At the national rally on Sept. 7 to protest the federal delisting of wild wolves and the Western states’ slaughter of over 1,800 of them so far — I remember another gathering when I was eye-to-eye with a wild wolf. It was the 1997 Wolf Summit here in Washington State where ranchers, conservationists, and federal representatives met to discuss wolf reintroduction in the Pacific Northwest.
The young male wolf, Merlin, was a two-year-old ambassador from the Colorado haven Mission Wolf. He was here on an educational tour to teach us the real story of wolves. Before Merlin bounded into our midst, Mission Wolf Director Kent Weber schooled us in proper wolf etiquette. “Wolves, like humans, engage in a lot of eye contact to figure out if an expression says ‘threat’ or ‘play,'” he explained. “So when you meet the eyes of a wild wolf, keep an open attitude.”
Merlin explored the semi-circle of humans — a sniff to the face here, a sniff of an open hand there. The wolf was careful and curious. With his huge paws, his imperial and direct stare, we knew we were in the presence of a powerful peer. Merlin allowed no “good dog” pat on the head, interpreting that as a sign of dominance. Instead he responded only to an open palm, like a show of goodwill, an offering.
All eyes turned to follow the long-legged wolf as he moved toward the contingent of ranchers who were at the Wolf Summit to strongly lobby against any wolf restoration to our state. There was a tension in the crowd that the Mission Wolf director tried to defuse in a quiet voice.
“Most of what we believe about wolves is a myth and has nothing to do with the real animal,” Kurt said. “There is no such thing as the Big Bad Wolf,” he said softly. “Never was.”
Education, he said, not fear, was the key to restoring the ancient co-existence that our species once shared with the wild wolf — and now with their domesticated cousins, our companionable dogs. As Merlin stood before the group of ranchers, the room was very still. After all, for generations ranchers had poisoned, trapped, shot on sight this country’s wolf population until they were extinct in the Lower 48. Now a wild wolf had ranchers in his sights. Not a single hand reached out to Merlin. In fact, there was a kind of stoic stalemate: arms across chests, shifting, some eyes averted, others staring with open aggression. Surely Merlin sensed the anger and defensiveness
“Meet the wolf’s eyes,” Kurt advised one of the ranchers, a big man with a strong, sun-blasted face, “not as an aggressor, but as an equal.”
The rancher steadied his gaze and Merlin faced him, those wild eyes assessing. And then with a slow grace, the wolf took the man’s entire face in with his strong tongue. Grinning ear-to-ear, the rancher rocked back on his knees and whispered, “I feel as great as the first time a girl said, ‘yes’ when I invited her to dance.” He paused. “I guess this is a dance.”
Then Merlin moved on to a ranch woman who did not hold out her hand. Her fear and distrust were palpable; even I could almost smell its stringent scent. Merlin sniffed the air and kept a respectful distance. What he did next surprised us all. Suddenly stretching and arching his back, Merlin sat down next to the ranch woman’s outstretched legs. There was nothing domesticated about him as Merlin yawned to reveal startlingly white fangs. Then his huge jaw clamped shut, he shook his massive black head, and with great poise lay on his side only inches away from the ranch woman’s boot. The wolf and the woman remained like that in a motionless dance of opposites.
Merlin closed his great eyes, sighed. Stretching, he let out a soft growl, and then turned over on his back to look directly upside down at the ranch woman. Lying so near her, Merlin was no threat, and the ranch woman at last met the wolf’s eyes without any fear. “He’s… he’s really something,” she said slowly. “He does have a way of getting right up into your heart, doesn’t he.”
Wolves have not only gotten into our hearts, they are helping us restore our homelands. Scientists have documented that wild wolves are “keystone predators” whose reintroduction to their native habitat has restored grasslands, watersheds, and even songbirds. “If an ecosystem can support wolves,” Kent Weber said, “it will sustain all other life forms. Wolves restored as top predators are a sign of a healthy ecosystem.”
“We’re have an opportunity to correct a historic mistake,” Washington State Representative Norm Dicks had concluded that Wolf Summit. He told us that the total cost to taxpayers of all previous wolf reintroduction had only been a nickel per person, a small price to pay for helping to rebuild an entire ecosystem.
Wolves have helped balance every ecosystem in which they’ve been restored. We’ve paid little for this balance; even the ranchers who are reimbursed at market prices for every livestock loss by such programs as Defenders of Wildlife, have paid little. But the wolves are now paying with their lives. Only 1 out of 3 Americans in a recent poll support the very unpopular federal plan to drop Endangered Species protections for wolves across most of the U.S. and let Western states continue their lethal harvest, not sustainable management, of wild wolves.
At the Washington, D.C. rally, I keep this memory of that other Wolf Summit in my mind: A ranch woman at last reaching out her tentative, open palm to Merlin. Only then did the wolf leap up with unexpected energy and sniff her hand and, as she bowed her head, her hair. But he didn’t lick her. Instead, the wolf looked directly into her eyes, inches away from her face. Then he simply leaned his black, soft forehead against hers. It was the briefest of touches, before Merlin bounded away. But it seemed like those two minds, once opposites, rested together a long time — longer than our history, our generations of fear, our prejudice. This is the future we must hold out for, howl out for — because when we protect the wild wolf, we are also protecting ourselves~
Howl out for the wild wolves. Public comment has been temporarily extended until Sept. 11. Please make your voices heard.
This blog was posted in The Huffington Post on September 6, 2013.
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Photo credit: Scott Denny