In my youth, I was entranced with the wilderness, and Wolves were its mystic symbol. I read about Wolves, I dreamed about Wolves, I wanted to live with Wolves. Wolves were my alter-ego; their social awareness, their attunement to their surroundings, and their ability to live by their feelings were my envy and inspiration. Wolf Spirit was intrinsic to my Native spiritual ways. I felt Wolf running with me through the Forest, even though there were no longer any Wolves in the region.
Then one night in my early 20s while camped on the high bank of a wilderness stream, I heard a lone howl. How could it be? Were there more? I tracked her, I studied her kills and her scat; there was only one.
I decided then and there that I would do whatever I could to help bring the Wolves back to their home in the Northwoods, that I would help dispel the many fears that prevented kinship between Wolves and Humans.
Shortly thereafter, a friend who knew of my plans told me of a pair of Wolves he had just seen at a little roadside zoo up north that had just had a litter of pups.
I arrived at the gift shop which served as the entrance to the zoo. It was stocked with dusty, outdated merchandise, and the animal cages beyond, though clean and adequate, were patchworks of mismatched wire.
There in each enclosure, I met one or two cage-weary specimens of each of the typical animals of the Wisconsin Northwoods – Porcupine, Beaver, Deer, Snapping Turtle, Fox. And a pair of Wolves.
They were scruffy looking. The female lay at the front of a small pen, apparently haggard from nursing. Her expressionless mate stood beside her as though on guard. According to their keepers, the pair was captured and caged years ago so that the producers of a popular wild animal TV show could film the Timber Wolves’ breeding cycle. (As a child I had wondered how that amazing close-up footage was taken . . .) They may have been the last breeding pair in Wisconsin and Michigan. When the crew was through, they sold the pair to this struggling tourist wayside.
In the bathtub of the proprietors’ house I was shown four Wolf pups, 11 days old with eyes still not open. The pups were just “removed” from their parents the night before (which explained why the pair looked as they did), and they had already been adopted by the two teenage daughters. Blue ribbon bows adorned the pup’s necks and they were being lovingly bottle fed – testament to their cuteness in the eyes of many, and a good example of why wild animals often find themselves made pets.
The image of those still-blind wildings someday existing numbly behind bars like their parents drove me to decision.
“How much are you asking for a pup?”
I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have the facilities or the time. But that didn’t matter. These pups were Wolves; they were born to live wild – not in a cage. They needed help now.
The owner replied “Two-hundred dollars. If you want one you’ll have to take it now because we’re going away for the weekend and don’t have anyone to take care of the pups.”
“I’ll give you $400 for the litter.”
On the drive home I could hardly contain my excitement. Two weeks later I could hardly contain my frustration. Four constantly hungry pups and no time to adequately tend either them or the rest of my life brought me solidly back to reality.
I advertised to sell three of the pups. An urbanite wanted one for a guard dog, a puppy mill owner wanted a male to produce Wolf-Dog hybrids – fairly popular and thus good money makers. With patience I found three people who understood Wolves and seemed to have the time and space to honor them. Simbut (short for Simbut Meaxtkao, “Silver Wolf” in Mahican), a lanky inquisitive female, stayed with me.
Why a Wolf is Not a Pet
Within the year, two of them were back with me -Wolfie, the sleek, agile male counterpart
of Simbut, who became pack leader, and Deshum Nashak (“Earth Thunderer”), a big gentle teddy bear who outweighed his brother by half. Their owners had discovered that Wolves are not wild Dogs, any more than Dogs are domestic Wolves. Wolves live in a separate reality, a world incompatible with modern civilization. They are too sensitive to our noises, too impulsive for our structure, too much the
wanderer for our confines.
A Wolf in captivity does not act like a wild Wolf – calm and centered. In captivity, he becomes neurotic, compulsive and forlorn. Without a lot of space to stretch out, he is prone to slip into what I call “cage gaze” – a transfixed look accompanied by either pacing or complete resignation. Because of my unpreparedness, Simbut spent much of her first year boarded in a kennel. She was spared the scars of “cage gaze” only because we went for long hikes together during that time and she spent her first several months outside a cage). Dogs are compatible with our modern culture because we have bred them to retain their domestic characteristics. We selected the traits we favored and eliminated the others.
Temperament-wise, Wolves are actually more Cat-like than Dog-like; they have a sense of integrity about themselves that some people define as aloofness. As with Cats, they have more a mind of their own; thus they are hard to train and can be unpredictable. For example, a dominant female Wolf will, similar to a male, commonly raise her leg to pee, and can act male-like in other ways as well. This unpredictability can be most extreme in Wolf-Dog hybrids, because they have two often conflicting temperaments trapped in one body.
