Wolf on a picnic table

  • Charles Finn


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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Pat Tucker
Pat Tucker Subscriber
Nov 12, 2011 08:24 PM
I appreciated reading that Koani made a lasting impression on you Charles. Captive animal programs have their pros and cons. That Koani is etched in the memory of so many can be counted on the plus side. No amount of descriptive verbalization can convey what one feels when a wolf looks them in the eye. And whether that wolf is captive or wild, when your eyes meet, you know you’re not looking into the eyes of a dog. That was the power of Koani’s presence. Something she accomplished over the course of her life, during which she participated in 1,400 programs and put up with standing before 200,000 people, was to provide people with an opportunity to confront the wolf that stalks one’s imagination and contrast that perception with the real item. Those who deify the wolf had to accept that the animal they saw before them didn’t appear as noble as they’d imagined. Those who demonize wolves and came prepared to see a slathering beast straining to get at children in the audience were faced with an animal that wanted to go behind the curtain and lay down.

What we faced on a daily basis, the down side to living with an animal like Koani, was knowing that wolves don’t belong in captivity. A wolf on a leash is an oxymoron. Granted, taking responsibility for Koani was forced on us; the only choice we had in the matter was whether to euthanize her or come up with a way of life that revolved around her… thus the ambassador wolf program. Another downside to captive animal programs is that people can see the human presenter and the captive animal and think, “It’d so cool to have an animal like that for a pet.” Wolves don’t make good pets; this is a major theme that runs through True Wolf, a film we just completed that chronicles the life of Koani. We worked hard to provide, as best we could, a good life for her. But I know we fell short. If God is a wolf, we’re going to hell.
Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye
Nov 13, 2011 02:46 PM
I knew Koani. I first met her when she was a pup, and from then on, she always greeted me as one of her "pack members" even when years passed between our meetings. She was NOT domesticated, and I saw first-hand the difficulties faced by Pat and Bruce in their efforts to make her captive life tolerable. Lately, I find myself wishing she were still around to educate school children and adults with facts and falacies of wolf lore. Her presence made discussion of wolf issues more civilised than they have become in her absence.
richard stivers
richard stivers Subscriber
Nov 16, 2011 09:35 AM
I too agree that man interupted the circle when he took the wolf out of it initially. However to replace the original wolf with the canadian wolf further damaged the circle even more. An elk,bison,and deer are no match for a caribou killing machine. We need to admit we were wrong introducing them in the first place and remove them completely and start all over with wolves from Minnesota and other areas and hopefully we can bring the circle back to normal again.
don bertolette
don bertolette
Mar 14, 2012 12:49 PM
I have only seen wolves, and mountain lions for that matter, off in the distance, and fleeting at that.
I have only an anecdote, from a time when I worked for the Grand Canyon National Park. I was mapping vegetation, along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, near the Bass Trailhead. My camp was set up, and as a second thought, I had placed my pole chair upside down so as to catch no rain, which was looking possible. I then traipsed off to the edge of The Canyon, to catch the sunset. As I returned, in an indirect, wandering way, I saw some unexpected motion near my camp, and I slowed to better observe a potential intruder.
Intruder, it was I who was the intruder I suppose. What I saw was a bull elk (no, not native, they were introduced in Arizona some decades before). His motions caught my eye, and I couldn't immediately perceive their meaning. Finally it was clear to me, that in setting my pole chair upside down on the edge of the picnic table, I had created a 'stick figure' of an elk, and the elk was tryng to make sense of it, turning his head this way and that. Finally, he caught my scent I suspect, and bolted away.
No, the elk wasn't a native of the area, and no, the pole chair and picnic table didn't need to be there (area was a proposed wilderness area, to be treated as one while in that status)...but for me, wild is as wild gets, and it was good enough for me on that day.