Escaped wolf was deliberately set free, sanctuary claims

Matthew Weaver and Caroline Davies
The escaped wolf is led by a handler to a trailer for its return to the UK Wolf Conservation Trust sanctuary, near Reading. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

A wolf that escaped from a Berkshire sanctuary, prompting the mobilisation of police marksmen and local schools being put on lockdown, may have been deliberately freed as part of a protest, it has been claimed.

The UK Wolf Conservation Trust realised Torak, a 12-year-old male, was missing at 7.45am when Teresa Palmer, the founder of the sanctuary in Beenham, was called by a friend who said they had spotted a wolf on a footpath.

Armed police and animal specialists with tranquilliser guns launched a hunt as a police helicopter with a thermal imaging camera tracked the animal through woodland, fields and back gardens.

But Torak, displaying none of the lupine characteristics feared, eventually allowed himself to be gently coaxed into a trailer eight miles from home, having loped through a field of sheep leaving them unmolested.

“The fact he went through a field of sheep shows he never would have been a danger to the public. Now he’s given up. He’s had his moment of freedom,” said Palmer as the animal was captured five hours later in the village of Curridge, near the M4.

At first it was thought strong winds had blown down its enclosure fence. But on checking, Palmer, 62, found Torak’s mate, Mosi, barking in an alarmed manner and the enclosure gate, normally securely padlocked, open.

She now thinks somebody deliberately opened it. “A lot of people don’t particularly believe in having animals in captivity,” she said.

While Thames Valley police warned residents not to approach the wolf, residents took the news in their stride. The wolves were much loved in the village, said Tony Roe, 53, a local solicitor, who learned of the escape while dropping his son off at Beenham primary school. “It’s not every day you take your child to school to be told there’s a wolf on the loose,” he said.

The school’s emblem was a wolf and there was a lot of support in the village for the trust’s work, he said. Locals often saw the wolves being walked on leads in the woodland.

“Of course I’m relieved the wolf has been found and delighted that it’s ended safely for all concerned, including the wolf,” he said.

Before Torak was captured, he was photographed crossing the lawn of a house in Cold Ash, six miles from the sanctuary, deploying such stealth he did not even wake the resident cat.

At Beenham primary school, on lockdown during the hunt, staff and pupils seemed unperturbed. “We are all fine. We all know the wolves and no one is worried,” a spokeswoman said.

On the wolf sanctuary’s website, Torak is described as half North American and half European. It describes him as “a magnificent wolf, tall and proud with long legs and a handsome, masculine head”.

The conservationist and wildlife presenter Anneka Svenska, who bottle-fed Torak and saw him again when he was three, described him as “exceptionally beautiful” and “a little bit timid”. She was relieved he had avoided the fate of another wolf who escaped from the Cotswold Wildlife Park in Oxfordshire in July and was shot dead.

Garry Marvin, a member of the sanctuary’s education and scientific committee, and author of a book called Wolf, said: “Thank God they didn’t panic and send someone out to shoot him. One of the keepers just called him over and put a collar on him and walked him off to one of their vehicles.”

Founded in 1995, the sanctuary has 10 wolves from the arctic and north-western breeds, living in four packs.