Column: Singing dogs, friendly foxes and a lovable wolf attract fans
A hidden facility in North County strives to change the image of wildlife through public encounters, library and brewery visits -- and a fox who blogs
New Guinea singing dogs, Russian domesticated foxes, an Arctic fox, coyotes and a wolf named Lucan ... all are living quietly in the San Diego backcountry.
They aren’t at the San Diego Zoo, the Safari Park or the Lions, Tigers & Bears exotic animal sanctuary.
Rather, they are living proof that there is much more than apples, mouth-watering pies and abandoned gold and gem mines in the Julian area.
On a securely fenced 10.5-acre ranch off the beaten path near Santa Ysabel, 18 foxes and other canids reside as part of the Judith A. Bassett Canid Education and Conservation Center.
The educational refuge has been a work in progress since dog trainer and breeder Judith Bassett died leaving her son, David, and daughter-in-law, Amy, a small amount of money. It was enough to buy some land and establish a facility dedicated to saving foxes, wolves, wolf-dogs and other members of the canid (dog and fox) family.
Bassett bred German shepherds and had been a passionate lover and savior of canines who had behavioral issues. The running joke was that David was almost born in a whelping box because, when she went into labor, she insisted on delivering a litter of puppies before leaving for the hospital.
She eventually moved from Massachusetts to San Diego to live near her son and his family.
The center started taking shape a decade ago — remote acreage was purchased, a well was dug, electricity added, fences, enclosures and structures were built. The Bassetts applied for federal USDA and California Fish and Wildlife restricted species permits to begin their canid conservation work.
Residents of the center, which is only open for public visits and encounters on weekends by appointment and for scheduled private events, currently include 14 Russian domesticated foxes, three captive-bred red foxes, one Arctic fox, three New Guinea singing dogs, two coyotes and one wolf.
A Russian domesticated fox named Viktor makes occasional brewery and winery informational tours (sometimes with his pals and Lucan). Vlad, the “Dennis the Menace” of the brood, — writes a sassy blog post on Instagram and Facebook nearly ever Friday. He relates humorous tales of animal encounters inside the enclosures.
“It’s a way Vlad can talk about conservation and other things,” David said. Vlad acts as an ambassador showing outsiders that the foxes have vastly different and endearing personalities. “It’s harder to wear something that has a personality,” he added.
Fourteen of the center’s foxes were imported from Russia, where they had been part of a behavioral research program on the process of domestication at the Siberian Institute of Cytology and Genetics.
The animals who proved most social with humans from each litter were further bred, resulting in foxes that are extremely cuddly and affectionate with people. These captive-born foxes can’t successfully be released in the wild.
After the pandemic spread, the search for placement for them was sidelined, and the Bassetts stepped in to rescue them from life in the lab, or worse. “I knew if I failed, these animals probably would not survive,” Amy said. “They love being around people and interacting with people.”
Because of their acute sense of smell, the Bassetts thought the foxes could be trained as avalanche rescue animals or used for bomb, drug or cadaver detection. Amy envisioned this as a great way to draw attention to the animals, highlight their unusual abilities and win admirers.
“Who would want to wear a fox (coat) after seeing them saving people off the hillsides,” she reasoned.
They found the animals were great at detection but terrible at returning home after the search. Because they got them at age 6 months, or older, and weren’t able to train them from birth, Amy jokes that each rescue mission would mean they would have one fewer fox.
The center’s three U.S. foxes were refugees from fur farms. Its white Arctic fox had been dropped off anonymously after being bought as a family pet for a young girl. Not only is it illegal to have them as pets but, while cute, the animals don’t take to being housebroken.
The refuge’s two coyotes were orphaned in the wild as pups. A well-intentioned caregiver raised them on dog food in the company of a wolf pup, who became their best friend — a recipe for disaster in the wild.
The three New Guinea singing dogs — which don’t bark but rather harmonize with each other — are a mom and two sons. She had been removed from a private zoo with animal welfare issues.
The wolf, nearly 3, is named Lucan after the late ‘70s TV series featuring a boy raised by wolves. David has handled him since Lucan was about 8 weeks old. Now 140 pounds, they engage in nightly exercise sessions akin to mixed martial arts. Imagine the antics of “The Pink Panther’s” Inspector Clouseau and his manservant, Cato.
Melissa Beeson, a dog trainer and former Safari Park worker, not only helps with schooling the canids but lives on the property with her husband and manages daily operations.
“I love it,” she said. “The wolf howling, the dogs singing and the coyotes yipping — when I hear them going together, I have to stop and listen. You don’t realize how special this is.”
The center is licensed as a conservation and education facility — different from Lions, Tigers & Bears in East County, which is an exotic animal sanctuary. It also differs from the California Wolf Reserve, a wolf reserve 11 miles away, south of Julian, which prepares its wolf residents for release in the wild. While public visits are encouraged, the facility doesn’t allow public interaction with the wolves.
“We purchased the property to open a nonprofit center as a way of giving back,” Amy said, a pharmaceutical industry consultant by day. She organizes private encounters, photo shoots, field trips, library and student visits, as well as rescuing and finding homes for other canids in peril. She recently was involved in placing 30 U.S. foxes no longer wanted by a fur farm.
The center is run and staffed totally by volunteers, and David built all the enclosures, structures and animal entertainment toys such as a fox-sized hamster wheel.
“We were in a position to create a nonprofit and allow others to meet these canids so we could rescue more and continue that legacy,” Amy said.
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