The wolves stare right at me. When I look back, their yellow-grey eyes seem to pierce straight through my flesh. They are only a dozen feet away, pacing on long legs and bobbing their heads curiously.

There is the sound of chanting, and a woman with jet-black hair lights a bundle of sage and waves the smoke over me. I try to forget the carnivores just steps away and train my gaze on the high priestess in front of me. The chanting grows louder. She places a deerskin medicine bag around my neck, crooning in a long-forgotten tongue.

The smoke passes over my limbs, face and chest. The wolves slow their steps, as curious at the procession as I was. One of them yelps: excited, or maybe nervous. I am being given access to a special circle, something few are allowed to join.

Suddenly, the wolf mother stops chanting. "You have a native soul," she says in English, dabbing my forehead with her thumb.

The sun is down, the sage burned to ashes, and the ceremony complete. Tonya Littlewolf Carloni laughs. A male wolf with a black coat stretches his nose to the sky and howls. The pack follows in melancholy refrain.

Fables depict the howl of wolves as a signal of danger and evil. But as they sing in harmony, Tonya closes her eyes and smiles. For a long moment, we stand there listening, as if transported to prehistory. Finally she turns to me, her blue-green eyes sparkling.

"They accept you as their brother," she says. "Now you're a Chiricahua Mescalero Apache."

It is June 2016, and I am visiting Wolf Mountain Sanctuary: a dusty compound of chaparral, tumbleweed and scrub nestled in a high desert valley a few hours' drive from Los Angeles, California. It is late evening, but the temperature is still around 40C. Looking up, there are mountains everywhere: a panorama of rocky peaks dotted with green pines and touched with snow from the midriffs up. We could be anywhere in the south-west.

Shanta weighed two pounds and was so malnourished she had to be bottle-fed

Tonya is testy when it comes to her exact location. She would not reveal it to me until I was on the highway and had got lost twice. But she has reason to be wary. The neighbours have not always been welcoming. Giving out an address, even a phone number, invites trouble. In the past, people have thrown rocks, tried to break in and free the wolves, or even to poison them. That is why there is so much chain-link, and why Tonya is edgy.

The animals here are not wild hunters, "and they're not pets," Tonya says emphatically. They are rescues. "They couldn't survive on their own."

Many are not full-blooded wolves. Most are wolf-hybrids, containing either dog or coyote parentage.

They are the abused, the abandoned, and they can be scary from afar. They are huge and muscular, with inquisitive eyes and probing snouts that sniff everything. It is easy to be intimidated, until you see how gentle they can be.

Tonya strokes the ivory coat of Shanta, who came here in 2002 when she was 14 days old, rescued from a breeder who could not sell her. Shanta weighed two pounds and was so malnourished she had to be bottle-fed. I expect her to be fearful of me, the newcomer. But she lets me pet her, and licks my face when I come close.

People have thrown rocks, tried to break in and free the wolves, or even to poison them

Some, like Shanta and her brother Wakinyan, come from breeders looking to cash in on the dream pet. Others are rescues from the film business. All are born in captivity, so they can never be released. That is the sad part.

"They're too used to getting fed," says Tonya. "They've never seen the wild. They'd be killed after one day in the wild. That's why they can't go back. I'd rather them run free and be happy. They're happy here, it's just, I don't like them being in a cage."

It is strange to see an animal known for its freedom locked up. Wolves are known to have territories that can span as much as 1,000 square miles. Here they are forced into small enclosures. It is hardly solitary confinement, but they are still deprived of their natural freedom.

Still, I ask myself: surely this is better than the alternative? A life in captivity must be better than certain death. That is the rationale Tonya seems to take, and it is one that begins to win me over.

Wolves have been extinct in California for nearly a century. That changed in 2011 when a radio-collared male travelled 2,500 miles south into the golden state. Telemetry tracking showed that he ended up finding a mate and settling in Oregon, but since then there have been almost a dozen sightings here.

Wolves once had the largest distribution of any land mammal besides us

Since 2015 there have been reports of a pack on the border. A few other loners have been spotted in north-eastern California: they drift in from Oregon, which is home to around 100 wolves.