My heart reaches out to every such animal I hear about, and I cringe whenever I come across an ad offering them for sale. I know of too many who were killed or abandoned because their “owners” could not handle them, and I’ve heard too many stories of children and adults being attacked by them.
I wanted to incorporate all of this, all that I had learned, in the caring of Simbut and her brothers. But I began to question whether a Wolf raised in a cage was still a Wolf. To be a Wolf is to be one with the Forest, to be in communion with fellow Wolves. This is learned behavior, gained from experience and the cumulative wisdom passed down from Wolf elders.
That link is broken when a Wolf is raised in captivity. Then, she is just a biological Wolf, a creature with innate sensitivities, blind urges and abstract visions. She is like an actor driven from deep within to perform but having no script, no voice, no training, no awareness that a stage exists. In order to honor my pledge I had to provide that script, that training, that stage.
Our Adventures as Packmates Begin
I contracted to fence in the wooded acreage behind my house, bringing the pen right up to my door so that I could be an integral part of their lives. They would be kept together so they could develop pack structure. They would be fed wild food, live when possible, so they could learn to hunt. They would raise their own pups, so knowledge could be passed down and they could know the fulfillment of family.
We grew as one in trust and sharing. They honored me by initiating me as a packmate. This involved working out my dominance relationship with each of them, along with learning their body language, facial gesture and vocalization-based communication system, and observing proper greeting protocol with each.
This relationship soon became the most meaningful I had, as I had grown weary of human insincerity. I preferred being with Wolves to being with people. I could sense the integrity and read the feelings of every Wolf I met, whereas people seemed as pallid and rudderless as so many domestic Dogs.
I have since grown to know that it was actually myself I was having trouble with, and not the people around me. Many of them, I discovered, were also seeking that which I found in Wolves. In running from my kind, I was running from myself. The Wolves taught me how to make peace with myself.
Simbut’s first pups were born inside the garage, in a den which opened to the pen. In forming her nest she scraped the cold concrete floor bare of sand. By the time I discovered what happened, three pups were already dead. I brought the fourth inside to try to save him, but no amount of warming or feeding would slow his convulsions. The vet would not see him – it was after hours.
In the black of the night I buried him beside his siblings, his only eulogy my gut- wrenching sobs. I failed Simbut, I failed myself. I doubted my ability to mindfully guide these fated creatures. Deep down I felt the death of her pups as a telling metaphor for the soul-numbing life of the busy young entrepreneur I was.
I sealed off the garage den, and the next spring instinct took over. Several days before the birth, Simbut dug a den under a downed tree; I crawled in with her and watched the birth of three beautiful charcoal pups.
I became their playmate and they became my teachers. Unlike my Sled Dog pups, who would get totally lost in playing with me, the Wolf pups maintained a sense of autonomy and perspective that indicated another dimension to our play. At first I thought they were acting aloof because they were Wolves and I was not. That turned out not to be the case, as I observed the pups interacting with each other in the same manner.
They would study each other intently, their games of chase and tag getting longer and more complex as they grew. Soon they were anticipating each others’ moves, a skill I call “shadowing”. They were getting so good at it that it looked as though there was not going to be much sport to the game anymore.
Introducing the Pack to the Public: My first attempt to create a bridge between humans and Wolves.
Four years passed and my plans for the return of the Wolf to the Forest that long knew no howl were nearly complete. Now was the time to gain public support for the project and further improve Wolf’s image. So I asked a local television station if they would like to cover the story and they sent out a reporter and film crew.
Within minutes of their arrival I came up unawares behind the cameraman, who was crouched before Simbut, thrusting his video camera into her face. He was obviously prodding her in hope of getting some footage of her snarling. Here one of the very people I asked to help was planning to perpetuate the myth of the bloodthirsty killer! I was in no mood to tolerate this display of the popular media’s tendency to “feed the frenzy”; it took some effort on my part to repress the urge to give him a boot and send him witlessly sprawling before the victim of his taunting.
After some consciousness-raising, the news team turned out a fine story. The evening it aired, I couldn’t help but notice the continual parade of cars on our normally quiet road, all slowing down where the Wolf pen came closest to the road. In every vehicle, faces were pressed up against the windows in effort to get a glimpse of a Wolf. This continued for days, prompting the television station to do a follow-up story.
I never suspected that this quiet project would be of such interest to so many! The response was over-whelmingly positive and supportive: Press coverage expanded to magazines and newspapers, donations of labor and materials were offered for the proposed center, and I was asked to be on the governing board of a large environmental organization.
