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John Knight's passion drives the Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary

Kyle Farris and Spirit.
Kyle Farris and Spirit.
John Knight

The large white wolf named Spirit stood peacefully as the young man stroked her chest. She slowly swayed her body and whenever he stopped petting her, the wolf gingerly pawed his leg, encouraging him to continue.

John Knight and the wolf, Spirit, at the Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary.
John Knight and the wolf, Spirit, at the Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary.
Debra Knight

Kyle Farris sat on one of the wooden platforms designed specifically for Spirit and the other 30 wolves and 26 wolf-dog hybrids at Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary in Green Cove Springs, near Jacksonville, Fla. As Spirit stood above him, he smiled and occasionally commented on how soft her fur was or whispered, “Good girl.” He was amused each time she pawed his leg and delightfully complied with her request for more affection.

“See how she’s different with him than with other people?” asked John Knight, who, along with wife Debra oversees Big Oak. “There’s a gentleness there that you don’t see as much when she’s with others.”

Spirit is a five-and-a-half-year-old Alaskan Interior/Arctic wolf who normally lives up to her name: She loves interacting with people so much that it can be overwhelming.

Intensely licking and sniffing, rubbing against you with such vigor that if you are not braced – she stands nearly six feet on her hind legs and weighs 120-165 pounds (lighter in summer, heavier in winter) – you will tumble over.

She will also take your things: Jewelry, hats or anything in your hands, your pockets, or even your mouth (especially gum) is fair game. She particularly focuses on clothes; she will grab a piece of your pants, shirt or shoelace and literally rip them off of your body.

She does not do this aggressively or with any intent to harm; nonetheless, she has left several people standing in nothing but their skivvies, according to Knight.

But Spirit displayed none of this toward Farris.

Knight credits the difference in Spirit’s behavior to the fact that Farris is “developmentally delayed.” He has Lowe Syndrome, a genetic condition that causes physical and mental handicaps as well as medical problems. While chronologically 24, Farris functions more on the level of a teenager, according to his mother, Susan.

“There’s a purity of heart there that I think the wolves respond to,” explained Knight, noting that the other wolves behave similarly to Spirit. “Kyle doesn’t carry the same level of pressures or concerns as the rest of us; he’s more childlike. He comes with a kind of clarity – like a clean versus dirty window. Therefore, the wolves don’t feel the need to control or fear him. They accept and trust him as he is and this brings out their gentler side, which is great for them, too.”

Realizing the far-reaching benefits of these interactions – several other developmentally delayed youth regularly visit with similar results – Knight developed a mission statement to reflect the value of Big Oak to both wolves and people:

To provide permanent sanctuary for abused and unlawfully obtained/owned wolves, and then, to involve the ‘rescued’ wolves in helping the physically and developmentally disabled find a renewed enthusiasm for life through volunteer opportunities.”

This mission was not one that the Knight’s intentionally set out upon.

John, 51, is a former marine, body builder and published fitness author who is currently negotiating with the Professional Golf Association to sell a golf performance enhancement program that he developed called, Playfit. Debra, 53, is a veteran health care administrator.

They began Big Oak in 2005 after acquiring Spirit and another wolf puppy, Sampson. For 10 years prior, they owned wolf-dogs and volunteered hundreds of hours at wolf facilities. They never intended to take in more, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asked them to take on abused wolves that had been raised in captivity and had little chance of survival in the wild. One animal led to another until, before they knew it, they had a sanctuary.

“We felt in our hearts that these animals were coming to us for a divinely inspired reason and we couldn’t say no,” Debra Knight said

“In my perfect world, our sanctuary wouldn’t exist,” added John Knight. “There’d be no breeders and only wild wolves. But as long as they keep coming, we’ll do our best to care for them.”

Big Oak is named for the countless oak trees that form a thick canopy over its five secluded acres. The wolves are housed in packs of two to eight within 20 spacious, fenced enclosures, each containing large wooden platforms for shelter, a pool to keep cool and private underground dens.

The sanctuary is funded solely by donations and the Knight’s personal incomes (they take no salary). At a monthly operational cost of $5,000 – nearly $2,000 of which goes toward feeding the wolves 4,200 pounds of raw meat – they have amassed a huge personal debt.

In spite of this persistent financial shortfall, researchers from the University of Florida Canine Cognition Lab concluded that Big Oak is one of the most innovative and successful wolf sanctuaries in the country in terms of accommodations, attention to details and maintaining the health and well-being of the animals.

While most of the wolves at Big Oak are friendly, it is not open to the public and the Knights are adamantly opposed to displaying them. “It wouldn’t exactly be a ‘sanctuary’ if we had them on display,” John notes. The only people permitted to interact with the wolves are 20 highly trained volunteers.

Knight charges first time volunteers $100 to distinguish the committed from the curiosity seekers. While the volunteers help with some basic upkeep, John does the vast majority of the work at the sanctuary, building and maintaining the platforms, dens and other structures and overseeing the vigorous health regiment of the wolves. He has taken only one day off in six years with the exception of two stays in the hospital due to exhaustion related health issues.

He feels strongly that the volunteers’ time is best spent interacting with the wolves. That is to say, that is what is best for the wolves.

“The difference between this place and most other places is simple: We’re in direct contact with the wolves.”

This is where Kyle and other developmentally delayed youth fit in. While the facility is not currently equipped to optimize their experience – expanded space, more accessibility and increased supervision are necessary upgrades – John Knight looks forward to the time when there is enough funding to grow a program that enhances the lives of both the wolves and developmentally delayed youth. This would include nurturing a relationship with local schools so that their special needs students could benefit from interactions with the wolves.

“It makes sense to me,” said Susan Farris, “Kyle loves it here and it really does him good whenever we visit.”

Kyle put it in simple terms: “The wolves make me feel happy.”

To find out more about Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary or to assist with a donation, visit their website at www.bigoakwolfsanctuary.org/.

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