would surprise us including how gentle they are, according to Wastell. “Most people think of aggressive predators, but they’re actually very skittish,” he said. “The wolves are very hard to spot – they don’t want to be around people.”
The nonprofit founders hope to spread the word through education. “Empowering kids to use their voice,” he said, “to know what’s going on and so they have the facts.”
The facts, says the Apex co-founder, is that only two humans have been killed by (healthy) wolves in North America in 100 years. Yet 23 people each year are killed by cows.
“Years ago we’d ask, ‘What do you know about wolves?’ They’d say ‘scary.’ Now they say, ‘They’re cool, they’re cute.’” Wastell said. “Now not nearly as many hands go up when you ask, ‘Who’s afraid of wolves?’”
Apex Protection Project has brought their wolf presentation to schools in Hollywood, Orange County, San Bernardino and the beach communities.
They would be happy to bring the program to Santa Clarita Valley schools as well.
Their hope is that kids can carry the message spelled out on the website: the dream of living in a world where the wolf and all species are highly valued, protected and respected for the balance they bring to the ecosystem and for the gifts they offer to humanity.
There are various events that promote the nonprofit’s mission. Sedona Wolf Week is a conference that is co-presented by Apex and aims to change the way the world sees wolves while advocating for their protection and conservation.
The Sedona Week activities include:
Feature films and documentaries
Call of the Wild art exhibits and workshops
School presentations and a children’s program
World-renowned speakers and presentations
Co-Existence Panel and workshop bringing ranchers and advocates together
Opportunities to socialize with the Ambassador Pack
Closing night entertainment which has included the band America and magicians from Hollywood’s Magic Castle
At other times of the year, groups of visitors can hike with the pack at the Apex facility in Acton. It’s a 4-hour event with 6-10 people where guests can observe the wolves walking the trail.
“Because we’re small we can work with our animals off-leash. You get to see them play together as a pack,” Wastell said. “We don’t do big events. Even though our guys are super friendly, we don’t want to overwhelm them.”
The day ends with a barbecue including wine and howling with the wolves – literally. Many of their guests leave with tears and hugs, and some even join the ranks of wolf and wolfdog advocates.
The couple has found over the years that their background in acting and hospitality work come in handy. “We do a lot of presentations and host a lot of events,” Wastell said. “It becomes this experience I don’t think is possible to produce on a big scale. Hopefully when they leave they’ve had an up close and personal experience with the wolves.”
Continuing their work and growing for the cause requires funding, and currently the couple is looking for a new property – if possible, one that’s cooler than the summer on the edge of the desert.
“We’re trying to get coastal,” Wastell said. “But we want to be as close to the city as possible to get to schools to educate the kids.”
They currently have eight wolves and wolfdogs, some of them that they found on the side of the road and others rescued from death row in shelters.
“When captive-bred wolves or wolfdogs end up in a shelter, it’s illegal for the shelter to re-adopt them out to the public in most parts of the country,” Wastell explained. “They will only be given to a certified wolf/wolfdog rescue. This is a death sentence for most of these animals.”
“Apex is part of a nationwide captive-bred wolf and wolfdog rescue network that works together to place animals all around the country,” says the website. “There are anywhere from 2 to 30 wolves and wolfdogs in need of rescue almost every week and we try to help as many as we can.”
But for now the couple will continue to advocate for wolves, working with ranchers who are boosting sustainability and raising awareness because “most people don’t have any idea what danger wolves are in,” according to Wastell.
“We actively support non-lethal coexistence in the ranching and farming communities by helping to provide information and tools to help make this a possibility,” the website says. “Teaching the public about Predator Friendly® Certification is one of the main ways of raising awareness and encouraging producers to work non-lethally with their local wildlife.”
For more information about the nonprofit, call 661-575-9261 or visit ApexProtectionProject.org.