But, there was a pea under the mattress – the center was to be located in a sparsely populated region of northern Wisconsin where enmity toward the Wolf was still prevalent. Old attitudes die hard; a generation ago, the Wolf was still popularly viewed as a varmint. A sympathetic informant from the region told me that some of the locals who saw the television coverage reacted strongly, asserting that the Wolves would likely be killed if they were moved up there. I interviewed local residents; the informant was not exaggerating.
This was serious. Slowly, mournfully, I had to face a stark fact I could not change their animosity towards Wolves. I had to reevaluate. It was more important to me that this project be successful than that I be part of it, and more important that my Wolf kin not be subject to any harm.
My friends, Linda and Jeff Pagel, offered to take over. They lived in the western part of Wisconsin, and understood the language of the Wolves. They shared my vision to see them run free again. For the time being, the project would need to be clandestine and unrelated to public education on behalf of the Wolf.
I visited Wolfie, Deshum Nashak, and Simbut, but it was not the same. Like old friends, we were glad to see each other, but we were no longer pack-mates. They had adapted to a new environment – an experience which I did not share with them, and their pack structure had adjusted to new people and new Wolves (Linda and Jeff were already caring for three other Wolves).
A Stand-off and the Fall-out
Two years passed and the anti-Wolf loomed again, this time in the form of a pack of hunters.
“Stop right there!” Barked Jeff Pagel from behind his truck as he leveled a shotgun over the hood. Linda, his wife, stood transfixed at the living room window, unable to grasp what had possessed her normally gentle husband…
She looked down the driveway in the direction the gun was pointed. There stood a dozen or so deer hunters with rifle-in-arm, frozen in their tracks. They looked at each other as if to say, “A few cans of courage got us this far; now what?”
Minutes before, at the bar down the road, they convinced themselves that they better go deal with those Wolves in the pens behind Jeff’s barn. Otherwise they might escape and start killing Dogs and Deer, and maybe even attack their children.
“One more step is all you’ve got.” Jeff’s voice was calm and dead serious. Resolve broken, and leadership confused, the hunters retreated.
Back at the bar, they decided to call the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Linda had already called the police. Within a half-hour, two wardens and three police officers were standing with Jeff in his driveway, stressing the volume and intensity of complaints from many in the neighborhood. The situation, the officials felt, created a risk to public safety. They insisted, for the sake of both the Wolves and the people involved, that the Wolves be taken under the jurisdiction of the DNR.
Jeff knew he met all the requirements for legal possession of Wolves. He also knew he was up against a wall – he had no money to assert his rights in court if the DNR were to confiscate the Wolves and he had nowhere else to take them to escape the neighborhood situation. So he negotiated with the wardens to keep his pet female; the other six adults and three pups were separated from each other and sent to various zoos around the state.
Linda called me immediately after the truck rolled out of their driveway with the tranquilized Wolves, and I cried. My family had been quite literally torn apart, with each member taken to an unknown concentration camp, and I felt helpless to do anything. Could they never be free? Rage built within me, then I sank into a deep depression.
My sullen mood fed a scheme to bust them out and take them to a secret place. Their captured parents back at the little roadside zoo would never again know the smell of the trail or the thrill of the stalk. But their pups could. I had to believe that their pups could again give voice to the silent howl.
As my time of grieving passed, a wave of acceptance gradually washed over me. And a glimpse of reality – I would be near the top of the list of suspects. Unlikely as it would be, even if I got away with it I could no longer tell them in truth that their children would again run wild in the Forest as did their grandparents. I mourned their living death and walked on, never to see them again. For I couldn’t stand to see them alone, in tiny cages like their parents. And I couldn’t risk awakening memories within them that would shake them out of their torpor and thus make their lives that much more miserable.
Almost two decades later, I was guiding a group on a canoe trip down a wild northern river. One stone-still moonlit evening high on the bank above the fog-blanketed river, we sat around the fire, drumming and sharing stories. I gave voice to my journey with the Wolf, as I have given it to you, and I told of my continuing relationship with Wolf Spirit since then. I also expressed my inability to yet find peace around those turbulent times, and that I still carried feelings of guilt and had not been able to mourn completely.
A dark-haired woman sat across the fire from me, playing a transfixing rhythm on her Hoop-drum. Warm ripples of reflective firelight danced and coalesced on the drumhead; I felt compelled to stare unblinkingly at the forming patterns. Ever-so-slowly the image of a Wolf’s head emerged. The massively broad face and heavy muzzle completely covered the Drum’s surface; it could only be Deshum Nashak!