Even this handful of wolves was enough to create tension: over a perceived uptick in livestock deaths, and over the danger to people. Sensing this, in 2015 California's Department of Fish and Wildlife penned a 311-page draft plan centring on non-lethal management. The aim is to re-educate people, persuading them to accept big bad wolves in their neighbourhoods, and teaching them what to do if they meet one.

It was not always like this.

Wolves once had the largest distribution of any land mammal besides us. As many as two million wolves roamed throughout North America. They are almost all gone now, killed by humans.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 listed the grey wolf as protected

"There had never been a killing like it," Barry Lopez wrote in his 1978 book Of Wolves and Men. Lopez called the killing a "pogrom", a sort of interspecies genocide.

Fuelled by a mix of fear and superstition, the US government has sanctioned and bankrolled a host of brute-force tactics. Lopez claims that the government has resorted to arsenic, strychnine, cyanide, shooting wolves down from planes and helicopters, and even dynamiting den sites with cubs.

Millions died, and not just wolves. Poisons intended for wolves ended up killing coyotes, foxes, raccoons, eagles, hawks and prairie dogs.

De-wolfing the West was in its own way a fulfilment of Manifest Destiny. Like the American Indian, the wolf was seen as a threat to law and order, a menace to be controlled – in practice, annihilated.

Today, few exist in the contiguous states.

There are the descendants of the original 41 Canadian and Montana wolves released in Yellowstone in 1995-1997; a few hundred that have spilled over into neighbouring Wyoming and Montana; a handful of packs in the Rockies; a few thousand in the Great Lake states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; a scattering in the north-west; and a trickle in Maine and the north-east, down from Ontario.

Wolves account for less than 4% of all cattle deaths in the US

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 listed the grey wolf as protected. But that actually means each state is responsible for managing its own wolves. Some have stringent protections, others do not.

For instance, in Alaska the wolf population is considered strong, so there is no protection and wolf season is year-round. That is no good for the animal's long-term health. Retired park officials there say the constant barrage has begun to chip at numbers.

In practice, the key issue is how hunters and farmers react to the wolves. Ranchers still hold major sway over many of the rural areas where wolves live, and they essentially have carte blanche. If they believe the wolves are a threat to their livestock, they are likely to kill them.

The irony is that wolves are actually not a terrible scourge of cattle. Disease and predation from coyotes, cougars, bears and others far outranks wolf killings. According to the National Agricultural Statistic Service, wolves account for less than 4% of all cattle deaths in the US.

What's more, if a rancher shoots a wolf he may exacerbate the problem. For instance, killing a wolf can destabilise its pack, leading young and inexperienced wolves to resort to easier targets – like livestock.

The fact is, wolves remain polarising. Some still see them as demons. Others view them as symbols of the wild, important for restoring the balance of nature, so they support reintroduction and breeding programs.

We get a lot of wolves from people who think wolves make good pets. They don't

That is why there has been a renewed push by conservation groups to buoy their status following the federal government’s 2015 decision to decline their endangered reclassification. Those petitions even include stripping the wolf of its federal endangered status, which only grants nominal national protection and exposes the animal to the fickle policies of individual states.

But while wolves remain rare in the wild, in the wilds of the Internet they are everywhere. A cursory Google search unleashes a trove of "wolves" for sale. Many are more dog than anything else, but even a splash of wild blood is too much for city life. Like other exotic animals that look cute as babes but terrifying full-grown, many end up abandoned and abused.

"We get a lot of wolves from people who think wolves make good pets," says Tonya. "They don't."

But saving these castaways is a hugely difficult task.

There are three main problems with running a wolf sanctuary. Aside from the fact that people do not trust wolves, it is expensive and closely regulated.

Tonya has 10 wolves at her sanctuary, each weighing over 100 pounds. That is a lot of mouths to feed.

