In the Eyes of a Wolf

by James Roberts

I remember an encyclopaedia of animals with a green cover, faded gold lettering, a loose spine cracked at each end, the pages bent at the corners and warped from damp. Not an old book but badly worn by the daily handling by my younger sister and I over six or seven years. The illustrations inside were still as bright and bold as the animals themselves. I would flick through, reading the names of species that seemed so exotic that they could have been inhabitants of other planets: Portuguese Man o’ War, Pit Viper, Lammergeier. I remember double page spreads of big cats and whales, photo-real illustrations of a badger and fox that conjured them from the woods beyond our city edges. Most of all I remember the image of the timber wolf with blazing eyes that stared out of the page, watching me intensely, the way a predator watched its prey. The image terrified me, more with every visit to the book. I had a notion that I would get to that page one day and the wolf would no longer be there. It would have stepped out of the book and into the house. At first I memorised the page number so I could always flick five or six pages past it, but this method was open to error. In the end, I cellotaped the spread together, sealing the wolf in so it could never watch me again.

Even in young adulthood images of wolves could make my spine freeze. In my twenties I still refused to untape those pages in the old encyclopaedia despite having an unusually intense passion for all other forms of animal life and little fear of even the most dangerous of them. I had by then lain in the dark, inches away from a grazing hippopotamus. I had walked through the Congo rainforest with men carrying sticks of dynamite to throw at charging elephants. I had sat around campfires listening to lions roaring in the night.

I have another memory – the images are real enough to be a memory – of a family stranded in a cabin buried in deep snow, in deep night. There is howling in the surrounding woods. A boy pushes his face to an ice fogged window. There is a slap on the glass. A wolf appears only inches away. Its eyes are glowing. I can see every white tooth pushed through scarlet gums coated in froth. It could have been a story I was told too young. It could have been an ancestral dream. Many of us have an unreasonable fear of the wolves. It could be translated as a fear of the wild or reduced to a fear of all that is beyond our control. I was a child who didn’t like surprises, change or transition. I needed fixed routines, structure and control. I was made for a life within industrial society. The wolf was the great predator who shared our lands as we began our development of western culture. As our reach grew, our fear and intolerance of the uncontrolled also grew and the presence of the wolf shrank. As our culture grew to almost completely cover the European and North American continents, the presence of the wolf almost completely disappeared. It was driven out of many countries entirely. In Britain, where every acre of ground is managed, there is not a single wolf outside the confines of a zoo. Elsewhere it is now one of many refugee animal species. It survives in controlled numbers by permission of the landowner and that permission can be easily revoked.

In the mountains of Alaska there are wolf dens estimated to be thousands of years old. One site, still in use in the 1990’s, and which had been recorded as continually in use by biologists since the early twentieth century, was measured at 10 acres in area. A wolf village if you will. Interior Alaska escaped glaciation in the last ice age and wolves have been occupants there for tens of millennia at least. It is entirely possible that a structure created by wolves is older than any human made structure. These sites have switched ownership among species occasionally, having been used by wolves, foxes, bears, and also humans. Wolves den in areas that are close to sources of food like rivers or game trails. Archaeologists have found relics of human hunter gatherer habitation in some dens and believe they would have been used as seasonal hunting camps or even permanent habitations. The sites are living evidence of our wild roots and our shared history with wolves. Our dogs also remind us of this old relationship. I once had a cocker spaniel who used to sit up in her sleep and howl for several minutes at a time, her head tilted up at the sky, her mouth puckering. When she did it I was taken somewhere far beyond the edge of the city. It was the kind of experience that makes the hairs on the back of your neck bristle. Long ago our soundscape would have been filled with those howls. We would have been gathered around fires, listening intensely as the wolves located each other and moved across their hunting grounds. They would have been “special moments of living a perfect balance between danger and survival, fear and a sense of protection. Can one hope for more at any time?” wrote John Berger as he studied the animal art at Chauvet, probably the greatest artistic expression of the relationship between humans and wild animals ever created.

