The Wolf Sanctuary and Empathy

“You must be asking yourself why I’m not in the enclosure with the wolves like the other conservationists,” the gentleman, an elder in age, said into the microphone. “It’s quite simple. I might not make it out.”

You wouldn’t think West Lafayette, Indiana, home of Purdue University and many, many cornfields, would be a place for wolves to retire, but Wolf Park was located just here. It’s zoo-ish in nature, but it’s a rather large enclosure that allows the wolves more than enough space to roam.

When I got out of the car with my then girlfriend, I remember looking at the enclosure and thinking of Jurassic Park and the T-Rex. The fence or wall or whatever you want to call it seemed high enough to keep things out, but you never knew.

Funnily enough, a metal bleacher, like the ones you see on the sidelines of high school football fields, was where we were to view and hear a wolf “demonstration.” We sat amongst about 35 other people who had decided to spend their early Friday evening checking out what wolves were doing in Northwestern Indiana.

I counted about nine wolves in that pen. Most of them were lying down, but a smaller one was always on the move. It looked like the runt of the litter, and it was constantly running away and getting into spats with other wolves who harried it. It was there that I heard the very un-dog-like growls and saw the snarly white teeth that made wolves not to be messed with ever, ever, ever. These were very much not dogs.

You think of wolves as these majestic beasts, wise and always out there in the wilderness woods. We humans have villainized wolves with the likes of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs, but we have also made wolves heroes with The Jungle Book and the mythos of humans raised by wolves. But when you see them live, like I was doing then, you respect and fear them. They are huge, horse-like things that seem to dwarf German Shepherds, the dog that I have most associated with wolves.

Even in their enclosure, they looked wild. Not some cooped-up-looking beast of the zoo. I thought of that famous scene of Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark, when Indiana looks down upon a buried building he must enter and sees those thriving masses of snakes, couped up in that building and yet alive. Waiting.

While we watched the wolves, a guy with a microphone attached to a headset walked out. He seemed to have a bit of trouble walking, perhaps an old injury.

“Good evening,” he said, like we were at a debonair circus show.

My eyes switched between him and the wolves, sometimes interrupted by the demonic sounds of the smaller wolf trying to get away from the other wolves. He was, we learned, the omega. The last wolf on the hierarchy. On the end of the spectrum, the alpha and his mate were sitting a little further out chowing down on a dead deer. They looked peaceful, taking their time, dining.

The sanctuary, apparently, accepted roadkill if it was fresh enough. No deer could get into the sanctuary over that fence. All the other wolves, were waiting their hierarchical turn to feast.

And while he spoke, handlers went in. That is, human beings. I’ll never forget them walking cheerfully into that enclosure, facing these scraggly, yeti-furred animals with teeth that could tear and tear and gnash and tear.

The wolves leapt upon them. And put their paws on the handlers’ shoulders.

And then the handlers petted them and hugged them.

This was strange.

That’s when our presenter explained: “I no longer go in the sanctuary because the greeting you see tests your strength. You see them putting their paws on the shoulders of the young ones in there? That is the test. If they were to topple you, they may act naturally to that sign of weakness.”

Act naturally? That is precisely why I wouldn’t go in the enclosure.

The omega yelped and ran before two other wolves. The sound of the omega growling and trying to run away from those who harassed him was constant and yet it had somehow gone into the background as a normal sound, something to be dismissed. But I heard it again anew. And I noted the proximity the omega was to humans who were now lounging around in the enclosure like they were going to take part in a classic Roman feast. But there was no grape tray to be seen. Just wolves to be petted.

I felt pity for that omega. Did the chasing ever stop? How could a pack of wolves greet humans with equanimity and still harass a wolf in their own pack? I felt a deep dread that something bad would happen to those happy humans in the enclosure.

I am one of those people that is constantly looking for underwater shadows and menacing fins while on the beach, or, if I’m brave enough, in the spray of the waves. It was watching Jaws on a vacation to Myrtle Beach when I was 8 that sealed that deal. Now, I can’t shake it. I even remember being terrified of that great opened maw of teeth with those terrifying deep black eyes while in Lake Michigan and even in safely chlorinated suburban pools.

I’m always reminded of lightening. Yes, lightening has more of a chance to do you in than most things humans fear: snakes, sharks, spiders, and airplanes.

Midway through the presentation, we howled. Us humans. And miraculously, the wolves in front of us howled back. And then we heard howls from further away. The wolves in the sanctuary adjacent to ours were answering our calls.

How weird it would have been to be in college on a quiet night and to hear wolves howling in unison, calling and answering each other in Northwestern Indiana. But I never heard that while attending Purdue, thankfully. I would have thought twice about walking to and from class at night.

When it was over, and the handlers were safely free of the enclosure, I remember feeling elated that I had experienced something so mixed with the wild. There is a mystery to large predators, a deep fascination with something that has the slightest chance of upending our apex-ness.

Before, I had never really thought about wild wolves or feared them. Sure, if I was running in northern Wisconsin or Minnesota or in Alaska, I would definitely be respectful and aware. It’s that they have such a weird and fascinating link with humanity. We have made dogs out of them. Kick-able chihuahuas even! And they are social and anoint leaders, foster intimate relationships even. And if you are careful, you can go into a pen with them, get sized up, and act is if a bunch of wolves are big nuzzlely dogs.

And, yet, that omega threads them away from ourselves. For the most part, I must say. There are many times, I need not spell these out, where we have made omegas of people, single and in large groups. But my faith in humanity is always that this is not our default position, that fear drives us to do these things instead of instinct.

And what of this: when it comes to nature, we humans have learned to manage what we fear the most? Certainly that’s something we need to be aware of more and more as we come together in this world. That we manage wolves. We save sharks even when increasing seal populations endanger our coveted beaches. The better parts of us have increasingly learned to understand what threatens us and seeks to manage rather than to eradicate. I mean, we have the technology to kill a really foul and dangerous menage: the mosquito. And, yet, we hesitate. We analyze the consequences. This is pinnacle empathy.

Now, the thing is, can we translate this wonderful new perspective of nature to dealing with each other? That’s the question.