Driving home after a weekend workshop on wolf ecology, I spotted a mid-sized wild canine on the edge of the median strip of the four lane that takes me north. The animal stood poised, almost nonchalant, as if venturing onto a surface that carries massive machines traveling at speeds well over a mile a minute was an everyday occurrence. My heart froze -- would the animal reach the other side safely? -- while my mine raced to identify the species in the handful of seconds before I passed the creature. When I drew parallel to the standing canine, I realized that three more like him were assembled in the sunken median, probably to scavenge a road kill.
Coyotes, I told myself. They had to be coyotes, and the standing guy was a big one at that. But could the animals possibly have been wolves? Four hours earlier, I'd held the mothball-scented pelts of both species to my face, my most sensitive tactile receptor, unsuccessfully attempting to discriminate between the two. Coyote and wolf: the long-dead individuals that had sacrificed their skins for our study seemed identical in every aspect except size. In shape, form, texture, and color, these pelts were indistinguishable.
My truck was still racing north at 65 mph. I realized that I had to go back to verify my five-second ID, perhaps also to make sure that the animal that had seemed so casual as he’d stood on the side of the road hadn't done anything stupid and gotten himself killed. I pulled a U at a gas station fully five miles past the sighting. A glance in the rear-view assured me that traffic was light so as I approached the spot where I'd seen the animals, I slowed to a crawl.
This time as I passed I saw a different animal preparing to step onto the north bound lane. A quick glance verified that the animal was indeed a coyote: a wolf will almost always carry its tail horizontal, in a line with the back, while coyote tails hang down. I glanced at the road’s shoulder and sighed with relief: no sign of a collision so that first coyote had made it across okay. I don't know why I'd worried: the coyotes had been smart enough to avoid traffic when they'd initially congregated on the median strip. I pulled into the parking lot at the Solon Springs Mercantile, turned around and again headed north. This time when I passed the road kill site, I saw no coyotes.
Thirty miles to home. The late afternoon sky was leaden, the ribbon of snow-melt dampened highway ahead the color of charcoal. My mind traveled back to the camphor of the classroom where a pompous researcher prone to bad jokes and unsubstantiated conclusions of cause and effect declared: "The official name for this species is gray wolf. We've decided that timber wolf isn't appropriate since wolves are often found in places without timber." Ten minutes previous, he'd told us that wolves could be any color from white to tan to brown to black.
Even the pelt we'd examined, the "typical" color for a wolf, didn't look gray to me. Obviously harvested during winter, the wolf's coat consisted of an incredibly soft, dense, fluffy inner layer of down, on top of which lay coarser guard hairs. Along what would have been the wolf's shoulder and back, these guard hairs were quite long and jet black, while in other areas the outer fur was tan or even white. The bottle-brush tail, as thick around as my arm, seemed composed of equal parts white, black, and light brown hairs. Nowhere except in the down closest to the body did I see a trace of the color gray.
For humans, colors are closely associated with emotions: red is anger or love, blue is peace, yellow happiness. The color with the most negative connotations in our culture is gray: a gray day is a bad day; gray is washed out, sick, dead. Storms are gray, shadows too. Besides wolves, the most feared predator on the continent is the grizzly bear, a creature most often brown but named for a grayish tinge that some individuals exhibit.
The trailer for the recently released movie "The Grey" features jump cuts of snarling wolves with bared teeth, a bloody-faced Liam Neeson clutching broken glass bottles in his hands, a sweep of fire on a flaming torch. Apparently the movie is about a group of men who are force to fend off attacks by killer wolves. The film has aroused the ire of many conservation groups who object to its depiction of wolves. The organization Wild Earth Guardians has stated that the movie is "inciting terror instead of instilling awe for this beautiful and charismatic creature."
Several years ago, I had a very close and direct confrontation with a pack of wolves. There were no snarls, no bared teeth, no broken bottles or bloody wounds or flaming torches. But neither was there any awe or beauty.
Wolves are social animals who live and hunt in packs. Packs are extremely territorial, and members will defend their territory against any canine interloper. Lone wolves that wander into a pack's territory are almost always immediately killed. Because wolves and dogs are very closely related, wolves will also kill domestic dogs that are found in their pack's territory.
On a gray dawn on the gray ice of a frozen lake, seven members of a wolf pack confronted me as I walked with my two Labrador retriever dogs. The alpha male wolf -- leggy and tall, his hips nearly on the same level as mine -- stood his ground not five feet in front of me, daring me to proceed. He didn't growl: the only menace was his presence and that of the others, spread out behind him as if following the wake of a boat.
My dogs -- did they even realize the danger? -- perhaps only sensed my fear, but they stayed with me, stayed close enough to discourage an attack: the seven wolves were forced to respect our mixed pack of three. I shouted, and hollered, and blustered until six wolves dissolved like shadows into the ice and the big male backed toward the shoreline undergrowth. He never turned his tail to us.
That was when I decided that I really didn't want to go for a walk anymore. I retreated back across the ice to the cabin, but then heard a strange clicking behind us, like fingernails on the surface of a table, rhythmic and eerie. I turned to see seven gray shadows fanned out across the lake, each shadow loping in our direction independent of the others: the classic formation that a wolf pack will utilize to separate an individual from the rest of its herd. I turned to face the wolves: sweating, scared, swearing with every vile and obscene curse that I knew.
To wolves, death is not spectacular: it is not flashing teeth, fire, and hate. Death is mechanical, passionless, calculated, certain. Death is the process that defines their life.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources