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Wolf refuge in transition

Founder Fred Keating is out, but the mission continues

CONWAY — A very public dispute over the founder of Loki Clan Wolf Refuge in Chatham has the organization looking to reassure its supporters. Friends and supporters of Fred Keating, meanwhile, are vocally protesting his ouster.

The Loki Clan Wolf Refuge sits on 70 acres in Evans Notch straddling the Maine/New Hampshire border. It is dedicated to wolves and wolf-hybrids, providing them a place to live and run. Wolf-hybrids are unlike normal dogs, but people often get them as pets without understanding their wild nature. In many states the only option for someone looking to get rid of one of these animals is to kill it.
In 1993 Fred Keating, who both friends and opponents describe as a force of nature, started the organization after a refuge he'd set up in his backyard outgrew itself. The refuge got support from members of the community who provided Keating and his packs with land, and for the next 18 years Keating lived just outside the fences that held in the wolves and wolf-dogs.
Late last year, however, the board ousted Keating, citing struggles with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that go back to the late 1990s, as well as financial mismanagement.
"Even if we wanted him to stay it wasn't an option," said Marianne Finney, the president of the Loki Clan board. The USDA wanted Keating gone.
"It was a very very hard decision," said Naomi Levesque, another board member.
But not everyone feels the board had no other choice. "Somewhere along the line, there was a tacit decision to conduct something akin to a hostile takeover of the refuge," supporters of Keating's said in a letter that went out to every person on the organization's mailing list. "At the root of this course of action was the belief by a majority of the board that they knew more about wolves, and more about how the LCWR should be run than Fred did."
Under Keating's leadership the refuge faced two complaints from the USDA, one in the late 1990s and another in 2011. The complaint in the late 1990s said the organization was violating the Animal Welfare Act by "exhibiting" the animals — showing the wolf-dogs off to the public in exchange for compensation — without having the appropriate license. USDA also cited the organization for not having adequate shelters and other facilities, or veterinary care. The 2011 complaint alleged the group was running a zoo.
In the late 1990s the organization fought the allegations, according to Maury Geiger, who served as the refuge's lawyer and represented Loki Clan in Portland, Maine and in Washington D.C.
"We had three days of hearings," he said. He argued the organization provided a place for these animals to live out their days, not a place to show them off, and therefore the USDA was in no place to make demands of the organization. And as for the matter of the facilities and veterinary care, he said, the refuge kept things as close to nature as possible. That was Keating's vision, what the refuge was meant to do.
Still, Geiger said, the fight was rigged. It was an administrative hearing, he said, not a trial. "In a sense, the government has all the options. It's an uphill battle."
"I thought we had the law on our side," he said, "but that doesn't always mean you'll prevail."
The organization was able to settle the dispute and move on, but the differences in views between the USDA and the Loki Clan were laid bare. A decade later the USDA was back, this time claiming the organization was running a zoo.
This time the board decided to work with the USDA instead of fight it.
"Mr. Keating (not the board) has had an ongoing legal battle with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for over 10 years," Finney said in a letter she sent to The Conway Daily Sun, "resulting in astronomical fines. Loki Clan Wolf Refuge cannot continue without a sound working relationship with the USDA."
The board voted in December to remove Keating from the organization he founded. Included in that was a decision to remove him from refuge property.
It was a big change, one that upset former board members. Before December, according to the organization's website, "There is rarely a day that Keating leaves the site, and every animal is socialized by him. It is not just the care and protection of the animals that he ensures, but their deep bonds with people."
The refuge, according to Keating's friends and supporters, was Keating's life's work.
Keating's removal has come with other changes, according to Finney and the letter protesting Keating's expulsion that went out to the organization's mailing list.
"We've hired a vet, which we've never had before," Finney said. That happened "as soon as Fred was voted off."
"The latest shift in philosophy is illustrated by the board's decision to request a license from the USDA to allow the LCWR to become an 'exhibitor,'" the letter said. "Of course this is a fundamental change in the mission of the refuge."
The refuge's basic purpose, the letter said, is "to provide a place for the animals to live out their lives and die in their natural way," and that is now threatened.
The board responded in its own counter-letter. "The original mission of the refuge remains intact," it said, "to provide a safe environment for wolves and wolf-dogs in a natural setting. LCWR has never lost sight of Fred Keating's vision. It is the foundation from which future goals emerge."
"These changes are positive and will benefit the animals in LCWR's care," it continued. "The board members would like to emphasize the fact that the animals are the single greatest concern."
Others, however, like Geiger, are concerned that the more than 60 animals living on the refuge are not being considered in the way they once were, that the new board is treating them like dogs, not wolf-dogs, something Keating always stressed.
"I'm not saying [getting a USDA exhibiting license] is a foolish thing to do," he said. "I'm saying that is not what the wolf refuge is about."
The board is hoping it can move forward, that this won't be a permanent yoke around the organization's neck.
"The board did not want to have to ask Fred to leave," Levesque said, but "after two years of trying to right some wrongs, the board was between a rock and a hard place."
Keating had the best intentions, Finney said, but "he's unwilling and unable to comply with anybody."
"We do not want this to drag out," she said, and "we can't give up. We have 68 animals in our care."
Geiger, however, said it appeared to him the board was looking to push Keating out, that the refuge being built is not what the Loki Clan was meant to be. At this point it may be too late for the two sides to part quietly. The dispute is likely to continue, Geiger said. "This is only round one."

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