Respecting the Wolf As a Predator

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THE room was full of very excited people, including a lot of little children, and a wolf was just about to come to see us. ``Imagine this was a room full of wolves and you were being brought in to be looked at. How would you want the wolves to behave?'' Ken Weber, director of ``Mission Wolf,'' was trying to get the room calmed down so that big Shaman would be willing to stay with us for a few minutes. If we put out a bunch of nervous vibes, Shaman would feel unwelcome, he told us. Sure enough, everyone became very still and quiet ... and in a moment in came a huge dark gray 2-year-old Canadian timber wolf ... followed by a big red Malamute (Shaman's traveling companion) and tiny Dancing Bear, a two-month-old wolf puppy.

This was the climax of a provocative evening - educational, saddening, heartwarming - and for me, a new phase in my lifelong struggle to better understand man's relationship to wolves. Mission Wolf is a one-family crusade: Weber some years ago had stopped a disgruntled owner of a growing wolf pup from putting it to death. One thing led to another, people across the country found out about Weber as a soft touch, and pretty soon he was taking care of 32 wolves.

Now Weber travels around the country from his Colorado base, educating the public - including eager crowds like ours at our local nature center - teaching them that wolves can never make satisfactory pets: They're inherently wild animals. When they reach maturity they'll start marking their territory ... and if that includes your sofa, there's nothing you can do about it!

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His major message is that wolves are forever wolves, they'll never be dogs, inside the house or out. Shaman is not a pet. He's a most unusual wolf who can handle traveling with an unusual pack.

This was not our first encounter with wolves. We had also spent a ``wolf weekend'' last winter under the guidance of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn. The weekend included, among many other exciting things, an aerial safari in a rebuilt Dehavilland Beaver aircraft, tracking a wolf pack in which one wolf was wearing a radio collar.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the weekend was skiing into the woods to the site of a recently abandoned deer kill. The snow was red with blood; a picked-clean skeleton lay scattered across a clearing. The air was thick with primitive feelings. Here was nature in the raw, an animal dying in mortal combat with its enemy. It was very moving, but why?

Fifteen people had gathered from across the country to spend this three-day weekend learning about wolves. We spent several hours learning about the complex process of raising wolves in captivity. Three pups were being raised in a large enclosure including the edge of the forest; they had been born in zoos or abandoned in the wild. Not having learned how to be wild wolves, they couldn't be released into the wild. We also visited a ``deer park,'' where deer gather during winter. Here we learned about deer habits, how they eat in the winter, how they relate to the wolves.

But back to the question: What was it all really about? Where do wolves fit in? Why do they matter? Why should the United States Fish and Wildlife Service pay people to study these big animals with nothing but bad reputations? When you think about it, every tale you ever heard that had a wolf, cast the wolf in a Hood, the Three Pigs, Peter and the Wolf ... right down the line. So why should we be glad that wolves have regained a foothold in Minnesota?

We can answer the question with another: What's the role of a predator in a ``civilized'' country? What happens if we kill off all the predatory animals? Experience gives us some pretty dramatic examples as answers.

For instance, rabbits have no natural predators in Australia. Introduced in the late 18th century, the rabbits now eat more grass than Australia's most famous export, sheep.

The 20th anniversary of Earth Day just past called on all of us to reassess our relationships to our surroundings. We've seen a special referendum in Aspen, Colo., trying to declare animal furs unwelcome in town. Shaman, the wolf, had climbed up on Ken Weber's back to make the point: His skin looks better on him than on Ken!

Some human beings have always assumed that their rights came first, that of the animals a distant second. With the passage of the Endangered Species Act some 20 years ago, that assumption was finally called into question in a way that had some legal teeth.

The act may help a snail darter who lives in a very confined space, but what about a predator who roams free, for whom human boundaries (of parks or wilderness areas or personal property) are useless? We learned on our ``wolf weekend'' that wolf packs are generally made up of about six adult wolves, covering a territory on the order of 10 square miles.

Careful studies have shown the wolves to be extraordinarily good at avoiding both humans themselves and roads. Wolves do not like to make contact with humans. Remember the recent Iditarod dog-sled race in Alaska? It was the moose, not the wolves, who caused the problems for the sledders. So it seems that in areas in which there are large wooded spaces, the wolves will generally take care of themselves, out of touch with the nearby humans ... if the humans will leave them alone.

In many near-urban areas in which there are no predators for population control, the growth of deer herds has become a serious problem. Deer break down fences, eat people's gardens, and are considered carriers of disease. Isn't it an interesting thought that wolves could become useful in helping to control the size of the deer herds but for our limited view of them?

But back again to the question: Why are these animals so fascinating to us city-bound environmentalists? For starters, they are incredibly handsome beasts. And they are strong, self-reliant, loyal to their mates and young. And perhaps most important of all, they represent a near-mythic link with our wild distant past. When we honor that link, somehow we uplift ourselves and manifest a wisdom rare in citified modern man.

Honoring wolves as predators, as a small part of the return to natural balance that we so badly need - that's why working for wolves is so moving. It's a primitive but very real experience.

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