Wolves live in close family groups. Wolf mates usually partner for life. Young members of the pack look after pups, play with them and feed them. They patiently teach them how to hunt, a process that can take years. Before a new litter of pups is born young wolves help the pregnant female to clean out the den chamber. They pluck fur from their underbellies and line the floor, making it soft for the newborns. Wolves play as much as human children. Adults do not just tolerate the rough and tumble of pup behaviour, they encourage it and join in with it. Crossing a trail of deep snow single file in mid-winter, the leader of the line will sometimes stop and turn around, go down on its front paws and pounce on the wolf behind. A game will begin. They will chase each other in circles, bowl each other over. Wolves howl to let each other know their location, they also howl to celebrate their return to the pack after hunting trips. Wolves develop hunting cultures, some specialise in stalking mountain goats, others ambush caribou. If a pack loses its lead members these cultures can disappear. In one case of an alpha male and female being killed, the remaining pack of yearlings and cubs survived only due to a glut in snowshoe hare numbers that year. They hadn’t learned the skills to hunt larger species.

The wolf biologist Gordon Haber recorded a photo sequence of wolves crossing a fast flowing river. Two pups were too nervous to cross and a yearling wolf spent many minutes trying to encourage them, walking into the middle of the river, going down on its haunches, trying to turn it into a game. Eventually one pup made the attempt and was swept downstream to a place where the river bank was steeply undercut and the pup could not get out. The full grown yearling then used its own body as a bridge for the pup so it could climb out, before rushing back upstream to tend to the other youngster.

Wolves mourn their dead. Some wolf mates return over and over to the place where their partners were trapped or killed. Others leave the pack and spend the rest of their days wandering in a state of growing starvation before they too die. Some wolves, when relocated by helicopter in an effort to shrink pack numbers, travel many hundreds of miles back to their home territory, risking being killed by other packs or by starvation. Some have even been caught again, then again relocated and this time have simply given up and died in their transport cages. Wolves create their own cultures. There is much we humans have forgotten we share with them. There is much we still have to learn from them. Haber, after thirty years in the Alaskan wilderness studying wolves on the ground, believed that wolves should only be culled in cases of definite risk to human life. He wrote:

“Of all the arguments considered in how to manage wildlife, perhaps the most important has to do with diversity–the variety of life about us. For full expression of its marvellous potentials, the human mind needs to grow in as varied an atmosphere as possible. Variety of all forms–not only biological, but cultural and social–are needed to stimulate our thinking and to sharpen our powers of imagination; it freshens our ability to find new solutions to old problems and leads to higher levels of creativity. Variety nurtures the mind and the spirit and is as vital to our well-being as the food we eat. In short, it helps make us more human.”

We turn off the tarmac, cross a bridge that spans a fall of white water where three streams converge. We start the climb to the lake thousands of feet above, obscured by thick pine forest, traversing switchback after switchback. We have travelled from Calgary into the Rocky mountains, through Banff, Kootenay and north to Jasper. We have seen a few ravens, a few red squirrels, a small herd of elk. We have walked down forest trails calling “Hey bear!” and seen only American robins. There have been the remains of beaver lodges but the beavers were not at home. The impression, for two people from a land without wilderness, is that these forests and mountains are empty. When the ravens call their voices are muffled as if the trees are trying to silence them. “Hush!” the forest says. “Don’t tell them anything.”

The car skids a little. My eyes are fixed on the middle distance. The twilight beneath the trees, that I am sure is richly inhabited, is a horizontal blur. Then the wolf steps out of the book I thought I still had him trapped inside. He strolls out into the middle of the road, turns towards us and sits down, blocking our route. I stamp on the brake pedal and we come to a halt only feet away from him.

Close encounters with wild wolves are rare. There are biologists, who have worked in the field for decades, who have only ever had a handful of face-to-face sightings. The writer John Haines, who hunted and trapped in the Alaskan wilderness for a large part of his life, only saw them once as they crossed the ground outside his cabin at dawn. Binoculars and unlimited patience are a requirement when observing wolves. I have mentioned our close encounter to several wolf experts. Few believed me.

A wolf’s stare is as intense as a hawk’s, an owl’s or a snake’s. There is a spear point inside the stare, a penetration that freezes its subject. Sometimes a wolf approaches its prey head on. The two creatures stand face to face, eyes locked for several minutes. When the lock breaks, the prey flees, the wolf begins the chase. Or both give a creaturely shrug and amble off in different directions. The wolf’s stare is an assessment. It has an important question to answer: will this being die today?

