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Know the West

Why do people yearn to possess wolves and other wild animals?


I'm hazy about some of the details, because it happened about 25 years ago, but the essence of what I saw is seared into my mind. As I was driving cross-country on a lonesome two-lane through New Mexico desert, I came upon a forlorn-looking roadside zoo. I saw the sign, felt curious, pulled into the gravel parking lot, and paid to enter what was basically a repurposed mobile home.

There were a few wild animals in a row of concrete-floored cages. I walked along those cages, peering in at their occupants as they peered back at me. I remember a coyote, maybe a wolf, and a bobcat or a mountain lion. What I'll never forget is the gut-level experience of seeing all that wildness confined in cramped spaces. And the despair in the animals' eyes -- I don't think it was my imagination.

I hadn't thought much about wild animals in captivity before that experience. Like most other people, I'd visited municipal zoos and circuses to see the usual array of elephants and tigers, mostly when I was a kid. But since that roadside zoo, I've sought out operations that feature wild animals, to learn more about the conditions they're kept in and the people who are involved. I've paid to see captive wolves and elk in Idaho, captive grizzly bears in Montana, a roadside bird zoo in Utah, the touristy Reptile Gardens in South Dakota, even visited a 7,559-foot-altitude hot-spring oasis in Colorado's San Luis Valley where alligators are raised.

There seems to be no limit to the human desire to possess, exhibit and traffic in wild creatures, including exotic pets. The more I learn, the more I wonder: What the heck are we doing with these animals, and why?

Our cover story examines a particularly Western aspect of this phenomenon: captive wolves. The writer, Ceiridwen Terrill, a college professor in Portland, Ore., spent five years visiting captive-wolf operations around the West. She also draws from her personal experience with the wolf-dog hybrid she tried to raise. Some of the details she's dug up might disturb you, yet she still manages to give the people she met a measure of respect.

Elsewhere in this issue, HCN editorial fellow Nathan Rice looks for grizzly bears in northwest Washington's Cascade Range. Are there any still out there, and if there are, how should we handle their management?

On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much in common between the wild animals we hold in cages and the ones we manage in their natural habitat. And yet in some important ways they're akin. If we actually find any Cascade grizzlies, we'll capture them to put radio collars on them and track their movements obsessively. There's also talk of transplanting grizzlies into the Cascades. We can't seem to stop manipulating wild animals to suit our own goals. Is that just another way of trying to possess the wild? Let us know what you think.