AK: Among wolverines, lynx and fox, a man finds his pack

About 30 miles north of Haines, there’s a sanctuary for abandoned wildlife, big and small. Steve Kroschel has owned and operated Kroschel’s Wildlife Center for decades. He’s been dubbed the wildlife whisperer. Even the wolverines – compact killing machines capable of handily taking down an adult moose – play with Kroschel like he’s one of the pack. KHNS’s Jillian Rogers visited the unique ranch earlier this winter and found out that, despite appearances, there’s a method to his madness.

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Lennox and Steve Kroschel. Photo: Jillian Rogers, KHNS-Haines.
Lennox and Steve Kroschel. Photo: Jillian Rogers, KHNS-Haines.

My first encounter with Kroschel is memorable. I hear his nasally, high-pitched calls long before I see him. It kind of sounds like someone strangling a cat, no offense to cat lovers. And then he comes into sight.

It’s a wolverine.

“Good morning! I’ll be right there and I’m bringing a wolverine.” Kroschel says.

Wolverines: not as mic-shy as you might think. Photo: Jillian Rogers, KHNS-Haines.
Wolverines: not as mic-shy as you might think. Photo: Jillian Rogers, KHNS-Haines.

It’s obvious right away that Kroschel, who’s 55, has a strong connection to these wild beasts. It’s a wolverine on a leash for Pete’s sake. It’s also obvious that he’s hosted this tour a million times. He grew up on a large farm and has always had a fondness for all things furry and four-legged.

”Now, I’m going to talk in a very strange way, so don’t think I’m crazy. It’s just the way I communicate,” he says. “This is Banff.”

The Carhartt-clad Kroschel explains that not all of 50 or so animals here are rescues. Some are born at the center. And the animals he’s raised develop a strong bond with him from birth. They imprint, he says.

Kroschel is permitted to the gills by the state so he can house, handle and breed his animals. There are moose, bears, lynx, reindeer, mink, ermine, and of course wolverines — all on a 52-acre parcel. He says he’s facilitated six litters of wolverines in 30 years, but is now down to just two males, including Banff. He hosts busloads of tourists each summer, a way to help pay for the critters and introduce visitors to his unconventional lifestyle. Last year he hosted 125 tour groups. Kroschel touts himself as a naturalist and a filmmaker. He walks around barefoot in the non-snowy months to better connect with the earth.

He has help with the caretaking – his son and volunteers assist in feeding and other tasks.

Banff eventually settles into play mode with Kroschel. I’m still cautioned to keep my distance. Every few minutes, Kroschel lets out a yowl when the wolverine gets a little too rough.

Philipe the silver fox. Photo: Jillian Rogers, KHNS - Haines.
Philipe the silver fox. Photo: Jillian Rogers, KHNS – Haines.

“OWW! He bit me in the crotch!”

“Do they ever get to an age where you can’t rough-house with them like this?” I ask.

“No. OWW!”… Banff makes a kissing noise… “Oh, he smells a quail in my pocket, I forgot.”

“Just to remind you, I’m not crazy, this is just how the wolverine…” Kroschel trails off. “Do you see the change from the beginning to now? See how he is?”

As we make our way around the compound, it’s decidedly unimpressive. I mean, it’s impressive because I know what’s prowling in the various enclosures, but it’s very rustic. More realistic, Kroschel maintains. He recycles what he can: fencing, wood, and the like, to make large pens for the animals. They’ve got plenty of room to roam and run, and they’re moved out to the back 40 when there aren’t guests around.

The novelty of Banff has worn off, so we move on. In the distance a wolf howls. But for now I settle for lively, young fox.

“This is a very delightful little creature, Philipe, the silver fox,” Kroschel explains. “Every animal has its own little language. Philipe was born this spring.”

Apart from being a wolf, Isis plays with Kroschel like a pet husky. Photo: Jillian Rogers, KHNS-Haines.
Apart from being a wolf, Isis plays with Kroschel like a pet husky. Photo: Jillian Rogers, KHNS-Haines.

And in case you’re wondering what the fox says… well, you’ll have to listen. It’s a pretty adorable noise.

Kroschel throws Philipe some frozen quail parts. He claps and makes his fox noises to get Philipe to mug for the cameras. Kroschel knows what photographers, professional or not, want: Wild Alaska animals in their natural habit, but from the safety of a fenced off area.

After Philipe, we move on to visit Lennox, a male lynx. Kroschel wrestles with the giant cat and has a bird-part on a string like a morbid version of a common house-cat-toy. Lennox seems relaxed and happy to interact with Kroschel. The bond really is remarkable to witness.

“The animals are my therapy. I don’t know what I would be like if I wasn’t around animals. My personality would change.”

Lastly, we head to Isis, a 5-year-old lone female wolf. Kroschel gets in her pen and she plays like a giant husky, running and throwing herself at her master. Isis was born at Kroschel’s. Both her parents were orphaned in the Brooks Range, Kroschel says.

“Dances with wolves right here. This is what it is.”

We finish the tour with a group howl. Isis eventually joins in.