Confessions of a wolf addict

  Hi, my name is Amy, and I'm a wolfaholic.

I know others like me are out there. They’re driving cars with bumper stickers crying "Little Red Riding Hood Lied." Their walls display dreamy paintings of wolves that look gentler than Gandhi. My wolfaholism manifests itself in a different way: I'm addicted to watching wolves.

It started in 1997, when a U.S. District Court judge ordered the removal of wolves brought from Canada in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. I hadn't yet been to Yellowstone to see the wolves that were turned loose there in 1995. I knew they were thriving and afforded certain protections, so I felt no need to go. But when Judge William Downes ordered the wolves out, my synapses blew a fuse and the road to addiction began. It was as if Prohibition had returned: One minute, you're sipping a smooth Merlot; the next, the glass is snatched from your fingers.

In the case of the wolves allowed to re-colonize just a small part of their historic range, there would be no speakeasies or black-market habitats harboring the four-legged criminals. Fortunately, Judge Downes stayed his order, giving the plaintiffs and defendants time to slog through the appeal process, and me a chance to get my bipedal body to Yellowstone, 13 hours away.

Off I went in the dead of winter, dragging my mate with me. Addicts love company. Up before dawn, we headed to the Lamar Valley where we’d read that a couple of wolf packs had established territories. But though we spied trotting coyotes, frosty buffalo and elk stomping the snow in the dim light, we saw no wolves. We stopped the car and ventured outside in below-zero cold. Surely, we'd hear the call of the wild, the howls of those controversial animals. All we heard was the purring engine of an approaching Subaru wagon. The driver slowed and rolled down his window.

"The Druid pack is bedded down about a mile east near Soda Butte," said the driver, almost obscured by his parka. "You should be able to get a good look at them — that is, if you're interested in that sort of thing."

I waited until he was out of sight, then dashed to the car, my legs spinning in the air like a cartoon character. As we approached Soda Butte, we spied a herd of cars parked along the road. Binoculars, scopes and radio telemetry all pointed in one direction, and there were the wolves: The Druid pack, lolling on a ridge, as snow began to fall and daybreak lighted up the sky.

A black wolf stood up, stretched and nuzzled a silver wolf. Soon, the entire pack was immersed in a greeting frenzy, licking faces and wagging tails. As a primeval chorus of howls rose with the sun, I knew I was a goner — a slave to my addiction.

With the top dog back in the West, the wild part of me had returned, too. There is no better high than feeling whole, and that's the rush I get from watching wolves. Like most wolfaholics, I learned the ropes fast. To find wolves, find the people who've already found them. These are usually fellow addicts posing as park rangers, graduate students or wildlife photographers. Spare no expense on viewing devices. You know someone's a wolf addict when he or she drives a junker, wears torn Carhartt work clothes and sports a costly Swarovski 45x spotting scope.

Drop everything in your life in order to fuel your addiction, and be warned that this will affect relationships and most forms of employment. And finally, be ready to share. Like smokers bumming cigarettes from each other, "wolfies" swap sightings, coffee and hand warmers. We know there is strength in numbers, and we might as well band together lest we be discriminated against by non-wolfies.

Two years after Judge Downes pushed me over the brink of addiction, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his decision. The wolves were legal again. But my addiction rages on. I sneak off to Yellowstone and hook up with the only people who understand me. I surf the Internet for wolf-pack updates in the park and the latest developments to downlist and delist Canus lupus from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Heck, I even have plastic wolf figurines living on top of my piano.

Family and friends beg me to seek help, but what's the point? I'll never be a recovering wolfaholic. And that's a beautiful thing.

Amy Gulick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in North Bend, Washington, where she works as a writer and photographer.