It was dark and cold as hell one night in March when we filed onto bleachers outside the main enclosure in Wolf Park. The only part of me not covered in four (or more) layers was my butt, which quickly went numb on the metal seats.
We were there to howl with the wolves.
Every Friday and Saturday night, Wolf Park does “Howl Night”, which functions as an educational and safe interaction between the public and the resident wolves. Monty, the park photographer, chatted with us about his experiences with the wolves and why the park started. Then he asked for “a good long, loud howl” to get the wolves going.
The sound that came out of the darkness wasn’t high pitched and loud like coyotes in the Indiana woods. It was long and low and quiet – impossible to pinpoint where it was coming from. We didn’t see a single wolf until Monty walked into the enclosure and called them forward.
We have a lot of misconceptions about the nature of wild things – mostly, I think, because no one has much experience with them anymore. Our closest relatable experience to wolves is with dogs, so sometimes we think wolves are just dogs that live outside.
But if the howling didn’t tip you off to how not dog these animal were, the way they moved certainly would. They loped up to Monty in a long, swinging gate that ate up ground and looked like water. They were so lean, it was hard to tell how big they were until one put his front legs around Monty’s neck and his jaws over his face (a sign of affection). One glided over to the fence and looked at us with a perky tail and ears cocked. For a dog, this means a friendly greeting. For a wolf, it meant he was hungry and we looked slow.
I was grateful for the fence. And I could understand, for the first time, why our ancestors wanted to eradicate this animal. The wolves were shot to make the land safer.
But it made the land sick instead. Unbalanced. Wrong.
The ecosystem isn’t meant to function with prey animals only. When the predators left, the deer population got out of control. They ate until there was nothing left to eat and then starved. Without predators to kill off the sick and weak, disease spread quickly throughout the population. The deer destroyed crops and caused accidents on freeways.
They should have known, our ancestors, what tipping the scales like that would mean. But they were only human.
We do this a lot, we humans. We try to kill things that scare us in a mad dash for safety and comfort, but end up making the space we live in sick instead. We do it to the environment, but we also do it in our personal lives.
I wondered how many wolves I’d shot in my own life in an effort to keep myself safe. Wolves named risk and calling and vulnerability. Things that cull the weak areas of my life – complacency, fear of public opinion, fear of being hurt. Scary things that balance me and drive me forward. Things that remind me that I’m not actually the center of the universe, not the point of all this.
So I resolved, as I walked my numb butt through the gift shop and out to the car, to make room for these wolves – the real and the metaphorical ones. To use less so I don’t take up the resources that belong to other living things and to feel more instead of shutting out what makes me uncomfortable. To live in a healthy and balanced space, even if it doesn’t exactly feel safe.