Monday, February 20, 2012

Wild things

Fingers ... om nom nom.
I consider myself lucky to have spent time with wolves.

Sazi, the pup's foster mom.
Domesticated wolves, mostly, or wolf-dog hybrids; a wolf-malamute cross, a wolf-German shepherd cross, a wolf-husky cross, and one magnificent creature who was half gray wolf and half red wolf, according to the experts’ best guess. For the record, I don’t keep them as pets and never have; keeping wolves is a rather restricted activity in California, as it is in many states, and my contact with these animals came through a friend who grew up alongside them and knows them far better than I ever will. Frankly, she’s the only person I’ve ever met who I believe was truly qualified to work with them. I spent a little time with her recently, and with a recently adopted pup, and it got me thinking about wild things.

At the top of the stairs, an invisible caribou.
The thing that nobody understands about wolves, even ones that have been raised by humans and are as domesticated as they’re going to get, is that they’re not dogs. I don’t care if they’re genetically similar; they’re different creatures. The red-gray wolf looks like a big shepherd dog with reddish-brown fur, but every once in a while she gives you a look that a dog never will. The look says: I don’t need you. Maybe I eat your food and live in your house, and maybe I consider you part of my pack, but there is absolutely nothing that could stop me from walking out that door and becoming the apex predator of some forest somewhere. Wolves are a bit like cats in that way; they might be domesticated, but they’re never, ever tame.

She was sure I was hiding raw meat on my person.
My friend told me once that the difference between a wolf and a dog is that when you call a dog in for dinner, it comes running without a second thought; when you call a wolf, it often trots into view and then stops, waiting to be convinced. They are considerably more intelligent than dogs, and have a much better idea of what humans are up to. They’re surprisingly strong, too; one member of my friend’s pack once pulled a wooden post out of cold concrete and didn’t notice she’d done it. She just ran off, dragging the post behind her, along with a big concrete chunk and a very surprised human who’d gotten tangled in the rope. The human got herself untangled within about 20 yards, but the wolf kept on running and it took my friend hours to track her down.

Taking a nap under my jacket.
(Photo is blurry because my jacket was on my lap.)
Think about that. Something that looks like a beautiful, friendly dog, but is frighteningly smart and so strong it doesn’t have to notice it’s pulling your weight. I’ve met people who tell me they’ve always wanted a pet wolf, and I’ve usually looked at them like they’ve sprouted a second head and said, “Are you sure? Have you ever met one?” They haven’t. Most of these people seem dumber than the average golden retriever. I can understand why, when we humans bred wolves into dogs, we bred them to be friendly, dependent, and just a little bit thick in the head. There’s something unsettling about a furry quadruped that seems to know something you don’t. Especially when it probably does.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve loved every second I’ve spent with wolves, and my friend couldn’t imagine her life without them. The red-gray wolf effectively adopted her infant son—guarding his crib, hurrying to comfort him when he cried, curling up protectively around him when he sat on the floor to play. I swear I saw him spit up once, when he was six months old, and the wolf had licked him clean by the time his human mother had picked up the spit rag. It was a very doglike thing to do, except that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dog with reflexes that fast, or a thought process that complex. It was a wolf moment.

With a few select exceptions, I don’t think humans should live with wolves, or wolfdogs. My friend is an unusual case; after a lifetime of experience with these animals, she speaks their language and knows them better than she does human beings. Everybody else who meets her pack, myself included, takes one look at them and immediately thinks: Dog! And that’s where the trouble begins. They’re not dogs. They’re too smart, too strong, and too knowing. Most of the would-be wolf owners I’ve met have been fed the romance of the wolf, the wild beast that takes a human into its wild heart. And sometimes wolves do that—but more often they don’t. Unlike dogs, they choose their companions carefully, and many of them will never choose a human at all. They don’t have to, and don’t want to. They’re wolves.
I keep these lessons in mind whenever I write about animals, especially wild ones. They don’t care about the big bad wolf of fairy tales, or the noble wolf of modern myths. Maybe a few of their ancestors came out of the woods and joined primitive man beside his fires, but the rest of them didn’t. They stayed wolves. And whenever I write about the coyote in Masks, or any wild animal in any one of my stories, I remind myself: this isn’t a dog, or a cat, or anything I know. This is something else. This is something that stayed a wolf. They don’t have to come inside, and they don’t have to notice they’re dragging you in their wake, let alone consult you on where they’re going.

How would the world be different, I wonder, if more people understood that?

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