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The Big-Hearted Wolf

Ted Kerasote reviews Rick McIntyre's paen to lobos 'The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing The Triumph of Yellowstone’s Underdog'

Part of a major obstacle to bringing wolves back to Yellowstone in 1995 was overcoming deeply-engrained  Euro-centric mythology directed toward wolves. Rick McIntyre's book, which draws upon decades of direct wolf observations and other evidence in Yellowstone, makes Wolf 8 a dramatic character with a large ensemble cast. His story isn't fiction;  rather it matches the natural history of wolves with a serious examination of them as sentient beings. Photo courtesy USFWS
Part of a major obstacle to bringing wolves back to Yellowstone in 1995 was overcoming deeply-engrained Euro-centric mythology directed toward wolves. Rick McIntyre's book, which draws upon decades of direct wolf observations and other evidence in Yellowstone, makes Wolf 8 a dramatic character with a large ensemble cast. His story isn't fiction; rather it matches the natural history of wolves with a serious examination of them as sentient beings. Photo courtesy USFWS

Review by Ted Kerasote

Of the many profound insights that Charles Darwin set to paper one of the most groundbreaking was his stating that “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” 

Darwin went even further, going out on a limb and saying that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their faculties, adding that all mammals experience happiness, wonder, shame, pride, curiosity, jealousy, suspicion, gratitude, and magnanimity. Nonhuman animals “practice deceit and are revengeful,” he averred, and have “moral qualities” such as “love and the distinct emotion of sympathy.”

These were stunning notions when Darwin published them in 1871, and they remain stunning today when millions upon millions of animals around the world—deer, elk, moose, elephants, lions, whales, grizzly bears, and wolves—are seen not as thinking, feeling individuals, but as populations to be managed.  

To be fair, it’s hard to imagine how we could have begun the campaign to save endangered species had we not thought of them as populations rather than as individuals.  Yet, as anyone who observes animals closely knows, the individuals who make up these populations vary enormously, as Darwin noted.  Just how much they vary, and in what complex and nuanced ways, has rarely been better described, at least for Canis lupus, than in Rick McIntyre’s The Rise of Wolf 8.

A longtime National Park Service naturalist, McIntyre began to watch Yellowstone’s newly released wolves in May 1995, four months after the founding packs were transported from Canada to Wyoming.  Since then he has logged over 100,000 wolf sightings, and in one memorable stretch, from June 2000 to August 2015, he went out for 6,175 days in a row, along the way producing 12,000 pages of notes that he has transformed into an epic saga of how the wolves who make up the Crystal Creek, Rose Creek, and Druid Peak Packs live and love and spend their days.


The chief character in this tale is the eponymous hero, wolf 8.  One of four wolf brothers originally born in Alberta to what would eventually become Yellowstone’s Crystal Creek Pack, 8 looked nothing like his siblings.  They were black and burly like their father.  He was gray and much smaller.  They bullied him; they tackled him; he was the last to eat.  Yet, when the pack was released from its pen and began to explore its new territory, 8’s behavior took McIntyre by surprise.  

On an evening when two of his black brothers and he were playing together, they suddenly stopped, looked up, and ran into a stand of conifers.  Shortly thereafter, one of the black siblings ran out of the forest with an elk calf carcass in his mouth, followed by the second black, and, last in line, wolf 8, a grizzly bear in hot pursuit and closing fast.  It appeared that 8’s short life was about to end.  But a moment later, he turned and confronted the far larger grizzly, who skidded to a stop, puzzled.  

“The bear looked like it couldn’t figure out what to do next,” writes McIntyre, “as the wolf glared at him in defiance.”  The David-and-Goliath encounter lasted a few more seconds, then 8 turned around and with utter confidence simply trotted away, the bear nonplussed, sniffing the ground and air, and trying to locate where its elk carcass had gone.

As 8 goes through his first year as a Yellowstone wolf, McIntyre shifts his narrative to the alphas of the nearby Rose Creek Pack, who leave the park and settle near Red Lodge, Montana.  Sadly, the male is shot and killed by a mindless, forty-two-year-old local named Chad McKittrick, who claims that he thought the wolf was a dog, as if that would make his action defensible.  (McKittrick eventually spent three months in jail and was fined $10,000, which the court expected him not to pay because of his indigence.)  

In the meantime, the mate of the slain wolf gave birth to their litter.  But with no male to hunt for her and her pups, the Wolf Project believed she might leave the den to find food, and the pups might die of hypothermia in the cold spring weather.  The project made the decision to move the new mother and her litter back to the pen at Rose Creek.

