South Africa


Lockdown hits wolf sanctuary dream

Canadian timber wolves Lexi and Ronnie Austin say were destined to be sold for canned hunting. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Hartbeespoort couple aims to educate people about canned wolf hunting and hybrids, but Covid-19 pandemic takes a bite out of sanctuary.

When Lexi and Ronnie Austin heard about a pack of wolves that was destined to be sold into the hunting trade in 2016, they knew that their dream of running an animal sanctuary would need to become a reality fast.

Husband and wife team Lexi, left, and Ronnie Austin with a wolf. The sanctuary is home to two packs of the animals. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

So after scrambling to raise the R50,000 needed to register a non-profit organisation, the couple started the All Hearts Foundation and rescued the pack.

Lexi and Ronnie moved the pack to two other locations before they finally settled in Hartbeespoort in 2018.

Ronnie Austin feeds treats to the wolves in an enclosure. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The aim of All Hearts Foundation is to educate people on exotic wildlife and predators such as wolves and create awareness of the canned wolf hunting trade and the dangers of keeping wolf hybrids as pets.

“Everybody is aware of the canned lion hunting trade. We all fight for the lions because they are the number one predator to shoot for trophies,” Lexi said, emphasising that fighting against canned wolf hunting was just as important.

Luna yawns in her enclosure. She is the alpha female of her pack and is respected by the other wolves. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

A hybrid or wolf dog is a combination of a wolf and a domestic dog. Said Ronnie: “Hybrids are a massive problem in our country. People don’t speak enough about this either. Many people have this craze about wanting to own a wolf and will go on to the internet and look for wolves.

“They will then get scammed into buying what they think is a wolf. They will think they own a wolf, but they actually own a monster dog because there are people breeding wolves with pitbulls, Labradors, German shepherds and other breeds. There are so many breeders out there and we try very hard to educate people out there on the dangers of hybrids.”

Lexi and Ronnie Austin interact with a wolf in his enclosure. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

According to Ronnie, hybrids have the potential of turning on owners or their children. 

“A hybrid does not know if it is a wolf or a dog. One minute the dog instinct will be there, it will love you but then a small animal can come by and the wolf instinct will kick in and it will treat that animal or even a child as prey. There are too many out there,” Ronnie said.

A wolf stands beside a pool in his enclosure. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

All Hearts Foundation usually receives a call a week about hybrids and Lexi feels legislation is needed to stop the trade.

The sanctuary is in a constant financial struggle and the Covid-19 pandemic has added to the strain.

Lexi and Ronnie Austen walk with Marley, a rescued sheep who thinks he is a dog. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The foundation’s biggest challenges are the expensive vet bills that stack up and their monthly running costs, which come to between R40,000 and R50,000. 

Samson Loyd, left, watches as Sammy Mapfacha throws a chicken over the enclosure fence at feeding time. The average wolf needs to about 15kg-20kg of chicken a week. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“Having a non-profit organisation is very difficult financially. It takes a big toll on you. We are very reliant on donations and public visits. The pandemic has [been] a knock [to] us. Our monthly donors cut back on their donations because of Covid-19 and we have now fallen short on our monthly rental. This has never been the case in the last two years, but because of the lockdown we were unable to make our general income.”

The hard lockdown meant the couple had to close the sanctuary’s doors for five months.

Lexi and Ronnie Austin take Shimbungu for a walk. The paralysed dog makes use of a harness to help him get around. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“We still cannot function normally. Covid-19 is a huge concern, even for the health of our animals,” Lexi said. 

The pandemic has affected the couple’s plans to purchase the property they now occupy or buy new premises. They are turning away wolves as they are uncertain if they will remain at their present sanctuary.

Sandy the horse is one of many other animals rescued by All Hearts Foundation. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

According to Lexi and Ronnie, it is essential to own land to function at full capacity. This would give them freedom to add new buildings and make alterations. It would also allow them to expand and take on other exotics and rescue more wild animals. 

A drone image shows some of the Canadian timber wolves in their enclosure. They were destined to be sold to the hunting trade before their rescue by All Hearts Foundation. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Ronnie Austin pulls excess fur from a wolf while Lexi gives treats to other wolves. Some of the wolves are friendly and approachable because of close human interaction when they were raised. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“We are looking for investors and will be more than happy to share our dream,” said Lexi.

Apart from wolves, All Heart Foundation is home to rescued dogs, 20 cats, five sheep, a horse, birds, fish, a pig and Shimbungu – a dog paralysed from the waist. Shimbungu was a victim of a hit-and-run accident and was left for dead on a Namibian road. He found a home at All Hearts Foundation and despite a difficult recovery, he has made remarkable progress. DM

Read more about the All Heart Foundation here.


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