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of wolves

Last month the Museum met for our first book club discussion with Rachel Carson’s landmark work “Silent Spring”. We had a great turnout and some even better discussion! This month, we will be following Silent Spring with Barry Lopez’s “Of Wolves and Men”. As our Book Club facilitator, Mary Wright will tell you, “This one was Mike’s pick”.

I was always interested in big predators; sharks were a focus in middle school and by my late teens that interest turned to wolves. In college, I was passed over for an internship working at the International Wolf Center with North American wolf aficionado L. David Mech and instead worked on a white-tailed deer study in The Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota. The main appeal for me (aside from live trapping adult deer) was that the study included keeping an eye on four wolf packs with radio-collared members, and performing CSI-style evaluations of any wolf-killed deer we came across. That was fascinating work. Upon finding a wolf kill site we would back track the chase. Looking at the footprints we could see where pack members came in and took turns harrying the deer; bits of hair and specks of blood showed points of contact eventually leading to well-fed wolves.

One thing that was true at every kill I observed, by the time we found them there wasn’t much left. Some bones, scraps of hide and a ring of fur spread around the red snow were all that hadn’t been eaten. We know from more in-depth studies that even those remains would eventually end up in something’s stomach. Coyotes, ravens and eagles generally took second turn on a carcass with everything else that eats meat grabbing a free meal, down to beetles and chickadees. Wolves returning to Yellowstone have even shortened the dormant period of the Park’s bears because they can go to sleep later and wake up earlier by feeding on wolf kills.

This was a fascinating experience and even though the wolf parts were minor compared to the full-time deer study, it kept my interest on wolves.

Many years later I had the opportunity to work at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY. The closest we got to the wolves in Minnesota was footprints and distant howls, at the WCC it was hands on. Their captive pack of wolves were education ambassadors and had been raised around people. As a result they were not afraid of us, and when they allowed it, could be interacted with. What I learned about captive wolves while I was there was that wolves play by wolf rules. Superficially they “speak dog” and their body language is very familiar to people who have been around dogs and for the most part means the same things. But I never felt like the wolves were focused on what we wanted like a dog can be. They were smart and strong and behaved more like house cats in their attitudes than house dogs. Those animals (and the ones who live there today) saw thousands of people each year and conveyed that essential independence in ways no book or screen-filtered experience could.

Since the mid 1990’s wolves have returned to portions of the west and wolf/human interactions are occurring in states other than Minnesota. Human and predator interactions are even relevant in the northeast where our burly eastern coyote moves towards playing the role of wolf in our ecosystems and confirmed wolves shot in Maine and the Adirondacks indicate the true wolf may be on it’s way back.

Unfortunately for the wolf, wherever it lives, this animal has become a political issue and strong opinions shout down science and emotional debates determine its fate. That’s the main topic of Barry Lopez’s book. Looking at the history of humans and wolves and by extrapolation, our relationships with large predators on a human-dominated landscape. It is hard to find an objective perspective in the area of wolves. Not only are wolves unreasonably hated by some, they are also unreasonably loved. Both sides casting them into roles that we imagine for them and have little to do with a real wolf as much as fulfilling our own ideas about wolves and the relationship between humans and nature.

If you would like to participate in the discussion of “Of Wolves and Men” at the Museum on February 25th contact us and get reading! Wolves are an amazing and iconic animal who once called all of North America home and continue to be a presence in the imagination and even politics of our country.



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