Sunday, July 13, 2014

Where The Wolves Are

Many of you may have noticed a quirk of mine: my obsession with wolves and werewolves. My friends have known this for a long time and it’s certainly a source of amusement for them. As a child I actually believed I was a werewolf and anxiously hoped that during my adolescence, under one glorious Full Moon, I’d finally sprout claws and fangs and run around howling my heart out… not to rip any innocent creature to shreds, you understand, but to connect with something very wild and primal and beautiful that has always been just out of reach. 

Wolves have some of the closest-knit
family instincts in the animal kingdom.
The wolf is something very special, even sacred to me. Native Americans have long respected the wolf; they call the animal their brother. The wolf has been an image in my mind for as long as I can remember: as a little boy I found fairy tales harrowing when I found out what usually happened to poor old Big Bad. His stomach cut open by the Woodsman. Carried off in chains in Peter and the Wolf. 

I had little sympathy for the Three Little Pigs or, especially, Little Red Riding Hood, thinking that a smart woman would know better than to go traipsing around the woods without a taser or pepper spray. When I found out that the original version of Cinderella had the Ugly Sisters cutting off their toes to fit into her shoe (which was a fur sandal, not a glass Jimmy Choo) I suspected something had gone horribly wrong in our canon of fairy tales. Something had been inverted, at times artificially sweetened or simply lost in an ancient translation.  
This is how it should have been, Mr Grimm.

It was fear, and the wolf was a symbol of that. Not in my fairy tale, some obstinate neurons in my hippocampus decided. I’m not going to project that onto such a magnificent creature. 

I don’t blame the Brothers Grimm: they were collectors, presevers of folklore. When I discovered Kipling’s The Jungle Book I had my “aha!” moment: here were wolves that were wise, benevolent and caring. And even in Disney’s jolly but totally inaccurate version, the scene of Akela brooding over the pack council haunted me. It was one of Disney’s last works he personally produced and where his protege, the aptly named Wolfgang Reitherman, matures as a consummate animator. 

Werner Freund, in his 80s, lives with wolves.
Epiphanies followed as I searched, trying to connect with that protean moment when, in the light of that flickering ancient fire, a wolf stepped out of the darkness and fearlessly stared at one of my forebears, becoming man’s best friend, not his worst enemy. I discovered Jack London, whose Call of the Wild and White Fang I… er… wolfed down. (And the great but damaged author thought he was a wolf, too.) There was Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf, a memoir of transformation where he as a young researcher spent months in the Arctic observing a pack of wolves, coming to the conclusion that they were not decimators of caribou herds but a vital part of the ecosystem. The zenith of my discovery was Barry Lopez’s 1970s masterwork Of Wolves And Men, a glorious celebration of the similarities between the lupine and the human. 

How about a truce?
While we are not in the same mammalian order, on many levels wolves are closer to us than chimpanzees or gorillas. We are both pack animals with hierarchies and social orders. We have a group instinct –for better or for worse– and love expressing ourselves. We play. We mourn the loss of our loved ones, we banter and snap at each other and mark our territory. It’s fitting that the archetypal companion animal is the friendly wolf —the dog— and not another primate. Wolves are also of the best fathers in the animal kingdom, something man could do well to learn from. And they mate for life. 

I was almost tearful when biologists renamed the domestic dog Canis lupus familiaris, recognising it as a subspecies of the wolf (Canis lupus) and no longer a separate species. Yes, your fluffy Yorkie or faithful Labrador is actually a tame wolf with fully compatible DNA. On some small level, we had reached out a hand, trying to rebuild the bridges we burnt, even as the loathsome Sarah Palin boasted about shooting Alaskan wolves from above. 

My personality was a shapeshifting one. In my adolescence, the concept of the werewolf became an anchoring point of that great change: adolescence. Some teenagers become goths, some teenagers sit in darkened rooms blaring loud music, until hopefully and painfully we learn the truth at seventeen (to quote Janis Ian.) I was an awkward teenager who often made himself fresh fodder for ridicule with his big nose and orthodontics and possibly schizotypal traits.  Perhaps that is why I found solace as, inside my thoughts, I howled softly at the moon and dreamt of running in a pack.

Predator, but not necessarily a killer.
Freud and Jung would have a field day.
Clinical lycanthropy, the delusion that one is a wolf or werewolf, was long recognised as a distinct psychiatric disorder. I don’t think I’m deluded: I do not growl at my patients or use my friends as chew toys. I just have a degree of magical thinking, and I think this makes me a better writer. Call be a sub-clinical lycanthrope if you like; we all have our oddities. Freud and Jung drew heavily on the magnificent beast as symbol of predation or wild archetype. I have my right to believe in fairy tales, one in which the wolf is not a monster in the forest but in fact the guardian spirit who leads a little girl to safety. Naturally, I adore werewolf fiction, because (1) they are so much cooler than vampires and (2) the symbolism is denser than a turn-of-the-century London fog.

Don't get me wrong: wolves are wild animals, and as cuddly as they might seem (to me) they deserve respect. You cannot keep a wolf as a pet; they need kilograms of meat a day and need to run miles. (Fortunately the importation of wolf-dog hybrids has been stopped in most countries.) They do not necessarily howl at the moon. But they do not deserve abject fear and loathing. But the sad fact is that humans have decimated wolf populations without stopping to think that they are not the monsters we make them out to be. Recorded accounts of wolves attacking humans are vanishingly small, and even in those cases the majority were rabid or injured. 

We exterminated them in most of Western Europe — there is not a single wolf left in the British Isles, and only a handful of them exist on the Iberian Peninsula. Their populations were decimated in the United States and Mexico. Sizeable numbers now only remain in Canada and Siberia. However, when I was in Prague recently, I was delighted to hear from a local that the Czechs and the Slovaks, along with the Poles, are proud of having the most stable populations of wolves in Europe. 

In the US was great controversy when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park (it’s a National Park, for heavens’ sake, a site of their original habitat!) but Nature had the last laugh at the hands of the haters: their reintroduction improved the local ecosystem. You can watch a fascinating documentary here about how the wolves of Yellowstone altered the very course of the rivers:

You might think it odd of me to be so passionate about an animal when I live in Mzansi with her beautiful bestiary of lions, cheetahs and critically endangered rhinoceroses and wild dogs — the latter also a tragically misunderstood creature. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a passionate supporter of our rich ecological heritage. This is a planetary thing, and, as someone once said, humanity could be judged on how it has treated the wolf. Gandhi himself spoke of the true measure of a civilisation can be measured by how it treats its animals (and, by extension, all its vulnerable ones: children, the aged, the poor.)

We have much to learn from the wolf: tolerance, affection, endurance, family, playfulness. If we stare into those ancient wise eyes with an open mind, we will see our humanity reflected back at us. We already know that dogs are of the most loyal and loveable friends mankind has at its side. It’s time we acknowledge their noble inheritance, for our sake and the sake of our beautiful blue planet.

Excuse me while I go watch the moon rise.

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