Adolph Murie had published his seminal monograph, The Wolves of
Mount McKinley in 1944-but, except for other wildlife biologists,
not many people read wildlife research studies. Farley Mowat's Never
Cry Wolf, published in 1963, told a new story and provided a catalyst
that would help change people's attitudes towards the wolf. But
I, and many others, had yet to read the book. Most people still
didn't question the evil of wolves.
One's point-of-view is acquired from stories
that provide the foundation for how one interprets reality. Mythologist
Joseph Campbell captured the essential importance of stories when
he pointed out that myths, and therefore stories, are the protective
nest that humans instinctively build to protect our young. We can't
help but tell stories and from them we learn the values with which
we perceive the world around us. Here's a personal example from
my family folklore. The story tells how Grandpa escaped being eaten
by a wolf.
the story goes, one day my Grandpa, who as a boy lived on the open
plains of Nebraska, was kept after school. (For being naughty? No
one ever brought that up, but being devoured by a wolf is a penalty
for fairytale disobedience.) In those days, of course, everyone
walked many miles to school, be it through rain, sleet, or snow.
As Grandpa started his long trek home in the fading light, he noticed
a wolf following him. The wolf pursued him the entire way. Only
through the grace of God did Grandpa make it to the back porch door-the
wolf hot on his heels with only one intention: to make Grandpa its
next meal. Or so the story was told. No one ever thought about the
fact that a wolf, able to run forty miles-per-hour, could've slaughtered
Grandpa anywhere along the route home-had it truly wanted to dine
on him. From what I know now, but never would've stopped to consider
45 years ago, is that the wolf's behavior exhibited more curiosity
than hunger. In the fourth grade, I wrote a report about wolves
in which I listed the main items in a wolf's diet: elk, deer, cattle,
sheep, and people. I possessed a firm belief that wolves presented
a clear and present danger to humans.
the fall of 1966, Derek and I and our fathers boarded the train
out of Anchorage and rode the rails north to hunt moose. The train
stopped to let people off anywhere along the route. When you wanted
to go home, you stood by the track, the train stopped, and you climbed
aboard. We disembarked at Honolulu, an abandoned train station.
We set up camp and hunted.
in the afternoon of the third day, as Derek and I searched for moose,
I noticed a wolf on a low ridge top, a hundred to two hundred yards
away. Actually, I don't remember how close the wolf was to us-this
happened 36 years ago and elements of the hunting trip have gone
fuzzy or been forgotten entirely. But the broad strokes of the story,
the important details, I recall as if this pivotal event in my life
air held the light and clarity of a brisk autumn afternoon. I saw
the wolf but said nothing to Derek. The wolf remained on the ridge
as it followed and watched us. After five minutes-maybe it was less,
maybe it was more-I motioned Derek to stop, put a finger to my lips,
eyes grew large and he nodded enthusiastically. “He’s yours,” Derek
raised the 30.06 to my shoulder. The rifle stock felt cool against
my cheek as I sighted-in through the scope. The wolf stood, its
legs close together and its narrow chest fully exposed. In the chilled
air the wolf's breath floated like thin fog in the yellow light
of afternoon. I set the cross hairs over the wolf's heart. A slight
breeze stirred the tawny gray fur around the wolf's neck. I slowly
exhaled and released the safety, holding a finger over the mechanism
to muffle the sound. The wolf must've heard the dull click because
its ears perked up and its head cocked to the side. I formed my
finger around the cold metal of the trigger and began to squeeze.
Through the scope, the wolf's amber-green eyes stared at me. But
the wolf's eyes did more-and I know this will sound farfetched,
especially coming from the memory of a boy only thirteen with little
appreciation for wolves.
felt as if the wolf's eyes peered into my soul and then on through
me. I felt exposed and naked before a primal and enduring force,
as if I were an inconsequential ghost that only partially obscured
what really mattered.
him, he's yours," Derek whispered, his voice tense and urgent. "Shoot!"
wolf stared into me. The eyes reflected intelligence and a maturity
that, at the time, I couldn't come close to comprehending. Much
later, I would understand that the eyes, honed by millions of years,
were those of a supreme predator.
questioned what I was about to do. My finger around the trigger
relaxed. And then tightened. And relaxed.
a Sunday afternoon, a couple weeks earlier, I'd watched Death of
a Legend, a documentary that told a new story about wolves and didn't
portray the animal as evil. The program examined the wolf's natural
history and explained how stories, fairy tales, folklore, and legends
influenced our perception of the animal. But a particular scene
from the documentary replayed itself in my mind's eye that autumn
afternoon as I stood with rifle poised and cross hairs targeted
on the wolf's heart.
black and white footage, a dark wolf runs across the snow. A group
of men line up like a firing squad and open fire. Patches of snow
explode around the wolf. A bullet slams into the animal and she
falls. The rifles continue to fire. The wolf struggles to stand
as another bullet hits her and another and another. The wolf slumps
to the snow. The men continue firing. The wolf doesn't move except
when bullets cause the body to jerk in epileptic spasms. Tufts of
fur burst into the air. Finally the rifles cease. The men run to
the wolf. One of the men lifts the wolf's head for the camera. The
wolf's tongue hangs from her mouth and her eyes glaze as the men
smile and congratulate each other.
peered through the tunnel of a riflescope into the eyes of the wolf,
seeing neither malevolence nor good. I saw ancient memory so deep
that, like a well, the bottom remained obscured by mystery. I slid
my finger from the trigger and lowered the rifle.
just threw away fifty dollars,” Derek said in a tone that clearly
implied I must be crazy.
raised his rifle. I held out my hand to stop him.
mine,” I said.
males aren't the best at articulating their feelings. Years would
pass before I found words to describe what I felt when the wolf
looked into my soul. In fact, for many years I never spoke of the
incident because, on one level, I felt foolish. But on that autumn
afternoon, as the heat of the wolf's eyes burned into my memory,
I felt, as irrational as it seemed, that I'd done the only thing
I could do.