We had to get an insurance policy of $3 million

In the wild, wolves fast up to 2 weeks when prey is scarce, and gorge as much as 20lb in one sitting. Here, they are fed daily on red meat, chicken, turkey and vegetables: a menu that costs a whopping $1,500 a week. Tonya also has to pay for water, power, staff, grounds and enclosure maintenance, fencing, construction and landscaping: using nothing but visitor donations.

Then there is the red tape.

Lorin Lindner runs the Lockwood Animal Rescue Center in Frazier Park, California, which is home to a pack of wolves. Because the Center is an accredited sanctuary, the animals cannot be bred or sold, and the paperwork is immense. "US Fish and Wildlife permit, California Fish & Game permit, Department of Agriculture permit, conditional use permit from the county of Ventura, which took two years and $200,000," Lindner says. "And we had to get an insurance policy of $3 million. It's very hard."

Similarly, Wolf Mountain has a restricted species permit from California's Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a resident exhibiting permit, according to its public information officer Andrew Hughan. "We make scheduled annual inspections, but any facility can be inspected at any time," he wrote by email. Typically, permits are renewed every three years.

Clearly, only someone as single-minded as Tonya could have created Wolf Mountain.

Tonya is half-Apache, half-Sicilian. She calls herself a "fiery mutt".

In the 1950s, her mother gave her up for adoption and planned to sell her to a white family in Beverly Hills. But Tonya's grandfather kidnapped her and took her back to the reservation in New Mexico. She says she grew up "in two worlds".

She shows me pictures of Jada Pinkett Smith and her daughter Willow at the sanctuary

"My grandfather had a wildlife refuge, like a rescue," she remembers. "And I hung out with the cougars and the wolves. One compound was a cougar and a wolf. They grew up together and they were best friends. And my grandfather taught me everything about the wolves, to make sure I protect them in the wild and captivity, and that's what I've been doing most of my life. It's my summons in life."

At the age of two, Tonya got a pet wolf that helped protect her: she was picked on for being a half-breed. Her bond with wildlife began there.

In her youth Tonya was beautiful. Before she set up the sanctuary in 1985, she worked as an actress and model, and performed on-camera with her wolves for years.

Hollywood has never been too far away. She shows me pictures of Jada Pinkett Smith and her daughter Willow at the sanctuary, and actors from Mr. Robot and Sons of Anarchy. Animated and live-action productions have either filmed her wolves directly, or taken photographs in order to use their likenesses.

Tonya runs the sanctuary with a coterie of 19 adopted children, 20 grandchildren and seven great-grandkids from two biological children. She says she hates people, but I am not convinced.

Her wolves spend time with combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder

Sure, she barks orders and all her kids jump to, but her true feelings are obvious as I interact with the wolves, which she calls her "brothers and sisters". She bends over backwards to be accommodating, and it does not feel like she is putting on airs. The more she reveals, the more it is clear how much she does like people, despite how often she has been burned by them.

We trade stories. I tell her about my trips to the Arctic, Africa and Nepal. Tonya stares at me and suddenly tells me my soul is native, "an old spirit of the native world." I smile bashfully: I grew up fascinated with native culture, memorising the dialogue to Dances with Wolves.

The next thing I know, she is giving me a cleansing sage ceremony as the wolves howl. I have been adopted. "You're just one of the special ones," she says. "We did the ceremony so you could feel your ways on your travels through life. And you walk with the wolf spirit and the animals now. Because you always have, but never knew. It’s not a coincidence we met."

Meeting the wolves has been an overwhelming experience for me, and I am not alone in that.

Tonya often takes wolves to schools so that children can learn what they are like. Her wolves also spend time with combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Counter-intuitively, spending time with wolves may help alleviate PTSD: Lindner's wolves also regularly interact with ex-military personnel.

These vagabond wolves are actually ambassadors, ready to win hearts and minds with a nuzzle and a few licks. They cannot breed or live in the wild, but they are still helping their species.

Some will lick your face and smell you, and it feels like some big, somewhat nervous dog

"Socialised grey wolves, ambassador wolves, have been very helpful for a long time to help people see wolves in a public light," says Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund.

Phillips has spent decades spearheading recovery programs for red wolves in North Carolina, Mexican wolves in the Southwest and, most famously, grey wolves in Yellowstone. Few have been as instrumental in restoring wolves.

