It’s 9:27 a.m. on a cold November morning, and I’m driving my husband’s Prius at unreasonable speeds on a curvy, icy road. It’s unlike me to take an icy road like this; they’ve almost killed me twice and I am always extremely cautious on them. But there is no traffic on this road, and the only thing I’d hit if I lost control is grass.

Besides, I have an appointment with a pack of wolves this morning, and if I’m late, I’ll miss it. An accident backed up traffic on the highway, and I have three minutes left to get there.

After what seems like endless skidding around turns, I spot the big sign for Wolf Park looming ahead of me.  Wolf Park is a wolf sanctuary and research facility in Battle Ground, Indiana. They are holding a photography seminar today, and my name is on the roster. The instructional materials were clear: Be here at 9:30 to begin the mandatory safety orientation. Anyone who misses the orientation will not be allowed in with the wolves.

The dashboard clock changes to 9:28 as I fishtail into the parking lot. I begin to relax for the first time in half an hour.

I’ve been to Wolf Park before for their general tours, so I know where I’m going as I haul my camera bag over the icy gravel.  I’m glad I don’t have a tripod to tote today. The instructional materials were clear on that, too: Tripods are not allowed. The wolves tend to chew on them. Fortunately, the light is good and I’m using a new dSLR that handles low light reasonably well anyway, eliminating any need for one.

I enter the education room and see the usual suspects gathered around a set of tables arranged in a U shape: mostly men with long, fast lenses – a species I sometimes refer to as “Big Lens Boys”, and only two other women, one with a long lens of her own and one with a 300 mm zoom like my own. There is a beautiful German Shepherd lying down between the tables. He occasionally gets up to conduct a friendly inspection of newcomers and their gear, before wandering off to examine the kitchen area in back.

Wolf Park’s staff photographer, Monty Sloan, steps up to the podium, and calls the dog out of the kitchen and into a lie-down next to him. For the next 90 minutes, Monty guides us through a detailed course in wolf behavior and communication, using slides to demonstrate. The material is fascinating, and in some cases unexpected. I was interested to learn, for example, that wolves are generally more bite-inhibited than domestic dogs. Wolves have a variety of mechanisms to defuse conflicts among themselves, often by employing nuanced expressions of mixed or contingent feelings, as if to say “Listen; I’m not interested in fighting over this, and I’d like us to calm down. But if you persist in this behavior, I will throw down with you.” If wolf conflicts do descend to a brawl, wolves are usually more restrained in their mouth behavior than domestic dogs.

After the Power Point presentation, a woman named Pat Goodmann came into the room and taught us about wolf etiquette. Pat has been with Wolf Park since 1974. She spent the rest of the day with us in the enclosure, where it became clear that her mastery of wolf communication is so second nature that she might qualify as an honorary wolf herself.  Pat watched the wolves carefully during the entire seminar, and when necessary, offered commentary and instruction about how each animal was feeling and about whom, and giving participants instructions to keep every interaction safe.

In the seminar room that morning, she taught us how to be polite to wolves, and that a three-second scratch on the side of the neck is a good greeting that allows a wolf to decide if she would like more, or if she would prefer to end the interaction. Wolves experience human petting as a kind of restraint, she said, even if a pleasurable one. It’s polite to let them decide how long they’d like to be so restrained.

I learned about their signals, and how the shape of their mouth, the set of their eyes, the position of their tails, and the use of their tongue can indicate their feelings, and often their intentions. I learned how to tickle the roof of a wolf’s mouth if they are too interested in mouthing you; I learned how to move my arm to the side in a “wax on, wax off” motion to deter a wolf who jumped up on me; I learned not to pet a wolf’s side, as their ribs are often ticklish.

The safety orientation is sometimes the most boring part of these things, but I was riveted.  They fed us a mass of information, yet assured us that they would be there to give instruction.

We began the day with Wotan, a ten-year-old male who loves to be photographed. We were instructed to lean against the fence as we filed in from the airlock, and allow Wotan to get to know us. Wotan trotted the line of photographers like a drill sergeant inspecting new recruits, and occasionally stopped to offer a lick, a rub, or sometimes a jump-up. When my turn arrived, Wotan buried his nose in my crotch, and administered a vigorous sniffing.

We’d been warned about this, but Pat had put things in a more genteel way. Wolves’ favorite area to sniff on a human is “where the legs meet the torso,” she said politely. There is one wolf law that never fails, she further explained, and that is “If a human wants to keep it from us, it must be worth getting.” So she advised us to let the wolf sniff for a few seconds before waving them away. If you push them off immediately, Wolf Law will kick in and they will expend all kinds of time and energy trying to regain access to your nads, so you might as well give in upfront. It was weird and mildly embarrassing to be standing in front of a dozen people letting a huge wolf root around in my junk, but there it is. And, true to Pat’s prediction, Wotan moved on after a bit. Before he did, I offered him a brief and respectful neck scratch.

