July 7th marked one year since I’ve been living in the mountains with wolves. When I arrived at Mission: Wolf in the middle of a busy summer season, I slept in a tent for over two months. After some of the staff left, I upgraded to a tipi, and now I have the privilege of living in a small solar-powered cabin, which was formerly inhabited by the director and founder of the sanctuary. In that time, I’ve become part of an eclectic community of people from literally all over the world. Some mistake the place as your average, run-of-the-mill hippie commune (and admittedly, most people here have those values). But in contrast to the countless intentional communities and collectives that often wither away, Mission: Wolf has somehow continued to grow through the years. Many of us speculate this is because the people that commit to live here do so not for themselves, but for the wolves. Despite all our differences, it is this common cause, this greater good, which tethers our community together. The people are certainly harder to deal with than the animals (surprise). The unconventional living situation in a relatively small area can be frustrating, leaving me, an introverted person, very depleted at times. Still, I have grown to love this group of misfits and bleeding hearts like a family. They inspire me every day.
Recently, while compiling some educational materials for a staff meeting, I stumbled upon a quote by American naturalist Henry Beston from his magnum opus The Outermost House—
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
You may have had that surreal feeling, upon reading a quote or a passage from a favorite book, as if the words were transcribed directly from your heart and soul. You just didn’t have the ability to articulate them at the time. That is how I feel when reading Beston. I had those words in mind as I write this entry.
Including the current residents, there have been over a hundred wolves that have lived at Mission: Wolf. When they pass on, they are buried here. Just over the ridge from our little village, nestled inconspicuously into the hillside, is a cemetery for the deceased wolves and wolf-dog crosses. I hike up there sometimes to find solitude after long days working with visitors and the many service-learning groups that come to the sanctuary. Most of the graves are unmarked, just simple rock cairns compiled from the reddish pink stones on the hillside (despite two semesters of geology their specific classification escapes me). A few have quartz or semi-precious stones. There are some of the more recent gravesites that have makeshift headstones with names etched into them—Kiya, Aurora, Nokona—residents who died shortly before my arrival here. Then there are some adorned with small mementos. There’s Luke’s food bowl, Raven’s nameplate, an eagle’s feather, a bundle of sage, and various bones. Under a huge, ancient ponderosa pine tree lies a shovel and pickaxe—suggestive of the many more canines that will eventually join their brethren here. Westerners are so insulated from death.
To me, it is a place that is somehow incredibly somber and oddly comforting at the same time. It is secluded and peaceful, as cemeteries should be I suppose. I think I’ll be buried here one day, too. Yet, despite the peace this place brings me, there is one unshakeable feeling that prevails at the back of my mind: Irony. A sickening, confusing, revolting irony. Not about the cemetery, or about the sanctuary in general. No, it is an unfathomable irony about the human condition.
To think that we went to such extremes to purge the earth of this animal—it has been reviled and persecuted for literally thousands of years (ancient Greeks had bounties on wolves as early as 600 BC; a wolf bounty in Ontario, Canada was not lifted until 1972) by humans everywhere, especially Europeans. I think back to a time, during the rearing of the west, when the credo of “manifest destiny” catalyzed a genocidal crusade against native peoples and wildlife alike. As these lands were being colonized, Americans only considered them truly undefiled if they were devoid of not only the Indian “savages,” but also the rapacious, bloodthirsty wolves. A homestead was not really safe until the predators had been exterminated; a farmer’s livelihood was always in jeopardy until the countryside was purified from the demonic wolf. It was the beast of waste and desolation. Beston might’ve said that we viewed the animal through our distorted glass of knowledge, assuming without a doubt that our perceptions of it were reality. We fear what we don’t understand. As I’ve detailed in previous entries, the fate of Native Americans and Canis Lupus is eerily similar. And now, here I sit, in a cemetery where humans have gone to great lengths to protect these same animals—to honor and memorialize them, and in some cases, to seemingly canonize them. This little unassuming hillside is not the resting of place of killers and demons, but of gentle and noble souls. Humans have worked hard to make this place sacred and holy, some have devoted their lives to it.
Due to the selfishness and ignorance of people, all of these wild canines were born in a cage, and never learned how to hunt and survive as nature intended. Thus, they had to die in a cage, too. They were bred as commodities, for entertainment, for status, and for our own insecurities. They should’ve been free, and lived out in the forests, and tundra and plains. They should’ve died on the hunt, in battle with prey, in defense of territory, or simply of disease. They should’ve thrived in that world, older and more complete than ours, living by voices that we shall never hear. And the wolf-dogs—confused, wayward creatures spawned both from the misplaced sentiments of early conservationists and from the morbidly excessive demand for exotic pets. Caught in limbo between domesticity and wildness, not knowing whether to love humans or to be terrified of us. As callous as it sounds, they should’ve never existed at all. Yet here they are, wolves, dogs, and everything in between, laid to rest side by side. Immortalized through humanity’s convention, whereas all of their truly wild brethren die nameless and forgotten.
Each resident wolf at the sanctuary gets at least an acre of land, some have seven or eight. They are fed a raw diet of meat, hide, bones and organs, just like they would get in the wild. And if the animals show us that they don’t want human contact, then they are kept in secluded areas and receive little to interaction. Through these measures, the goal is to try and give them the most feral, unbridled existence possible given the sad fact that they must live behind fences. The mission of Mission:Wolf is to do the impossible–to give happiness to a wild animal that lives in a cage.
What a mystifying place this is. It is a memorial, obviously. But, because of who is buried here, it is so much more. There is a sort of sympathetic magic that hangs over it. The cemetery is also perhaps an apology, or a penance. It is a physical manifestation of love for what was and what could’ve been. It is a love born from the deep yearning of humans to give these majestic, beautiful, and tragically misunderstood beasts a life of peace and solitude. I hope, that in some cosmic way, our efforts allow us a small sense of forgiveness for the sacrilege our species has done against wolves and the whole of nature.
When I sit there among the rock cairns, under the ponderosas, in a silence so serene and unsettling, I feel a strange connection with the deceased residents. Especially with the wolf-dogs; because like them, I often feel as if I’m living in a perpetual limbo or purgatory. I am constantly torn in multiple directions—between one passion and another, a current set of relationships and a process of emotional entanglement in a new web. This existential dilemma faced by the half-breed, being born from two different worlds but belonging to neither, is something I have always felt within. I am projecting, clearly. Regardless, these animals have taught me things about myself I never knew. The inclination is to say I have a kinship with them, but I know better than to think of them as brethren. Rather, they are other nations, caught, as I am, in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of this earth. Through this shared gift and curse, we are eternally bonded.
What could their lives have been?
What should their lives have been?
1.) The Wolf Almanac, Robert Busch, 2007
2.) Predatory Bureacracy, Michael Robinson, 2005