Sunday, July 19, 2015

Riverdale HamletHub editor sleeps with the wolves in South Salem

Published on Sunday, 19 July 2015 07:06

Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels. Literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. . . Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is literature.” Vladimir Nabokov

Wolves are much maligned animals. Throughout history, especially during periods when humans lived in closer proximity to nature, wolves were the object of fear. Language alone carries traces of this phenomena: we speak of the wolves and the sheep, the wolf at the door, being thrown to the wolves, being in the company of wolves, etc. Fairy tales bring us Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother impersonating wolves, the Three Little Pigs’ attempt to evade a wolf, along with Count Dracula’s “children of the night.” All of it is metaphor replete with the suggestion of otherness, menace and predation. The wolf in western culture has long been the avatar of evil. Wolves are a representation of all those things that lurk at the edges of the dark: the fears that stories and firelight keep at bay.

Wolves are also an object of dark fascination, perhaps because of their obvious evolutionary connection to dogs, an animal whose image pervades culture as an exemplar of faithfulness, companionship and domesticity: ironically the polar opposite of our perception of wolves. Yet we speak of being raised by wolves, lone wolves and running with the wolves: positive images that implicitly celebrate the wolf’s independence, social nature and construction of family units. We also revel in the ways that wolves communicate with each other across vast distances, in their lyrically creepy call and response in the night.

This rich blend of competing cultural constructions, along with factors that impinge on other animal populations such as habitat destruction has sadly impacted the ecology of wolves. Overall there has been a worldwide decline in wolf populations, and some species have been decimated. Education is an important part of recovering disappearing breeds but so are programs that support wild populations by breeding animals and reintroducing them to the wild. One such program is at the Wolf Conservation Center in nearby South Salem, NY. It was when we heard that the WCC was offering an overnight, “Sleep with the Wolves” program that we knew we couldn’t resist.

Our evening began with a presentation in a small wooden building at the edge of the compound. Alex, one of the center’s wolf specialists, explained the mission of the center. Along the way he related the biography of the center’s “ambassador wolves,” wolves that are kept to provide education programs and won’t be reintroduced to the wild, and introduced us to the live “wolf cam” feed from one of the dens. After talking about the decline of wolf populations worldwide, Alex taught us to distinguish between the long mournful call of a gray wolf, and the higher modulating almost barking call of the red wolves. Later, as we stood on the path to the wolf compound, Alex encouraged us to howl to the wolves ourselves, “so they will know you’re coming,” he said. Shyly at first, and then with increasing enthusiasm, the two dozen of us threw back our heads and howled at the sky. “Don’t bark,” Alex warned, “a bark is a warning cry to a wolf.” Within moments we heard the surreal sound of actual wolves calling back down to us from the top of the path.

The gray wolf sibling ambassadors, Zephr, Alawa, Nikai, are kept in a two-acre enclosure together surrounded by a ten foot high chain link fence. Though these wolves are more domesticated than some of their peers, who roam another enclosure out of sight behind the ambassadors, we are reminded that they are none the less wild. We are told, for example to not put our hands on the fence. All of the wolves respond to Alex’ presence, pacing along the fence line and vaulting in the air to catch raw chicken that he throws over the fence. Later we are led to a second enclosure where we see Atka, an artic wolf, also eagerly awaiting Alex. Atka, is the proverbial lone wolf who can’t tolerate inclusion in the gray wolf compound. Our final stop is the red wolf pen, where we can see a true wolf pack: two parents and a number of small pups lingering by their den. Sadly, we are told that one of the red wolf pups has passed away earlier in the afternoon.

The evening continues with pizza by the wolf pen, and an outdoor movie that we watch along with the wolves from metal bleachers. Later there is a campfire and smores, and access to the pens is left open for several hours after full dark. A number of the kids linger by the pens, trying to catch a glimpse of the wolves in the dark with flashlights.

It is fascinating to see the wolves up close, to learn about wolf biology and to sleep in close proximity to such a marvelous ancient creature. There were two moments however that made the whole experience especially worthwhile. The first was early on in the evening as the wolves began a solid five minutes of calling to each other in one long rising symphony of voices. It was elegant, eerie and wonderful: an elegy to the setting sun, their bond with each other and the coming of night. The second came as we were sleeping in our tents at perhaps 2 AM. From the nearby red wolf den came the sound of the wolves fighting with each other in one extended bout of snarling, growling, barking and howling. From the comfort of my sleeping bag, warm and dry and safe in my tent, it was a mysterious and wonderful sound, rich with the tingle of danger, and the potential of story.

About the Wolf Conservation Center

The WCC also participates in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) and Recovery Plan for two critically endangered wolf species, the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) and the red wolf (Canis rufus). The Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf are among the rarest mammals in North America, both species at one time were completely extinct in the wild. Presently there are approximately 400 Mexican gray wolves and 300 red wolves remaining in the world, the majority living within the network of facilities like the WCC participating in the SSP. 

To learn more about the WCC and its programs, or to make a donation to wolf conservation, visit the WCC website.

To hear the sound of a red wolf howling, click here.
To hear the sound of a gray wolf howling, click here.