We stare at the wolf. The wolf stares back. He is curious. He is enjoying the late autumn sunlight glinting off the vehicle in front of him. He wonders at the shapes of human faces floating behind glass. We are pictures in a book. No other wolves join him. He is probably not a member of a pack. Perhaps he is a young loner recently dispersed. He could have come from far away in search of a mate. He could be trespassing on enemy territory. Or he could be forcibly displaced, having lost his pack mates to trappers or hunters (This is a free fire zone). Could he be one of the few remaining wolves who have never encountered a human being, never witnessed a member of their family tagged or collared, snared or gunned down? Is that why he is so calm and curious, so fearless? Over 2 million of his kind have been killed by humans on this continent in the past 150 years. He seems blissfully unaware.

My wife wants to grab the camera but it is in the back of the car. If we open the door the wolf will surely flee. If we climb into the back and dig through the luggage, when we emerge with the camera our subject will have disappeared. This is not a moment to capture, it is a moment to be captured. If we take a still of this the experience will be as deep as the skin of gelatin and silver halide suspended on the surface of a piece of paper. Fifteen years later I don’t regret not taking a photograph. The Canadian forests and mountains have long faded from my memory. But the wolf is still with me, even though the encounter probably lasted only a few minutes before he stood, turned and loped back into the shadows, no longer a dark fantasy lurking in my imagination, but one of those miracles that happen occasionally to startle us awake.

Another encounter, this time not my own: A mountain slope. A small pool surrounded by brush and boulders. The camera shakes, the focus comes and goes, blurring out then sharpening. A cow moose is standing in the pool drinking. Next to her is her calf, no more than a few weeks old. The camera suddenly pans, a rush of grey. Clouds come into focus, then the horizon and against it a shape silhouetted. The camera zooms closer. The twitch of an ear. A wolf is watching. It stands and its four companions come into view. The camera pans to the pool, then back to the wolves who have already started to approach. Some are heading to the north side of the water, others to the south. The moose sees them and instantly stands over her calf, her four pole legs and long dipped neck like the remains of a broken cage. The lead wolf moves first, leaping at the cow’s head, then quickly retreating. As the cow responds with kicks from her front legs the other wolves dive at the calf and bite. The cow spins. Water rips up and scatters. A wolf has a hold of the cow’s tail. She spins again, stamping, tossing her head, almost connecting with a stab from her front hoof. But the calf is now out from under her and three wolves are on it, biting at its back legs and neck. It almost loses its footing. The cow splashes over and stands guard again. The wolves casually move back, switch positions, start the attack again.

The camera microphone cannot pick up anything of the sound of this scene. Instead human voices are heard. The photographer is in a hide with a group of several families. There are squeals and shrieks, children urging their parents to do something to save the baby. A woman is crying. The photographer is cursing under his breath. The scene plays out over several minutes. The wolves outmanoeuvre the moose. The calf is upended, dragged out of the water and suffocated with a jaw clamped to its throat. The five wolves haul the body beneath a low tree, out of reach of the desperate cow, where they calmly tear it to pieces. The watchers stare in wonder, then they look away.


grey wolf

Why do we find the sight of animals preying on other animals so uncomfortable? Is it because we are civilised? Our culture has taken death away from us. Our bodies are boxed, burned and buried when we die. The creatures we prey on, the billions of cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens killed every year to sustain us, are hidden from our eyes as they are killed. They are cut into pieces, hard to recognise as body parts. Their pieces are cleaned and placed in brilliant white trays as if they had been created by machines.

Seven hundred miles south of the place of my wolf encounter two men are standing beside a truck on a mountain road. They are drinking beer, taking a break on the way home from a camping trip. As they drink and talk a shape appears out of a clump of forest above them and stands silhouetted on an outcrop. It’s a shape they have never seen in this place before, too big to be a coyote, unmistakably not a dog. One of the men quickly climbs into the back of the truck, shoulders his loaded rifle and puts his eye to the scope. He centres the crosshairs on the wolf’s chest and pulls the trigger. The wolf has not heard the shot when he is thrown up into the air. He lands sideways. He tries to get up but he cannot. The life pours out of him. By the time the men reach him the green fire that Aldo Leopold witnessed has already died. What the hunters see is the cold stare of a corpse. “Pretty neat!” the hunter says. He takes his knife and starts to skin the animal. He cuts off the head and removes the telemetry collar that was only attached a few months before when the big male wolf had been relocated from Jasper, seven hundred miles north, becoming a member of the first pack of wolves to inhabit Yellowstone National Park for seventy years.

