Continued from: On Photographing Wolves – part 1
There are three species of wolves at the Lakota Wolf Preserve: two packs of Timber wolves, and one each of Arctic wolves and British Colombian wolves. The differences between them extended beyond mere looks, and influenced their attitudes.
The Arctic wolves are pure white, befitting their native environment. Their appearance is almost more fox-like, through their faces and bodies and tails, although their legs are too long for a fox, and they stand much too tall. From a visual standpoint, they look the least imposing, but there’s a wiliness to them.
Our guide told us that they are the only ones that she is truly fearful of; in her experiences with the different packs, she’s on her guard with all of them, but it’s the Arctic wolves that scare her, as they tend to begin circling whenever she has to enter their enclosure.
I wouldn’t want to experience that myself.
The British Colombian wolves look like the wolves of legend; they’re what you imagine creeping through the medieval forests of Europe. They are lovely dark gray shadows, thin and rangy. This pack was led by an aged matriarch, and you could see in her movements that she suffered from arthritis. Our guide told us that there was probably a change in pack leadership coming.
In a way, the British Colombians were also the most…friendly, for lack of a better word. Despite their somewhat fearsome appearance, there was an almost jovial quality about them, and they were perhaps the most interested in us. Unfortunately I got the fewest photos of them, as they were somewhat less active than the other species.
Finally, there’s the Timber wolves, who made up the final two packs. Looking at them, you can see the history of canine domestication. These guys are the original dogs, and they have much more in common with modern dogs than the other wolves did, despite the fact that the Timbers are also larger and rangier.
Their coloration was more diverse, with a predominance of grays and brown/tans, but there was also an individual who was mostly white and looked more like the Arctic wolves.
Throughout this article, I keep describing them as rangy, and that’s the most accurate word I know for a wolf. They are rangy animals, rangier than modern dogs, and by that I mean that they are tall and slim, long and lean, all muscle and sinew. They look fast just standing still and there is no doubt that take down deer and moose – or that in times long past, they took down our ancestors.
It’s no wonder that wolves were historically feared. Their predatory instincts are close to the surface. Hearing their jaws snap was proof enough, and several times I had the pleasure of experiencing that. There is an audible snap, a sound that is pure strength and power. It’s a bone-crushing sound, and after you hear it once you know for goddamn certain that you do not want to let them bite you.
There’s also a playfulness and a cunning displayed in their behavior, with the hierarchy of the pack always there, just under the surface. Between wolves, it’s all fun and games until someone crosses the line, and they they are quick and fierce reminders as to who is alpha, and who is not.
The best part of the whole morning was in the middle. We were standing in the square where the corners of the four enclosures meet, and members of each pack were nearby, and I was moving between the different enclosures photographing all of them. Our guide began to call to the wolves – she knows each individual by name – and egged them on.
In a moment, they began howling. Eventually the whole lot of them together.
I cannot even begin to describe the feeling in that moment, except to say that it wasn’t frightening. Rather, it was exhilarating. There is something primal about that sound, about sanding in the center of a circle of howling wolves. It ignites something very ancient and very forgotten in the blood, and for a moment I had an impulse to cast off my modern trappings and run wild through the forest with them.
It was a force of nature all its own, that sound, and I couldn’t help but stand and grin while listening to it.
Suffice to say, Mandy wins the award for best birthday gift ever. I don’t think anything could top that experience, save maybe getting to launch off a carrier in an F-14, which isn’t going to happen.
I also have to give credit to the Lakota Preserve. I truly believe that the wolves in their care are able to live good lives. They aren’t wild, but they do have plenty of room to roam inside their enclosures, and the staff is committed to their well being. I prefer to see animals in the wild, but the reintroduction of wolves in the US is a complicated and hotly debated topic.
There is definite value in education, however. And making it possible for people to meet such creatures under good conditions, and to learn about them, is essential for conservation. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to something you don’t know about.
So thank you to my amazing wife, Mandy, and to the Lakota Wolf Preserve for providing such an incredible experience, and for being so generous with their time and knowledge.
We headed back across the Delaware into PA afterwards, and stopped at the Shawnee Inn to warm up and have lunch – and some craft beer from their brewery. For a photographer and amateur naturalist like me, it was the perfect day.