Of howling wolves and chilly winds

“I LIVED my childhood dream of running, playing and sleeping with wolves. I cannot do justice by describing with words just how amazing it was to wake up in a tipi to the sound of wolves’ howls echoing through the valley,” Kenneth Wong said as he described his time as a volunteer staff member at Mission: Wolf, a non-profit wolf sanctuary in southern Colorado, United States.

Graduating from Monash University Malaysia’s School of Business in 2015 with a Bachelor of Business & Commerce, Kenneth left for the US in August the same year. His six-month stint saw him travelling and living a lifelong dream of working in the outdoors.

What kind of volunteering work did you do in the US?

I spent the whole winter as a volunteer staff member at Mission: Wolf which houses wolves and wolf-dogs. The sanctuary also served to educate the public on conservation, sustainability and connecting with nature, as well as their role in the ecosystem.

My work was a mix of animal care, education, non-profit management, facilities, and vehicle maintenance and sustainability. I adapted quickly to the various tasks required to keep a sanctuary of 30 wolves running – processing meat and feeding the wolves; giving tours to visitors from all over the world; handling finances, office tasks and correspondence; fixing vehicles, facilities, and building things; maintaining compost and crops for the staff; maintaining solar panels for power and processing vegetable oil for vehicles.

Why is wildlife conservation important to you?

I have the utmost respect and love for nature. I would love for nothing than be able to enjoy the outdoors in its pristine glory for the rest of my life. The way that humankind lives right now is not just unsustainable, but also an insult to the bounty and beauty of the world we live in. Carbon emissions, uncontrolled climate change, deforestation, poaching and game hunting, and the lack of awareness are just some of the ways we are destroying the balance of our ecosystem. In the last 40 years, Earth has already lost half of its diverse wildlife. Conservation is our civic duty, to sustain the beauty and balance of the environment for our fellow man.

Once numbered in the tens of thousands, the wolves in North America today number only in the hundreds. The sad thing is that ranchers and hunters have been taught to shoot them on sight, not aware of their role in keeping an ecosystem in check.

What did you take home from the experience?

My overall experience was a beautiful one in many ways. I learned many new skills a typical Malaysian would not have had the chance to. I learned to swing an axe, repair trucks, weld metal, fell trees with a chainsaw, gut and process an animal for its meat (mostly cows and horses for the wolves), operate a tractor, and cook.

I lived my childhood dream of running, playing, sleeping with the wolves. I cannot do justice in describing just how amazing it is to wake up in a tipi to the sound of wolves’ howls echoing through the valley, to breathe in the cold, heavy mountain air, to step outside to the immediate view of the mountains and wilderness as far as the eye can see. The best part of the whole thing was going in with the wolves.

What was your biggest challenge there?

All the usual warnings of culture shock and expecting racism did not ring true for me. I was made to feel welcome, even in the town nearby where we got our groceries. My challenges were more physical.

For one, the weather there was harsh. I arrived at the sanctuary at the very end of the autumn season, so I had about two weeks to adapt to the cold before the full winter chill hit. Sometimes it would get as cold as -5°C in the day and as cold as -20°C at night before the wind blows.

What are the qualities that you learned one must have, to do voluntary work?

You have to understand that while you’re there for a great experience, you’re ultimately there to contribute. You’re not just there to look good and take pictures. Be passionate about the cause you are volunteering for, do your best to be a valued, contribute as a member of the team and the experience will be its own reward.

Is there any advice you would like to give to those who aspire to go on a journey like yours?

If you get the opportunity to get involved with a cause that you are passionate about, do it. If it’s unconventional, people might talk. Working in conservation and outdoors, for example, is not a popular choice in Malaysia, but you would have achieved a personal goal. You’re going to hold on to that for the rest of your life.

Kenneth is currently interning in the Digital Transformation team at Coca-Cola Refreshments. He was previously in Planning & Strategy and Copywriting at Leo Burnett for six months.

In line with developing global citizens and work-ready graduates, Monash University Malaysia encourages students to actively engage in an internationalised world, developing cross-cultural competence and ethical value.