Paul Pondella checks the teeth on four-year-old Wakahn during the educational program at Shadowland Foundation in Lake Hughes. Dan Watson/The Signal

A passion for the call of the wild

Paul Pondella, who is often referred to as “the Wolf Whisperer,” is more comfortable around wolves than he is people.

In fact, it was his love for animals and the outdoors that led him to where he is today, the founder of a wolf sanctuary in Lake Hughes.

“This has been a lifelong dream since he was just a tyke playing with wild animals, then rescuing them,” Paul’s wife, Colette, said, adding that he dreamed of one day having a place like the Shadowland Foundation. “It would have a big sign saying, ‘Welcome to freedom,’ because that’s how it felt to him, so this is just an extension of who he is and who he has always been.” 

The Shadowland Foundation now has a pack of nine wolves with the goal of educating people on these wild animals. 

Freedom during the educational program at Shadowland Foundation in Lake Hughes. Dan Watson/The Signal

The creation

The dream started to become a reality when Paul got Shadow, a wolf that would help kickstart his dream of creating a wolf sanctuary into reality.

“Shadow trusted us to a degree that I’ve never seen (a wolf) allow to trust a human being,” Paul said. 

When Shadow was diagnosed with a rare cancer, the Pondellas did everything they could to save her. 

By then, they had gotten Alaska and Takoda, and soon they had 11 wolves while living in Studio City. Needless to say, they were soon evicted and began the search for a property that could house their new pack. 

Though Shadow could barely stand without help, the Pondellas loaded her in the truck anyway to go see the property that would soon become her new home, and the beginning of the Shadowland Foundation. 

Paul Pondella demonstrates training for the movies with Freedom during the educational program at Shadowland Foundation in Lake Hughes. Dan Watson/The Signal

“It was in January and there was snow all over the ground,” Colette said. “I thought I was gonna have to carry Shadow out the back, but she went flying out the door, went running all the way down to the pond, came running all the way back, started rolling in the snow and eating it — she couldn’t have been happier. We were all standing there bawling.” 

“That was the beginning of our journey,” Paul added. “And Shadow knew that she had to lay down the foundation.” 

Shadow lived for three years longer than anyone had anticipated, even beating the cancer, but she eventually died from complications the cancer had caused. 

The spring after Shadow died, Paul called the sanctuary only to find out that Shadow’s sister was delivering puppies. 

“We took Takoda and Alaska, and they chose him, and he chose us,” Colette said. “He is Shadow’s nephew and the last of her line, so we had to have him. He represents the freedom of the land. He is wild as he can be and as sweet as can be. It took a powerful energy and a powerful soul to start this, and what Shadow started, Freedom will finish.”

Savanna Bushler, 10, holds treats for Takoda, left, and Cochise. Dan Watson/The Signal

The education

“The whole idea was to educate children about wild animals,” Paul said, adding that his ultimate goal was to educate, not eradicate. 

“A lot of what we’re doing with this pack is learning as we go,” Colette added.

With the hopes of changing people’s hearts and minds about wolves, they created educational programs that are open to the public where visitors not only get a chance to get up close and personal with the wolves, but can truly interact with them.

Every other Saturday, the foundation invites visitors to come, learn about the history of the sanctuary as well as some of the science and history of wild wolves before getting a chance to play with the pack. 

Paul Pondella, left, and Colette Dovall Pondella sit with wolves from left, Ogin, Chernoa and Freemom during the educational program at Shadowland Foundation in Lake Hughes. Dan Watson/The Signal

“What I didn’t know is that this is the only creature that man has set out to eradicate on purpose worldwide,” Colette told visitors during the program, then going further into the history. “So by mid-1920s and early 1930s, almost all the wolves in what we call the lower 48 states had been eradicated. We believe there was maybe 10-50 left around World War II, and then they were put on the endangered species list in 1974.” 

When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, it caused unanticipated changes to the ecosystem. By reintroducing the wolf, an apex predator, the entire park began to flourish. 

“It wasn’t just that they started to manage the deer and elk population, species that hadn’t been seen in decades starting to appear again — plants, animals and trees that hadn’t been growing. All of a sudden these 66 wolves started to revive the entire ecosystem of the park, even changing the waterways.” 

Andrew Cope, left, of Woodland Hills pets Takoda as he wonders among the attendees during the educational program at Shadowland Foundtion in Lake Hughes. Dan Watson/The Signal

The fun

After learning some of the history, visitors got the opportunity to meet each of the nine wolves that make up the Shadowland Foundation Pack, while Paul and Colette continued the lessons. 

Paul told each person to open their left hand as he gave them a treat to feed Takoda. 

“Your left hand is closer to the heart, and they all read heart energy — that’s how they speak,” he said. 

Various guests were then able to volunteer to “be fed to the wolves” and they laid down on the stage as Paul covered them with treats for the wolves to lick off. 

Attendees pet Tehya during the educational program at Shadowland Foundation in Lake Hughes. Dan Watson/The Signal

Robbie Hulsizer surprised his wife, Therese, who loves wolves, with a visit to the sanctuary. 

“I just stumbled upon it,” Robbie said, adding that they drove up from the San Fernando Valley for this. “I really like it, and it’s really interesting to learn about the wolves.” 

“It was a really great surprise,” Therese added. “I’ve met wolf dogs before, but this is really great.” 

Shadowland Foundation offers a two-hour educational program at 10 a.m. every other Saturday at Ranch Freedom, located at 18832 Pine Canyon Road in Lake Hughes. For more information, visit shadowlandfoundation.org or call 661-724-0291.

Melinda Austin of L.A. sits with Tehya, left, and Takoda and Cochise during the educational program at Shadowland Foundation in Lake Hughes. Dan Watson/The Signal

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