I once saw a wolf, or what I was told was one. It stood on a picnic table in Montana in the late evening sunshine, and 30 or so onlookers gathered around.
The wolf was named Kaori. Clipped to a leash attached to her handler's harness, she was part of an educational program and accustomed to crowds. Her handler convinced her to jump up on the table and stand there, less than 20 feet away from us, and pretend to be Wolf.
We all "oohed" and "aahed." We took pictures and listened carefully. We tried to convince ourselves we were scared. We felt we were in the presence of something spectacular, and we were. Finally, and this is one thing I'm sure of: We prided ourselves on being lucky enough to have the opportunity. The next day, we told people we barely knew that we'd been within spitting distance of a wolf, and in the widening of their eyes we saw that we'd achieved a new and unusual kind of status.
Kaori had appeared from around the corner of a building at a trot, ears forward, nose to the ground, eyes taking in everything. Other animals can be collared -- "broken," as we say of horses, trained or otherwise taught to live in the company of humans. With wolves this is impossible. Their whole existence is centered around being wild and able to roam.
In the epilogue to his 1978 book, Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez writes about his experience raising wolves, saying, "I do not wish to encourage other people to raise wolves. Wolves don't belong to people. It is as simple as that. Having done it once, naively, I would never do it again." Take the wolf out of the wild, Lopez is saying, and it ceases to be Wolf.
Initially, I'd gone to see Kaori out of simple curiosity, a boyhood desire to be in the presence of danger and an adult's desire to see something rare. As is so often the case, I was unprepared for the reality. Kaori stood there and faced west, and the evening sun highlighted her fur. Still, what I was looking at was only the shadow of Wolf. Despite my good intentions and best efforts, all I really saw was the six to eight feet of nylon rope that tied her to her handler.
It is a few years later as I write this, and the fact that my experience has stayed with me is testament to the place wolves hold in our psyche. Meanwhile, debate continues to rage over our reintroduction of wolves -- how many we will allow, and where we will let them roam.
I believe we need wolves, need them running through our woods and through our imaginations. We need to know they are out there even if we never see one, because both of us, the wolves and ourselves, will better off for it. Of course, this kind of thinking rarely makes it into policy debates. Poets and sentimentalists are given no room at the table; science and the bottom line are the only things that matter.
In my own fuzzy-headed way, I also believe that cattle and ranchers need wolves, as do ground squirrels and ravens. The balance of ecosystems is permanently out of whack, but our knowledge of our role in that balance changes everything. We have to think about more than just ourselves, something that's hard, given our day-to-day economic reality. In this case, however, it's not livelihoods that are at risk, it's our soul.
Finally, for the same reason I don't like to keep fish in a bowl or birds in a cage, I wouldn't keep a wolf in a pen. This does not mean I don't believe in zoos that protect endangered species, or that animals such as Kaori should not be used for educational purposes. But we need to let the wild live wild when we can. We need ambiguity and mystery: both real and imagined wolves.
I still remember how Kaori stood in the Montana evening and bounced her nose on the breeze. I remember her paws, the size of them, and the long legs that grew out of them -- legs built for tremendous journeys. But whenever someone asks me if I've ever seen a wolf, I just shake my head and say, "No."
Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is moving from Bend, Oregon to the East Coast.