SOUTH SALEM, N.Y. - Wolves are undoubtedly associated with the Katonah-Lewisboro community, not only as the new mascot of John Jay High School, but also because of the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) in South Salem—a non-profit organization founded in 1999 that is dedicated to protecting the endangered creatures and to educating the public about their plight. 

South Salem author and WCC Board President Martha Hunt Handler also has a strong connection with the apex predators, having devoted many years to working on their behalf. In her new young adult novel, “Winter of the Wolf,” she brings her fascination with nature and her spiritual leanings into a heartfelt tale of personal discovery.

Long captivated by wolves, Handler had her first encounter with them in the woods behind her house in the late 1990s. 

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“I saw this trailer, next to an enclosure that had a couple of wolves in it, then I met Hélène Grimaud—who would eventually become the founder of the Wolf Conservation Center,” she said. Hélène told me she wanted an education, breeding and pre-release facility to save two critically endangered species of wolves, so I said I would love to help her; I felt really good about being able to give back to an animal that had given so much to me over my life.”

A mother of four, Handler grew up in Northern Illinois, earned a degree in environmental conservation in Colorado and then worked around the country as an environmental consultant. “Wolves have always been really important to me, they’ve showed up in my dreams and always showed up pointing to things that I might have missed, that I was supposed to be paying more attention to,” she said. 

She explained that wolves, who are at the top of the food chain and are essential to the ecosystem, were once very plentiful across the United States, but were regarded as a nuisance. As such, many tried to eradicate them and they were almost wiped out by hunting—with bounties offered for their slaughter. 

The Center’s mission is to protect and preserve wolves by offering educational programs, participating in research and captive breeding, along with joining a federal recovery and release programs for two critically endangered species in North America: the Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf. Currently at the Center are three ambassador wolves who reside on exhibit, Handler added, as well as about 43 others—and she credited the large group of dedicated employees and volunteers who look after the animals and run the facility. 

Incredibly, only 163 Mexican gray wolves remain in the wild in the United States and only 10 red wolves, according to the WCC. 

Over the past 18 years, the idea for her new book, “Winter of the Wolf,” had been percolating for Handler. The story is loosely based on a shocking personal event surrounding the death of the young son of her close friend. 

The tale follows the character of a teenage girl, Bean, who is determined to unravel the mystery of her brother’s death, which appears to be a suicide. The journey explores grief and loss, and seeks spiritual understanding through Inuit culture to uncover clues to the tragedy. Themes of friendship, truthfulness and family dynamics are woven throughout, with a few appearances by wolves. 

With all proceeds from the novel going to benefit the WCC, Handler carries on the effort of bringing attention to the human role in protecting wolves. As for the choice of the “Wolves” as the new John Jay High School mascot, the Wolf Conservation Center Board President admitted she was thrilled. 

“That their mascot actually lives in the same town is really going to be a wonderful experience,” Handler said. “I’m feeling incredibly hopeful and appreciative that the community decided to make this change and chose wolves.”