Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wolves at Our Door: The Extraordinary Story of the Couple Who Lived with Wolves

by Jim and Jamie Dutcher

The true story of the wildlife filmmaker (Jim) and employee of the National Zoo (Jamie) who met and married during a six-year project studying a pack of captive wolves who had been hand-raised in a fenced environment in Idaho’s  Sawtooth Mountains, but more or less left to their own natural inclinations.  Dutcher is aware of how controversial his project is (both from ranchers who see wolves as the devil and from environmentalists who think he is selfishly playing God by hand-raising wolves and interfering with them), and takes enormous pains to justify everything about it, from the fencing to the amount of relative luxury they lived in while filming (beds with sheets!  Wine! The horror!).  The pups are hand raised so the humans involved could safely film the wolves and give medical attention when needed; but the Dutchers go to great lengths to keep the environmental impact to a minimum – and succeed, if a government report on their impact is any indication.

There’s a lot of fascinating information here, especially about the technical aspects and logistical obstacles in filming a wildlife documentary (to capture the wolves’ true feral nature, which comes off as less than majestic when close up, he films them in slow motion).  There is also a great deal to learn about wolf behavior, such as how the pack hierarchy can change over time, or that physical power does not necessarily correspond to status level, or how the omega can get away with playful behavior that a mid-level wolf would be punished for (reminding me of how a medieval king would take abuse from a jester that would mean death coming from advisors).   About his colleagues with whom he falls out, Dutcher is not entirely reliable, finding fault with their position in general and painting himself (and his wife) as the lone hero against the entire irrational world.  A reader does have to take an author’s word for a lot – you can’t proceed with any criticism if you can’t agree on what the author asserts – but things can’t be that black and white.  Finally, the Dutcher anthropomorphize to a great extent.  They note repeatedly that they are not scientists, but artists, and can only repeat what they feel and are not limited to observable repeatable phenomena; however, Jamie’s flights of fancy on how wolves respect ravens, and regret killing them by accident, are a bit much.  Overall, this is a highly interesting, and unfortunately rather sad, account of a wolf pack that didn’t belong to people or the wild.  Was this project a good thing, in the end?  Yes, if you allow that it de-demonized wolves for many people.  But maybe the subjects themselves would rather not have come to the end they did.

three stars

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