Dancing with wolverines

  • Captive wolverine roaming wild at Mosquito Lake, Haines, Alaska.

    Kory Pettman

When a wolverine splayed his huge clawed paw onto my shoulder, the tip of each powerful nail pressing firmly, I was filled with a reckless elation. But I remained still, because I recalled that wolverines have a special molar angled sharply inward that allows them to tear muscle and hide from carrion, pulverize bone.

A wolverine snuffling at your throat commands your attention.

A while back, an acquaintance mentioned he'd been to a clandestine reserve in the Northwest where wolverines scaled him like a tree. A desperate envy swept over me. Wolverines seemed impossibly exotic, like the Antarctic or the jungles of Borneo. If only a couple of wolverines would crawl on me, fill me with strange new sensations, my life might again spring vivid before me.

I pestered my connection for months before I obtained permission for a visit. Finally, on a gray misting day, I turned down an innocuous drive into the well-hidden sanctuary. The owner took me into his office. He said his wolverines -- his "kids," as he called them -- were getting older. He wasn't letting strangers in to meet them anymore. He showed me pictures of the animals, including one of bleary-eyed wolverine kits appearing to hatch from eggs, and seemed disappointed when I wasn't taken in by the Photoshopped image. An hour went by. He led me to an observation platform perched above a large enclosure. Below, 17 wolverines ambled and climbed and wrestled. When another hour passed with no hint of getting closer, I began to suspect I had failed an unspoken test. I determined to be thankful for this rare, if somewhat distant, viewing.

And it was then, when I relaxed into the limits of his offering, that he invited me in.

As we entered, a half-dozen animals came running, bunching and releasing their long bodies as they dodged logs and rock formations. Another scampered down a fallen tree, his hind legs alternately swinging away from his body, then forward, like an Olympian on a balance beam. Though they had met other humans, they had not met this particular human on this particular day, so they advanced, scenting the air, curious.

Devil bear, glutton, ommethatsee ("one who likes to steal") are just a few of the many names given to Gulo gulo, the largest terrestrial member of the weasel family. With the strength to take down a moose caught in deep snow, wolverines thrive in the harshest, most inaccessible terrain. They remain so elusive that some veteran wolverine researchers have never seen one free in the wild. They are empty tracks, blurred glimpses, rumors. They are fear-riddled stories, the inspiration for superhero movies and mass exterminations. Yet here I was, enclosed with 17 of them -- captive animals, true, but not domesticated. "I want my wolverines to be wolverines," the owner said.

I lowered myself onto a stone bench and waited for contact. As they drew near, they edged their lips back and strained the air of me through their teeth, then leapt onto the bench and poked their noses into various nooks and crannies, my armpit being the least personal. A burly fellow, the black in his coat so lush and deep it appeared to hold every color in the universe, licked at my wrist. Another sniffed my hand, took a pinch of skin between his teeth and pulled, releasing it without a mark. When a third nipped at my elbow with a bit more oomph, the owner stomped forward with a clap and the wolverine scurried back –– but only for a second. I heard a crunching at my side and realized one had just eaten the zipper toggle off my rain jacket.

"They like things that dangle," the owner explained. But, despite all the tales of Gulo bloodlust, there was no raking of my face into new arrangements, no crushing snaps of clavicle or femur -- just this presumptuous, almost scientific, investigation.

Not all the wolverines cared to meet me during my hour in their enclosure. Two spent the time tormenting a graying Labrador named Stoney. Over and over, they snuck up behind him and yanked his tail, his resultant umbrage only egging them on. A few napped, paws thrown over their eyes, while others instigated play fights, vibrating the air with the sounds of bloody-throated slaughter, causing the hair on my arm to quiver.

Well-kept wolverines, it seems, are bold and shy, inquisitive and indifferent, playful and grouchy. They might practice somersaults, splash in a pond or decorate a chain-link fence with twigs. The owner has been observing these rare mustelids for decades. He's probably had more direct contact with wolverines than any person living today, perhaps any person ever. He claims to know nothing about them. Each day, he watches his "kids" with the eyes of one who is willing to be surprised.

When I got home from the reserve that afternoon, my two dogs raced to greet me as always, eager to assess who I was in that moment, understanding that every encounter is a meeting of the unknown. And for their effort, they landed in the wildness embedded in my jeans and coat and skin -- the skunky, smoky, old-leather essence of wolverine. Their eyes went wide and they panted and spun and nipped at my clothes, as if the devil bears were even then sneaking up, tugging at their tails. They yipped and danced in ecstatic frenzies, drunk on joyful discovery.

It's hard not to envy my dogs -- for their wolverine dance, a descriptive feat of muscle and voice far surpassing puny words, and for their unshakable faith that no matter how familiar the surface, something new or mysterious or impossibly exotic may be only a sniff away.

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