Folklore paints the wolf as the bad guy. He eats grannies, blows houses down, and kills boys who cry his name in jest. Communities often go into uproar when the notion of wolf reintroduction is proposed. This winter’s thriller The Grey starred a pack of wild wolves as Liam Neeson’s major adversaries.
Yet there are also the stories of men being raised by wolves. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were supposedly suckled by she-wolf. In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the protagonist, Mowgli, learned how to track and hunt from a pack of wild wolves. Many of us assume these are just stories. It can’t be possible for a human to survive with wild, violent creatures. But are wolves really the bad guys many of our fairytales make them out to be? Dogs after all, are supposedly man’s best friend. So why is the wolf, a creature separated from man’s best friend by merely 12,000 years of evolution (which in evolutionary terms is hardly more than a blink) man’s worst enemy?
Shaun Ellis, author of the autobiography The Man Who Lives with Wolves and star of the Animal Planet series Living with the Wolfman (2008), proves that our fairytales are unjustified. At least, the ones about wolves being evil are. His story actually gives credence to Kipling and others who’ve told tales of a human raised by wolves. Shaun Ellis wasn’t raised by wolves, but he has lived with them. He ate raw meat from a fresh kill. He slept between these full grown predators to keep warm in an Idaho, Rocky Mountain winter. He learned how they communicate through an intricate system of howls combined with precise body language. He stayed calm while a wolf locked his incisors around his neck, testing Shaun to make sure he was trustworthy. When Shaun didn’t panic, he passed the test, and the wolf released him. The message? I’m big enough and strong enough to end your life, but I trust you, and so I won’t kill you.
The autobiography examines the signs in Shaun’s childhood that he would grow to work so closely with these animals. It discusses his progression from integrating himself into a captive wolfpack, to attempting to join one in the wild.
While at times there are digressions that, although interesting, shifted the focus away from the story, for the most part we follow Shaun through his development as a wolf researcher, learning about the wolves as he does. In fact, this book teaches its readers as much about wolves as it does about the life and personality of a man who’s crazy enough to live with them.
The writing is passable. It’s not Shakespeare, or even Franzen, but it conveys the story, and in this case, that’s the real draw.
(Note: Shaun Ellis’ life inspired the character Luke Warren in Jodi Picoult’s newest novel Lone Wolf, reviewed two weeks ago.)