CHIPLEY - Ten-year-old Mcallister "Cal" Keippala of Davisburg, Michigan has always felt a special connection to wolves.
Cal, who was diagnosed last year as having autism, identifies with the animals so intensely that he often emulates wolf characteristics as a coping mechanism.
"He considers himself half wolf, and sometimes, when he's overwhelmed, he 'turns into' a wolf," said his mother, Brandy Keippala. "He gives 'wolf' answers - a double bark for yes, a single bark for no."
"I howl when I'm happy and growl when I'm mad or scared," added Cal, who also answers to "Lobo," derived from the Spanish and Latin words for "wolf."
Cal also has "safe zones" to where he likes to retreat when he is feeling anxious, such as an empty kitchen cupboard and a closet his parents modified to serve as a "wolf den."
Thanks to a tip from a dedicated teacher and a determined goal set by his family, Cal was recently able to get up close and personal with the wolves at Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Chipley.
The Keippalas saved and planned for about a year to make the nearly thousand-mile trip to Seacrest after Cal's third-grade teacher, Leanna Young, shared a Facebook video about the preserve with Brandy and her husband, John.
Cal refers to Young and other teachers in the Clarkston Community School system as his "wolf pack," with the teaching team having won local awards for their efforts to tap into Cal's wolf passion as a learning tool by offering "Paw Points" and a "wolf den" of prizes for positive reinforcement.
The video detailed Seacrest's mission to educate the public about wolves, its passion for preserving the diminishing species, and its uniqueness as one of the few places in the world where visitors can interact with pure-bred wolves rather than just view them through a fence or glass enclosure.
Brandy and John immediately knew the trip would be meaningful for Cal - but it would not be without challenges.
"When I first looked [at Seacrest Wolf Preserve], I thought there was no way we could visit [because of Cal being unable to cope with some social situations], but then I saw the VIP tours. We never thought we'd be able to do this for him. Who would have thought? To get close to a wolf and actually pet one…"
The plan had the support of Cal's siblings Halliwell, 14 and Therrien, 8, who wanted to ensure their brother was able to have the Seacrest experience, even though it would mean a "little lighter Christmas" and that it would also serve as Cal's birthday present.
The family prepared for the visit by reviewing Seacrest visitor policies about behavior and clothing and set off on the drive, stopping about every 300 miles for other adventures along the way.
The Keippalas say the trip was well worth the effort and that Seacrest staff took a special interest in the whole family.
"They were so accommodating and took their time with Cal," said Brandy. "Often, people don't understand him or take the time he needs, but they really took the time."
Cal says he would like to eventually come back to Chipley to volunteer his summers at Seacrest - but for now, he will settle for asking family and friends to make monetary donations to the preserve in lieu of birthday or Christmas gifts.
"It was so amazing," said Cal. "I got wolf-kissed and got to pet a wolf and even got to howl with them. I got to spend time with my family and have an adventure. That's what is important to me - wolves and family."
Seacrest Wolf Preserve is located at 3449 Bonnett Pond Road in Chipley and can be reached by calling (850) 773-2897.