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Wotan

Looked at in the abstract, a wolf can seem either like an utterly mystical creature, a thing apart from humans — a symbol, almost, that looms large in the human imagination. Or it can seem like just a big dog. I found that they are neither, really. When a wolf brushes against your leg, you can feel the heft of the animal, and you can tell it’s somehow different from a dog. Not more, or better; just different. Their fur is coarser than a dog’s; there is a steeliness in how a wolf evaluates you, even when its attitude is friendly; you can feel the power and the presence in a wolf standing near you — or, as the case may be, jumping on you.

From a photographer’s perspective, a wolf is a buffet of expression. Their feelings are close to the surface and displayed, and they change from moment to moment in reaction to whatever is happening around them. I asked Pat at one point whether she thought the wolves tried to train the humans. To some extent, probably, she said. “They have me wrapped around their dew claws,” she declared. “They think of me as a big Pez dispenser.”

When Wotan felt he’d had enough, we stopped for twenty minutes so everyone could stuff their lunches down. Afterward, we went back into the enclosure, this time with eleven-year-old Ayla and Renki, who are brother and sister.

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Ayla is in the foreground, and Renki is behind her.

Renki is a big, stocky wolf, and his sister Ayla is lean and petite. It’s hard to know if I was just projecting my own feelings onto them, but Ayla seemed to have a joie de vivre to her that made me smile. While I was down on one knee, she ran up to me, gave my chin a thorough slurping, and then took off. Several times while she was running around, I’d see her lower her face to the ground and scoop up a mouthful of snow, mid-sprint. I watched her carefully, but could never catch her doing this on camera.

By the end of our time with Ayla and Renki, my arms were dangling from their sockets like overcooked spaghetti. I’m not used to holding my camera up all day. When I’m shooting animals in their natural habitats, my stamina gets used for patience, not constant photography. Appearances of animals in nature are usually brief. This situation was completely different.

510We ended the day with Bicho and Kanti, a pair of three-year old brothers. Bicho and Kanti are large, beautiful wolves with cream-colored coats. Their sister, Fiona, who was feeling grumpy and “peopled-out” that day, so was not brought to see us, is all black. Aside from Ayla, I probably felt most drawn to these energetic young guys, who explored the enclosure with curiosity and a sense of glee, and whose every feeling seemed displayed like neon in their faces.

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We photographed until the light was gone, squeezing out every possible moment. But when the light is gone, it’s gone abruptly. “Humans!” Pat called out as was her custom, issuing instructions by species whenever she needed to move either person or wolf in one direction or another. “Move toward the airlock, please.” And so we dispersed. I gathered my things and went straight to my car. I knew I’d be back soon, so I didn’t have to linger in the gift shop this time. And I hadn’t really made any friends to say goodbye to; we were all focused on the wolves, to the exclusion of any human interaction.

I noticed something that day — I shoot significantly fewer frames than other photographers, by a factor of about ten, given the conversations I overheard. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing or a good thing; it’s just my thing. Part of it, I think, comes from how deliberate and methodical I can be. I can’t shoot constantly because there’s no way for it to be conscious and deliberate that way.

But the larger part of it comes from my not being all one thing. Most photographers are photographers, and most writers are writers. I’m both, and therefore neither, in a way. There were many moments where I needed to lower the camera, stop trying to chase and lasso the moments that were unfolding before me, and simply witness them, while my brain was spinning them into words. In those moments, I was a writer.

I think some nature photographers can get obsessive about consuming and canning the natural world. Moments in nature become camera fodder, and therefore experienced on only one level, and for one singular purpose. Writers, on the other hand, can become word snobs, and resist how visual the world is becoming. I want to avoid both pitfalls. I’ve always thought my refusal to commit to just one thing might be a flaw, part of my global ambivalence about everything, but I see now that it helps keep me balanced.

The downside is that I sometimes feel like I never belong anywhere completely, but that’s all right.

I guess it could be said that in that small way, I’m a lone wolf.

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I’ll be uploading the wolf photos to The Trailhead’s Facebook page as I edit them.

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6 thoughts on “Gone to the dogs: A day with the wolves

  1. I loved your description of wolves as “a buffet of expression.” You’ve certainly captured many dishes from that buffet in this wonderful post of yours. By the end I felt as if I’d been there with you; thank you so much.

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