The beat of the Drum became his pulse as he came to life and looked upon me. Exploding joy and pangs of longing clouded my eyes! It had been so long, yet that seemed only my reality. He, just as of old, just as if we had seen each other yesterday, wanted to play his favorite game – the staredown. I hadn’t met a Wolf I couldn’t stare down, as they do not like to loose connection with their surroundings. Deshum Nashak was no exception; in short order his gaze would degrade and he’d slink into a teasing puppy-romp posture.
Not this time. He held my focus as Drum’s voice brought my heartbeat into sync with Earth’s rhythm and tranced me, drew me, into the dancing ripples of his face, into the ethereal realm where he dwelled behind the Drum… Grasses and early summer flowers reached thigh-high all across the softly undulating meadow. Deshun Neshak bounded toward me from afar, jumping high to keep me in sight. I reveled in his form and majesty. His eager movements and open puppylike face belied the fact that he weighed nearly as much as me.
I jumped the little stream that meandered across the meadow and we met in a reverie of wild leaps and mid-air collisions. Then we wrestled, pinning each other down by the throat or muzzle, and ran off together like two Deer bounding high to show that they too could fly. We raced side by side through the Heather, jumped streams, and gracefully brushed through the Firs as we entered the deep Forest. He wanted me to know truly that all was well with the pack and him, and that The Mother Earth of their realm was in Her primal splendor.
Then Drum’s heart returned mine to me as the rhythm quieted. I left the dream-dance meadow through the drum-hoop from which I’d come and returned to the fire circle. Looking softly back at the drumhead, I saw no more than cavorting fire shadows. Like heavy snow on a bough, a wilting sadness stooped me into memories of our long past parting. I could now embrace those memories, for I had been gifted peace.
Later that night, with the fire’s embers fading behind me, I walked alone into the quiet Forest. I wished to honor Wolf Spirit, and in particular the healer Deshum Nashak. As I stood there, humbled beneath the cathedral Pines, I realized that I, this grateful person, had little to honor him with other than a small gift of tears. They fell before me on the ancient trail that still remembered the long-ago feel of his parents’ tracks.
Somewhere around the year 2000…
(an excerpt from Tamarack’s forthcoming book, Becoming Nature*)
I remember paddling a wilderness river late one summer afternoon with my teenage son and daughter. It was hot, the breeze had calmed, and I asked them to paddle silently so that we could Become one with the stillness. Hearing the flapping of Birds’ wings as they darted across the stream in front of us, along with Fish sucking Insects off the surface of the water, we soon discovered that stillness hardly meant quiet. We could even hear the Dragonflies darting over the water’s surface.
Sunset neared, and still not a Bird sang. The silver-tinged sky lay as polished as the river’s mirror-smooth surface. We quit paddling and sat as still as the Lily Pads.
Soon we heard a lone howl. It started softly, drifted over the valley, and was immediately echoed by another howl. They seemed to rise from the high bank bordering the river far upstream.
Although muted by the distance, the howls cast a spell over the valley that made everything else disappear. The shyness of the voices, along with their unsteadiness and timbre, took over my consciousness. If I were standing, my knees would have buckled. This wilderness hadn’t heard the howl of a Wolf for over fifty years, when the last Wolf in the state was hunted down.
What we heard was not from an adult pair who had wandered in from Canada, nor was the voice from transplants who may or may not survive. And they weren’t fragile pups, most of whom don’t make it through their first year. No, these were frisky adolescents, born and raised here—true natives! In that moment, my life felt complete.
Wolf has returned to the Northern Forest. Biologists say they were colonizers from a
distant Wolf population. However, that does not explain the first pack, which seemingly appeared out of nowhere. There are a few of us who know well its origin — we know that Wolf Spirit again gave form to her long-veiled presence because she felt the Forest had healed from the ravages of early logging, and that hearts have again opened to who she really is.
The Brother Wolf Foundation is the result of the combination of the pledge I made after tracking the lone Wolf in the woods all those years ago, and experience helping to raise my pack-mates. It is my long awaited dream come true to be able to help reintroduce the Wolf to my beloved Northwoods. To do this, it is essential to help change the perception of the Wolf that Jeff met head-on that painful day years ago.
I hope you will consider joining me in this next phase of the Foundation as we create a sanctuary to give domestic Wolves a life worthy of their species, and as we build an educational center to offer others the opportunity to gain a truer understanding of the Wolf.
To learn more about Tamarack Song, you can visit his web page at TamarackSong.org.
* Becoming Nature: Learning the Language of Wild Animals and Plants is scheduled to be published by Inner Traditions the spring of 2016. All proceeds will be donated to the Brother Wolf Foundation.