Phillips calls breeding programs a necessary evil and despises the idea of captive wolves, but he acknowledges the value of sanctuaries as vehicles for education. The issue, he says, is that hardly anyone understands wolves.

"Wolves are not the great big marauding monsters some people would have you believe," Phillips says. "Ambassador wolves help demystify that idea. But it can push in either direction. Some will lick your face and smell you, and it feels like some big, somewhat nervous dog. That's not a fair portrayal of wolves either. If they're not the devil, they're also not your pet."

However, Tonya and her wolves may not serve as ambassadors for much longer.

Tonya is now 64. She has recently come through a battle with cancer; a cancer she says was in part healed by her animals. And Wolf Mountain is in crisis.

The problem is that this Californian valley is too hot for wolves. They are used to colder climates.

If animal services say it's a wolf, once it gets into a shelter, they have to destroy them

Some of the wolves are also old, and sick. One, Denali, recently had a tumour in his leg and the leg had to be amputated. Now he gets around on three legs and a wheel: Tonya's daughter says he might be the first tripod wolf.

Visitors do come, but not enough to cover the sanctuary's running costs.

The unspoken fear is that Tonya might have to give up her pack to the state. That would mean having them put down, as animals dumped at shelters and deemed to be wolves are routinely destroyed.

"If animal services say it's a wolf, once it gets into a shelter, they have to destroy them," says Lindner. She estimates that 1,000 are killed this way every year in California.

So Tonya is now trying to move the entire Sanctuary to a different state.

Her first idea was to head to Montana, but then she quickly turned her attention to Colorado and New Mexico. "I'm looking for foreclosures," she says. "One farmer and his wife, they're foreclosing and I'm trying to get the money ready so I can get it. They're alfalfa growers. It's enough land that they can do the alfalfa, feed the cattle, and we get the rest."

By September 2016, Tonya has zeroed in on this farm in Colorado. It has a stream, and a half acre on which her wolves can run. They would not be free, but the fences would be harder to see.

I don't like seeing wild animals in compounds

However, moving will be hugely difficult. Traveling is expensive and stressful for the animals, so they need help. "We have to have a vet on staff that rides with them in the airplane, and I have to ride," says Tonya. "I don't like to fly." She also needs a lot of paperwork to cross state lines with endangered cargo.

The price tag is massive. "It's gonna cost me about $10 million," she says matter-of-factly.

As of February 2017, a GoFundMe page with a goal of $300,000 is woefully short: by $295,000. Still, Tonya remains upbeat. She has over 600,000 likes on Facebook, a deep email list and some savings.

"If everyone gave 20 dollars," she calculates, before trailing off. "It's all about money. We'll do it."

At time of publication, it is still up in the air what will happen to Wolf Mountain Sanctuary, and if and when Tonya and her family will move. Doing so will be painstaking and expensive. Still, she has survived being orphaned and abandoned, survived cancer. Maybe she can beat the odds one last time.

"I've been doing this all my life with wolves and the wildlife," she says by phone in early October 2016. "I'm gonna move, the wolves are gonna move. I've got to do this dream before I die. I've got to."

We'll doctor them up, and they'll go back to the wild where they came from, if they can

Then her mood lightens and and begins describing her new home. "They'll have a natural habitat with a stream going through their fence," Tonya says. "I don't like seeing wild animals in compounds. When I move, they'll have enough room to run."

Tonya even has plans to expand. "There will be 35 wolves going with me, two cougars and two bobcats," she says. "They'll be rescues from all over the world."

She also wants to set up a rehabilitation centre for injured wild animals. "We'll doctor them up, and they'll go back to the wild where they came from, if they can."

I still find it hard to see wolves cooped up in cages, but until and unless Tonya can pull off the move, it is either that or death. Besides, the wolves here are a bridge between humanity and the rest of nature. They help us get a clearer look at our brothers and sisters on four legs.

They are not the big bad wolf and, as Phillips said, they are also not a pet. They are something in between.

Join over six million BBC Earth fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.