About 90 minutes north of Los Angeles at the Lockwood Animal Rescue Center (LARC), healing magic happens every day. Nestled on acres of scenic land inside the Los Padres National Forest, LARC’s Wolves & Warriors program offers combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder the chance to bond with wolves and wolfdogs that have been rescued from abusive situations or abandoned because their wild roots make them poor pets. Together they heal and gain a sense of belonging — and a second chance at life.
"Combat veterans have been paid to be predators, much like wolves," says LARC co-founder and Navy veteran Matthew Simmons. "Many come home with this inner war inside them. They don’t know if they’re an infantryman or a husband. And my wolves don’t know if they’re a wolf or a dog. That inner turmoil they’re both suffering bonds them together and they form a partnership that helps them both."
Life after trauma
Simmons is intimately familiar with the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After serving in the Navy, including a stint in Desert Storm, he returned home and launched a computer company. He felt focused and successful, but the harrowing memories of combat lay buried, waiting to surface. He began waking at night soaked in sweat and felt strangely agitated after business meetings.
As his sleeplessness and emotional turbulence grew, Simmons consulted a psychiatrist who prescribed sleeping pills. He was soon popping a few at a time and washing them down with wine. "By this point I’d sold my computer company and was in turmoil, drinking too much and taking too many pills," he says.
Desperate to stop his downward slide, Simmons visited another psychiatrist who diagnosed him with PTSD and suggested getting immediate help through the Veterans Administration (VA). PTSD can develop after traumatic events, including combat, and may cause nightmares, flashbacks, detachment, angry outbursts, addiction and sometimes suicide.
“I didn’t know what PTSD was, nor did I necessarily think I had it,” Simmons says. “I was a big tough guy.”
But he heeded the advice and connected with the VA Medical Center in West Los Angeles where he soon found himself volunteering to care for abandoned parrots and other exotic birds living on-site in the Serenity Park Sanctuary. Run by licensed clinical psychologist Lorin Lindner, the eco-therapy program helps traumatized veterans and traumatized birds recover together.
The experience changed his life. “That’s where I met the three animals I believe have kept me safe, sane and sober,” Simmons says.
The first two were Maggie and Ruby, feral parrots from San Francisco that had barely survived a brutal raccoon attack. “I watched them physically heal, and whether I was cognizant of it or not, I watched them forgive and let go,” Simmons says. Gaining their trust and nursing them back to health helped him release his own emotional wounds.
His third guardian “animal” was Dr. Lindner, now his wife.
Eco-therapy for the soul
In 2007, the couple bought a remote property outside Los Angeles in Frazier Park, known for its panoramic mountain views and pristine beauty. They started LARC, a privately funded nonprofit, and began rescuing abused horses. At the same time, they learned about captive wolves and high-content wolfdogs (wolves with dog heritage) also in need of forever homes. Many are bred as exotic pets, only to be relinquished to shelters or permanently chained outside for exhibiting natural “wild” and “aggressive” wolf behaviors rooted in their DNA. Wolfdogs aren’t eligible for adoption at shelters so are usually euthanized.
After saving a wolfdog named Wiley minutes before he was to be destroyed, Simmons started taking him on visits to the VA. He was amazed at Wiley’s positive impact on everyone there. “The doctors acted different, the guys in my support group acted different, the security guard acted different, and so did I,” he says. “Absolutely everything changed.”
The couple decided to launch the Warriors & Wolves program at LARC, patterned after Lindner’s successful parrot program, to help veterans with PTSD who needed additional help. “These guys usually have a drug and alcohol problem,” Simmons says. “They’re disenfranchised from their families, often homeless, and many are suicidal.”
The couple also continued rescuing wolfdogs, including 29 that had spent their lives chained in a small enclosure at a roadside wolf attraction near Anchorage, Alaska. Former game show host and long-time animal activist Bob Barker donated $100,000 to fund the rescue.
The cornerstone of Wolves & Warriors is the idea that nature can heal a broken spirit. Veterans — who are either employed by LARC or volunteer — go on nature hikes and participate in stream-bed restoration, but the heart of their work is caring for the wolves and wolfdogs, who, like them, are outsiders and often misunderstood.
Veteran volunteers cut up raw meat for LARC’s wolves and wolfdogs. Meat is obtained from the Landfill Diversion Program — mostly overstock and sell-by-date cuts that would otherwise be tossed by grocery stores. (Photo: Matthew Simmons)
Most quickly bond with one specific wolf or wolfdog. “The animal selects the veteran, and it’s a unique selection to that veteran,” Simmons says. “They usually have similar trauma and similar physical ailments. There’s no way they could know that. Some sort of cross-species communication goes on between them.”
Most remarkable is the special solace and healing they find together — a bond that lasts for life. And it’s not just with their soulmate animal; veterans are also accepted into the wolf pack where they learn about family and trust.
Many of the veterans go on to good jobs, often working with animals. Those who need more time can transition to the New England Wolf Advocacy and Rescue Center (NEWARC) in New Hampshire, which Simmons and Lindner started in 2013. Veterans live and work there for six months to a year, earning a good salary and continuing to heal. Many are able to reconnect with wives and children they pushed away during their PTSD battles and repair damaged relationships.
“Our program heals veterans who would otherwise probably die,” says Simmons. “And the wolves get to live out their lives and maybe share it in a special way with another sentient being who’s also suffered. It’s magical and special.”