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Wolf As Avatar: When A Lobo 'Stepson' Takes Over The Pack

Ted Kerasote reviews Rick McIntyre's 'The Reign of Wolf 21,' a dramatic sequel to the Yellowstone naturalist's critically-acclaimed debut about the most famous lobos on earth

Top Druid: After warfare broke out in Yellowstone's wolf world, Wolf 21 rose to become leader of the park's most dominant pack. This is a photograph of Wolf 21 at age eight. What happened next? You'll need to read McIntyre's next volume which is even more exciting than the last.  Photo courtesy Doug Dance
Top Druid: After warfare broke out in Yellowstone's wolf world, Wolf 21 rose to become leader of the park's most dominant pack. This is a photograph of Wolf 21 at age eight. What happened next? You'll need to read McIntyre's next volume which is even more exciting than the last. Photo courtesy Doug Dance
by Ted Kerasote

The books we remember best have three components: they entertain us; they speak to us about how to act authentically in good times and bad, facing the latter with courage; and they transport us to a world so magical that our own more ordinary existence vanishes as we walk among heroes. In The Reign of Wolf 21 Rick McIntyre, the longtime wolf naturalist of Yellowstone National Park, accomplishes all three.

His story takes off from where the last volume in his trilogy about the park’s wolves, The Rise of Wolf 8, left off.  Wolf 8 has died an honorable death, hunting elk for his family, and his stepson, wolf 21, is now the alpha male of the Druid Pack, mated to wolf 40, a harsh disciplinarian, a lupine Cruella de Vil, who treats her sisters with an iron paw, going so far as to kill two consecutive litters that her sister, wolf 42, has borne.

When 40 goes after one of 42’s pups in the spring of 2000, 42 has had enough and makes a stand, attacking her domineering sister.  But not having the strength or aggression to defeat her, she begins to lose the fight.  At this point, two other females from the pack, also weary of being bullied, join her in the battle and mortally wound wolf 40, who then goes off to die, allowing 42, her long-suffering sister, to step into the role of alpha female of the Druids.

She institutes a benevolent reign, consolidating the pack’s four new litters at one den site and treating the other females of the pack with kindness and respect.  Moreover, she and 21, who have known each other for three years, can finally express their affection for each other as they never could under the draconian rule of wolf 40.  They begin a lifelong romance, romping, wrestling, play bowing to each other, and licking each other’s faces, affectionate behavior that lasts to the end of their days, as does their leadership of the Druids.

McIntyre chronicles the next, four, halcyon years in lavish detail.  He describes how 21 will play with his pups even when tired.  He recounts how 21 risks his life to protect his mate and family, charging into a cluster of eight attacking wolves from Nez Perce pack.  He shows us how 21 never kills any wolves that attack his pack, though he pins them to the ground before letting them go.  And he lets us see how 21 works with 42 to foster a sense of cooperation among their many descendants, a strategy that leads to the ascendancy of the Druids in northern Yellowstone.

From June 2000 until August 2015, McIntyre never missed a day in the field, logging 6,175 days in a row and taking 12,000 pages of notes.  He uses some of these observations to describe the ongoing love affair between 21 and 42, a romance that lasts until they are nearly nine years old, their black fur now flecked with gray.  Yet they still lick each other’s faces, bed side by side, having grown old together as lovers and friends. 

And when 42 is killed by a rival pack, and 21 doesn’t know of her fate, he searches for her over a period of months, finally ending his days at their pack’s high-elevation rendezvous site, under the shade of a lone tree that he and 42 have marked many times before lying down side by side to watch their pups and yearlings play in the meadow below.  This is 21’s last earthly view, his body surrounded by blue forget-me-nots.
Top: Wolf 21 makes contact with a grizzly. Photo courtesy Betsy Downey.  Above: Naturalist and veteran National Park Service wildlife researcher Rick McIntyre has inspired generations of visitors to America's oldest national park to care about wolves and bring the animals in to their hearts.  Among his messages: everything is interconnected in ways we can readily see and in sentient ways that involve a deep sense of perception and understanding.
Top: Wolf 21 makes contact with a grizzly. Photo courtesy Betsy Downey. Above: Naturalist and veteran National Park Service wildlife researcher Rick McIntyre has inspired generations of visitors to America's oldest national park to care about wolves and bring the animals in to their hearts. Among his messages: everything is interconnected in ways we can readily see and in sentient ways that involve a deep sense of perception and understanding.
“Can a wolf feel happiness and joy?” asks McIntyre.  “I think 21 did at that moment...As he slowly drifted off into sleep, I would like to think that the scent from that tree triggered a picture.  If so, then the last thing in 21’s mind as he lost consciousness for the final time was an image of 42.”

It bears pointing out that most wildlife biologists would never venture into this anthropomorphic territory, ascribing such human emotions to a wolf.  Yet McIntyre is no ordinary biologist.  He’s firmly in the camp of Charles Darwin, who believed that everyone in the class of mammals—from mice to wolves to whales to humans—experienced the emotions we have ascribed only to ourselves:  happiness, wonder, shame, pride, curiosity, on and on, as well as “love and the distinct emotion of sympathy.”  

Like Darwin, McIntyre is an inclusionist and is thus able to enter the hearts and minds of wolves, providing us with a consummately rounded picture of their lives.  Along the way, he creates a fully realized world that stands whole and sublime alongside our far more troubled human one.  

You only have to reflect on the horrific events that were taking place in the human world from 2000 to 2004—the attack on the Twin Towers, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, numerous civil wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—to wish that the leaders of nations were as sagacious and forgiving as wolves 21 and 42.  McIntyre never says as much, but it’s hard not to finish his book and wish that our human world was more like the natural one in Yellowstone.

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Read Kerasote's review of Rick McIntyre's first book, The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone's Underdog

Ted Kerasote
About Ted Kerasote

Ted Kerasote has written about the outdoors and canids (especially dogs and humans) for many years. He is the author of the national bestsellers about two of his own dogs: Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog and Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs available at your favorite local bookseller. Among his other books is Out There, which won the National Outdoor Book Award. Making his home in Kelly, Wyoming, with the wild Gros Ventres calling out one door and the Tetons rising in the other direction, Kerasote is known for his keen observations about the power of nature. Learn more about Ted by clicking here to reach his website
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