One of the best things about my time in Yellowstone was the chance to visit with Shauna Baron, the biologist who led our three-day program. Before taking her current job she had worked for a non-profit foundation dedicated to saving wolves, and as part of her responsibilities she spent part of the year traveling around the country with a wolf, doing educational programs in nature centers.
Shauna had fascinating stories about what it was like to live and travel so closely with one of these magnificent animals. When I asked her if she ever felt unsafe around the wolf, she admitted that she had gotten bitten once. “What did you do?” I asked.
“I rolled her onto her back and bit her on the ear, hard enough to hurt,” Shauna said. “I only had to do it once and after that she was never aggressive again.”
Wow. You do not want to mess with Shauna Baron. But she knew that a wolf in nature is part of a hierarchical pack, and that it was important to establish dominance if they were going to be able to safely work together. (As alpha female in my own family, I have a similar philosophy in relation to raising my teenage sons).
Shauna told several stories about the wolf’s extraordinary capabilities. Like all wolves, her sense of smell was about 1,000 times more acute than that of a human. She seemed to sense when something was physically wrong with people she met, sniffing insistently at the spot where they had an old injury, for example, or where they had been diagnosed with cancer. The wolf also seemed to have the ability to pick out Shauna’s blood relatives in a crowd, looking excitedly to Shauna as she approached them, like she was saying, “This one is part of your pack.”
Shauna also talked about the ways in which people reacted to the wolf. Hearing her stories made me think that perhaps there is something to the ancient belief that each human has an animal totem. Maybe this helps explain why people flock to Yellowstone Park to see its wolves (the locals call the most determined of the sightseers puppy-razzi). And it explains the powerful emotional response that many people had while they were in the presence of Shauna’s wolf companion.
One person, for example, contacted Shauna a year after one of her programs. Something remarkable had happened to him, he said, and he credited it to the wolf. Before seeing her, he had been an alcoholic, struggling daily with the torment of addiction. But after seeing the wolf, that terrible hunger was gone. It had been a year and it had still not returned.
An intriguing story, isn’t it?
Several years ago I had the chance to tour one of the caves in France that is filled with prehistoric paintings. Anthropologists don’t know why the paintings were done, but when I saw the animals leaping across the cave walls, it was impossible not to feel that the images were created for religious reasons. The pictures were stunning in their grace and power. The people who had created them clearly had some sort of deep tie to the animals they had drawn.
So here’s a clip of wolves howling. When you listen to it, I hope these sounds will evoke not a sense of fear, but instead something immeasurably deeper and older: a sense of kinship.