Is there a single place on earth where wolves are not persecuted? Even in protected areas like Yellowstone, a shining example of wolf conservation, they have not been safe. In the half decade after their reintroduction fifty wolves were killed by trappers and poachers. In several other western states, which wolves have started to recolonise in recent years, control policies have been introduced giving hunters licenses to kill, even though wolf numbers are a tiny fraction of the carrying capacity of the landscapes they inhabit. The hunting and ranching lobby dominates US environmental policy and is growing in force under the new Republican administration which is rapidly stripping away protections. In Europe the situation is worse. The huge forests of Sweden are home to less than four hundred wolves. In 2016 twenty percent of them were killed by hunters. In the French Alps, which wolves have only recently started to re-inhabit, crossing over the border from Italy, hunting is on the rise already. It is a sad indictment that the only place where wolves are relatively free from persecution in Europe is the sixteen hundred square mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl. There is science to show that the random killing of wolves causes disruption to packs which leads to dispersal. The consequence of this is that livestock predation, the usual excuse for wolf killing, actually increases. Still, the killing continues. According to ranchers and farmers, there is no place for wolves in landscapes dedicated to the rearing of livestock, even on public lands and in national parks. For many, the only place for the wolf is in a zoo.

The fire in a wolf’s eye disappears when it becomes captive. I have watched wolves from the other side of a chainlink fence and the overwhelming impression was one of boredom, like dogs that are never walked. They still play, they still howl, there is still a part of the wild wolf inside, but they know they are trapped and they know they will never get out. There is a sadness in them that is easy for us to recognise, because it is also in us.

In a British wildlife park in the summer of 2017 two European wolves were rearing pups. The pups were healthy, playful, doted on by the parents. Thousands of visitors came to stare in the days they emerged from the den. Thousands of photographs were taken, on mobile phones and cameras, of them in their dim, half acre enclosure with its pretend wilderness decoration. The information boards provided snippets about the history of their wild cousins, their range and natural behaviour, their perilous conservation status. Daily talks were given at feeding time. And then, somehow, the mother wolf found a way to escape the compound. She was outside one morning, in the area where only humans are allowed to roam free. Perhaps she felt that the pups were hungry and she needed to find food for them. Perhaps she was trying to get a break from their nipping and brawling. Whatever the cause, she would almost certainly have returned to them. The keepers were alerted. An emergency decision was made. The wolf was shot dead. Sad announcements were broadcast in the following days, the story spread widely by news organisations and on the web. It was as if some natural event had taken the mother wolf, some tragedy unfortunately frequent in the wild. Few questioned the wildlife park’s actions. The damage limitation exercise was well planned and successful. Visitor numbers stayed healthy, the park shops and snack stands kept selling.

Are we civilised enough to share our land with the wild wolves? Will we ever be wise enough to realise it is a condition of wildness that it be unmanaged? At the very least, wildness requires us to step back and preferably to withdraw. At a time when rewilding is on the agenda of every conservation organisation it should be a priority that we redefine our relationships with the wolves whose return is essential if many landscapes are to come back into natural balance. Will we let the hunters and trappers create a landscape in service to their anachronous and bloodthirsty hobby? Will we give the wolves to the scientists to tag and collar them, record their every step form birth to death, to decide when they are to be culled or relocated, which, in essence, puts the wolves back into the scopes of the hunters?

Perhaps a time will come when, as a society, wisdom will be acquired and we will see the wolves return in their natural numbers, even to the tame and over-managed lands of western Europe. Perhaps, on a darkening evening, a child will stare at an open book and see a wolf staring back while outside a mournful howl will carry for the first time in centuries across rewilded hills. Instead of fear, the child will be filled with wonder that such strange and exotic neighbours have come to live among her kind. And perhaps with her delight there will also be a tinge of sadness. She will hear a trail of song that hovers and drifts and thins like smoke, the voices of the newly arrived mixed with the song of their ancestors who were never given time or ground, the ones who were dragged from their dens or caught in wires, all torn from the earth years before their natural end.

Sources and recommended reading:

Among Wolves – Gordon Haber and Marybeth Holleman (University of Alaska Press).
Wolf Nation – Brenda Peterson (Da Capo Press).
Shadow Mountain – Renée Askins (Anchor Books)
Of Wolves and Men – Barry Lopez (Simon & Schuster)
The Wolves of Mount Mckinley – Adolph Murie (University of Washington Press)
Wolves: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation – Editors L.D. Mech and Luigi Boitani (University of Chicago Press)


James Roberts is co-editor of Zoomorphic.