American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee
My rating: 4/5 cats
this is my nonfiction book for the month, chosen because i like wolves, but sean of the house LOVES wolves, and i was going to give this to him when i finished, but i’m afraid it would break his sensitive irish heart.
according to this book, wolves have a life expectancy of about five years in the wild, and this book chronicles several generations of wolves living in yellowstone, so you do the math there.
this book was pulled together from the well-detailed accounts of the wolf-watchers in yellowstone; individuals who devoted their lives to observing these magnificent beasts every day, coming to know their behaviors and ‘personalities,’ monitoring their struggles for dominance within their packs, their clashes with other packs, and witnessing births and deaths in an ever-changing pack dynamic.
as i said, i like wolves, but in a casual “oh, how lovely they are” way without being any kind of wolf scholar or anything, so i learned a lot from this book. i didn’t know that wolves had been eliminated from yellowstone (and most of the US) in the ’20’s in order to protect the park’s delicious elk, deer, moose, & etc and were only reintroduced in 1995, when wolves imported from canada were allowed to return to an ecosystem that had actually been negatively impacted by their removal in the first place. what followed was a wolf explosion that did indeed restore the natural balance but also caused outrage in the local humans, as idaho, montana and wyoming are full of hunters and ranchers long accustomed to viewing wolves as a threat to their livelihood. so not only is the book full of the stories of the wolves under the park’s protection, but also about the inevitable wolf diaspora, as packs ranged outside of safety and caused no end of consternation and legislature about what should be done to protect the elk and cattle that humans were planning on killing. it’s Planet Earth meets Law & Order and both situations are fascinating in their own way.
on the wolf side, the star of the book is the alpha female O-Six (named for the year of her birth)*, who made herself a favorite of yellowstone’s many wolf-watching groupies by demonstrating phenomenal abilities in hunting prowess, strategic evasion, admirable leadership qualities, and fecundity. if you google “O-Six and yellowstone,” you get the cliffs notes version of what happened to her, but you’d miss out on all the stories told in this book about her and her pack and her rivals. this is a nature book, so there’s no shoddy anthropomorphization, but it’s hard not to fall in love a little bit. internet assures me the following are all photos of her, and more can be found here.
a superstar of a wolf.
the legal track is absolutely bizarre; convoluted and counterintuitive. it involves the authorization of wolf-hunting in the three states surrounding yellowstone: idaho, montana and wyoming, and it turns into a mishmash of state and federal legislature, sneaky riders smooshed into unrelated bills, science vs. politics, rulings overturned, wolves placed on and off the endangered species list with shifting boundaries, and flinging money at the problem in such contradictory ways:
one federal agency was reintroducing predators on public land, a second was leasing adjacent land to ranchers, and a third was dispatching trappers or men in helicopters to kill those same predators when they inevitably crossed paths with livestock.
america is crazytown.
it kind of hurts my heart a little to think of someone hunting a wolf, since there’s no “feeding my family” exemption, and it’s purely for sport or the protection of livestock (which i do understand, but cattle are big and dumb and delicious, and it’s not just wolves who get that – there are also bears and coyotes and probably some other beasts determined enough to attack a little one), but i will say that of all the wolves who died in this book, at least the ones shot by hunters died instantly, as opposed to the many who died of injuries sustained in territory disputes with other packs or starved to death.
actually, scratch that – there was one wolf who was illegally shot by a hunter and wandered off to die slowly, and his story was the one that hit my heart the worst, because he was a collared wolf, so his location was known to the biologists working on the wolf restoration project, but because “they weren’t zookeepers, after all,” and didn’t intervene in the fates of the wolves, he slowly starved to death over the course of eleven days. again, this is a decision i understand with my brain, but it does nothing to soothe my heart. it’s like that scene in that BBC Africa documentary series where the baby elephant gets turned around in the sand storm and wanders in the opposite direction from the rest of the herd and dies and sir david attenborough just kinda shrugs and says, “nature, amiright?”** instead of swooping in to rotate the calf or at the very least, not airing that footage. because jeez.
but i know, i know – when it comes to reading about/watching animals in the wild, it would be irresponsible to go into it thinking it’s going to be a disney paradise where animals help each other out and share the territory and no one ever eats anyone or wanders out into the storm, bawling piteously.
nature gets hungry and nature doesn’t share.
sure, sometimes someone forwards you some heartwarming story about a bear that adopts an orphaned raccoon and everyone goes “aawwwwww,” but generally speaking, in an environment with limited resources, benevolence to those outside of a very short range of community or family is a liability an animal cannot afford.
wolves are pack animals, so loyalties extend somewhat outside of the pure family, but even within a pack, members submit to their alphas in frequent demonstrative ways, and wolves are also highly territorial, so when packs cross paths, carnage ensues.
so, there are some parts of this book i know will ruin sean of the houses’s day, but he’s a particularly soft touch when it comes to animals, and if i could get him over that, i’m sure he would find this as fascinating and illuminating as i did, and be grateful that there are more wolves in our country, even if they don’t get to live as long as we’d like them to.
* this is one of my few gripes – because they aren’t pets, the wolves aren’t given memorable people-names, but referred to by collar-numbers: 754, 820, 859 or, if uncollared, distinguishing markings or traits: middle gray, shy male. i am bad at math, so i got mixed-up sometimes.
** that is what my heart heard him say, anyway.
full review still in the works, but definitely one for ‘to-read’ lists of those who can handle the end results of animals doing what animals do, and hunters doing what hunters do.