Growing up in Northern Ontario, Joel Cates was always infatuated with the outdoors. But little did he know that his infatuation would result in him becoming the assistant director at the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary, meeting his future love and helping him fulfill his lifelong passion for wolves and wildlife.
Cates attributes this early interest in the outdoors to the tiny northern Ontario community he grew up in.
“There really isn’t a whole lot of anything to do there. So I spent a lot of time outside,” said Cates.
As a result, Cates began what would become a lifelong relationship with wolves.
“One time I did see two wolves take down a deer and it literally happened just right in front of me. That was kind of my first real encounter with wolves. Literally it was 20 feet away. It was really incredible,” said Cates.
His fascination even became a topic of discussion among his co-workers at CN Rail, where he works as a bridge inspector.
Ultimately it was one of these casual conversations that would determine the outcome of his future life’s work.
“I was just talking to one of the people at work about how much I love wolves, because that's just commonly what I did. And they brought up the sanctuary. I think they said ‘there is a place somewhere near Banff you can do something with wolves.’ Then as soon as they said that I started looking it up and figuring everything out,” he said with a grin realizing how that moment changed his life.
Cates knew after researching the, at the time, much smaller organization he had to get involved right away. It was 2013 when he started volunteering with the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary.
Unfortunately, he was stuck traveling between his job as a CN Rail bridge inspector in Edmonton and volunteering in Exshaw and soon after the Sanctuary’s move, to Cochrane.
“I just came in as any normal person would and I immediately fell in love with the wolfdogs. Then essentially just kept coming back all the time,” Cates said “Wolfdogs are any sort of wolf-dog mix, like a mixed breed.”
Back then when he started volunteering at the organization, Georgina De Caigny was running the sanctuary completely on her own. According to Cates, he came into the picture at a good time when he saw the crazy amount of work she was doing.
“It was crazy to see the amount of work she was putting in and everything that she was doing. I came into the picture I guess at a very good time,” Cates explains.
De Caigny recalled Cates first day. “I think the first thing I noticed was that he wasn’t listening to anything I was saying because he was so distracted by the wolfdogs. I could see right away that he was really fascinated by the animals and that pretty much right away that they meant a lot to him.”
In addition to his work with the sanctuary, Cates would like to see improvements to Canada’s environmental measures taken to cull the wolves in the wild. Cates hopes that in the future more animal activism in Alberta and Canada can bring issues with the wildlife culls to light.
The culls, which take place in Alberta and British Columbia are done to reduce or control the population of wild wolves. De Caigny explains these culls are unnecessary.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of the decision-makers are presented with numbers and at the end of the day, how can you properly manage [the wolves] when you don't understand the behaviours of the animals?”
Now Cates is focused on getting the sanctuary to where it needs to be. He dreams of having all of the enclosures where they keep the wolfdogs finished so all animal enrichment items like climbing areas and play shelters are complete. He can’t wait to finally be at a place where “we can sit back and go ‘this is good.’”
De Caigny echoes Cates sentiments as well. She says she would like to “be finishing off those enclosures and just having more of our educational material out there.”
Cates is still employed as a full-time bridge inspector with CN Rail. Nevertheless, he spends all of his spare time improving the sanctuary, the lives of the wolfdogs and educating the public about these beautiful and sometimes misunderstood creatures. He jokes the assistant director position is just like “full-time job number two.”
After a lot of hard work and devotion to the Yamnuska Wolfdog Foundation, Cates worked his way up to the assistant director position within the organization and along the way he and De Caigny fell in love.
De Caigny explains how Cates and her fell in love with a smile.
“He understood my love for the animals. There are a lot of people that think that what I do is crazy but Joel is one of those people that gets it ... I think it was a perfect combination for him to win the wolfdogs as well as myself over.”
Cates and De Caigny now live together at the sanctuary with the temporary and permanent members of their wolfdog pack. Not too long ago Cates finally got to fulfill his lifetime wish of having his very own wolfdog.
De Caigny gave Loki to Cates as a birthday present.
“Basically from the moment I met him, I just really fell in love with him,” Cates described.
When asked where Cates got his original spark for animal activism he said with a little frustrated laugh, “I would very much like to think it comes from being a decent human being.”
- By Emily Dixon