Dinner for the next few days is elk. It hangs from a heavy chain that dangles from a tall tripod of lodgepole pine logs. The body still smells of warmth and life. I glide my knife along the length of the whetstone, a few times on one side, a few times on the other. The wolves in the enclosures on the hillsides can see what I am doing. They squeak and whine, some running frantically along their fencelines. The wolves know that this food is for them.

This is how a feeding begins at Mission:Wolf, a refuge for captive-born wolves and wolf-dog hybrids in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. Too habituated to humans to fend for themselves, these animals are brought here to live in safety and relative peace. Because they never learned to hunt, it is up to the humans at Mission:Wolf to prepare their meals. I arrived at the refuge a strict vegetarian, squeamish about meat, and I dreaded the required participation in feedings. I was less than heroic my first time: While the rest of the staff labored over the remains of two diseased cows, I busied myself with fencework on the hillside above, trying to ignore the stench that rode the breeze.

But I was surrounded by, and responsible for, these thick-furred carnivores, and they stared into me with sharp yellow eyes. I was a stranger to them in the beginning, and the fences kept us from really getting to know each other. I knew there was no better way to connect with these animals than through the feeding ritual. So I had to become a part of it: To feel the warmth of a body that was alive just a short time ago, and to know that this warmth would soon feed and fuel the wolves.

And so, months after that first feeding, I stand before this elk, knife in hand. I am wearing a pair of navy blue coveralls, encrusted with jewels of animal flesh, dull red from feedings past. I don latex gloves - soon to be ripped to shreds - and begin.

The first step is to open the belly and remove the guts. I tap for the sternum, then locate the hollow space just below. As I prepare to make my first cut into this elk's perfect body, I have to cast aside thoughts of who she was.

Pulling the hide taut, I slice through fur, clumps of stiff hairs cascading down as I work. White fat reveals itself, and I keep going through this thin layer, through healthy, glistening flesh, finally reaching air. I work delicately, not wishing to puncture the stomach and receive a face full of gas or worse. I follow the rib lines along both sides of the stomach, pulling the hide as I work to make the cutting easier. It strips off as gently as wallpaper.

Once I reach the pelvis, I stand up, breathing heavily. Blood has worked its way past my gloves and along my wrists. The sweet, gamy aroma of fresh elk is all around me, and the wolves are picking up on it. Their whining and squeaking becomes louder, more desperate. I wonder how I could ever have avoided this task in the past. Right now it feels like the most meaningful work I have ever done.

Now I position a wheelbarrow, stained dark crimson, between and below the back legs. I reach deep into the body cavity, my shoulder nestling against the soft fur still blanketing the elk's ribs. After I slice through the esophagus, gravity begins to help me out, pulling down the balloon of gut as I cut anything that is holding the stomach in.

When the stomach finally wobbles into the wheelbarrow, I heave the sloppy load out of my way and take another breather. My wrists are completely red now, and trickles of blood have wound their way underneath the gloves.

Next are the back legs. I cut and probe with my fingers, bending the legs from time to time, searching for the joint where leg joins pelvis. It used to be a blind search for me, a stumble through unfamiliar ribbons of meat. But now I know where that elusive bony knob hides itself. I cut through cartilage, and with a satisfying pop the joint separates from the pelvis. Just some pink meat to slice through, then a layer of hide, and the first leg thuds to the ground.

I have been working alone up to this point, just the elk and I. I have explored every gentle curve of bone and every undulation of muscle. This is not butchering; it is an act of love. I don't want to give up this intimacy, but out of necessity I enlist other staff members to help me cut up the legs.

The work goes faster now. We separate bone and flesh with ax and knife, and soon the elk as she first arrived is utterly gone. A once-living body has been turned into piles of meat, hide, and bone, divided equally into buckets and wheelbarrows for each wolf pack. There is blood everywhere: on us, on the concrete pad, on our axes and knives and buckets. Ravens and magpies soar above, landing nearby with the hopes of snagging some tasty morsel. The wolves are at their breaking point: It is time to feed.


Will Rounds worked at Mission:Wolf for two years, and now lives in Nederland, Colorado.