While there, a July windstorm blew down several trees that landed on the fence, creating two holes, which allowed eight pups to escape, while their mom stayed in the pen.  Six of the pups were recaptured, but two remained outside the fence, howling now and then and eating carcasses left for them.  One day, who shows up on the scene?  Wolf 8, who had decided to leave his Crystal Creek family and go on a walkabout, looking for greener pastures and a female with whom to breed.  The pups begged food from him, and he romped and played with them.  
"I won’t spoil the most riveting scene in McIntyre’s narrative, when the Rose Creek wolves led by 8, and the Druids led by wolf 21, meet in the epic battle of Specimen Ridge.  However, suffice it to say that wolf 21 acts in a way that unequivocally demonstrates his ability to make a reasoned, nuanced, and compassionate decision, one that also gracefully preserves his adopted father’s dignity, a big-hearted wolf respecting a kindred wolf’s big-hearted soul."
In a flight of imagination, McIntyre then tries to envision what had taken place.  Hearing the pups howl, 8 would have approached the pen to investigate and seen two wolves smaller than him.  He had always been the smallest wolf in the world and the “sighting probably triggered paternal instincts.”  He befriended the pups, and their mother, wolf 9, who was still in the pen, would have watched as he interacted with her two offspring. 

Even though 8 wasn’t an ideal new alpha male—he was a yearling and small—he had been friendly to her pups, and she would have welcomed him when she and the other six pups were released.   “It was probably the very thing that impressed her,” McIntyre observes.

This was the first time that the Wolf Project documented a case of an unrelated male becoming a member of an existing pack after the death of its alpha male, and then willingly raising its pups as if they were his own.  Stepping out of his role as an observational naturalist, McIntyre then adopts the mantle of the speculative biologist and describes how the act of nursing releases the hormone oxytocin in mothers and offspring.  

Oxytocin, the love hormone, is also released in fathers and in their offspring when they play together, especially when a father and son engage in roughhouse play.  “For both sexes,” he writes, “high oxytocin levels correlate with increased empathy, attachment, and altruism.”

Author Rick McIntyre, now retired from the Park Service but still out in the Lamar, every day, studying wolves. Photo courtesy Scott Fitzgerrell
Author Rick McIntyre, now retired from the Park Service but still out in the Lamar, every day, studying wolves. Photo courtesy Scott Fitzgerrell
The willingness of a new alpha male to raise the pups born to a previous male, McIntyre theorizes, was likely one of the key behavioral reasons for the successful domestication of wolves by early hunter-gatherers.  These wolf-cum-dogs were gentle with human toddlers and young children.  For anyone who loves dogs, McIntyre’s book is a wonderfully touching gloss on how dogs became the creatures with whom we share our lives, and in many sections he documents how dogs have inherited the playfulness of their lupine ancestors:  tossing sticks in the air and snagging them before they hit the ground; playing tug of war; and the game of catch me if you can. 

By the following year, 8 had sired a litter of pups with 9 as well as with one of her daughters from her previous litter.  One of the male pups from that litter, wolf 21, had grown into a large, muscular male like his slain father, and along with his new stepfather he helped to feed both litters, no small task. The two dens were three miles apart and separated by the busy park road and the swollen Lamar River.  

Despite these obstacles, the two wolves, 8 and 21, repeatedly brought meat for the hungry pups and regurgitated it, the long hard days of working together creating a strong bond between them.  And even though 21 was far larger than his stepfather, he remained subordinate to him and modeled his behavior after him, playing with the new pups, just as 8 had played with him and his siblings when they were young.

The seasons turn and McIntyre continues to describe the challenges and joys the wolves face:  aggression on the boundary between the territories of the Rose Creek and Druid Packs; strife among the Druid females, caused by a belligerent alpha who continually picks on her good-natured sisters; the Druid alpha male, and another adult male in the pack, shot and killed when they wander east out of the park; and 21 subsequently entering their territory in the hopes of luring 42 away to start their own pack.

The description of the courting that ensues between 21 and 42 could be a romantic scene out of Romeo and Juliet, the two wolves standing cheek to cheek, batting their paws affectionately across each other’s backs, wagging their tails, leaping into the air, and falling in love despite their natal packs being enemies.  And instead of luring 42 away, 21 becomes the alpha male of the Druids.

The upshot, of course, is that he and his doting stepfather are now the alpha males of rival packs, and by the code of their genes and all their learned behavior they’re mortal enemies.  I won’t spoil the most riveting scene in McIntyre’s narrative, when the Rose Creek wolves led by 8, and the Druids led by 21, meet in the epic battle of Specimen Ridge.  However, suffice it to say that 21 acts in a way that unequivocally demonstrates his ability to make a reasoned, nuanced, and compassionate decision, one that also gracefully preserves his adopted father’s dignity, a big-hearted wolf respecting a kindred wolf’s big-hearted soul. 

McIntyre’s book contains so much engrossing detail about how wolves spend their lives, so much beauty, power, and wonderI read many passages with tears in my eyes—that I hesitate to raise a quibble with his majestic tale.  But I do have one observation, and it’s stated with great affection for Rick, by whose side I’ve had the good fortune to stand as he’s pointed out wolves to me, explained their relations, and adjusted my spotting scope when I couldn’t find them.

He’s such a champion of wolves that he has left out from their story the feelings of the elk who sustain them.  He takes us into the hearts and minds of wolves, but what kind of grief, despair, and mourning do elk mothers feel when they watch wolves tear apart their just-born calves and carry their dismembered bodies back to their dens to feed their growing pups? 

It might be a question that Rick will address in the two forthcoming volumes of his trilogy, the next installment, The Reign of Wolf 21, due out in September.  I’ll be the first in line to buy it.



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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