Review: “The Man Who Lives With Wolves” by Shaun Ellis with Penny Junor
Let me start by saying I am not a fan of those people who go into the field ostensibly in the name of science (but who often have no science background) and make a name for themselves by “getting closer to <insert animal here> than anyone ever has before.” Timothy Treadwell, the infamous “Grizzly Man,” is the best example of this; a person who apparently wanted to raise public awareness about grizzlies, but seems to have disregarded all common sense about being safe around them. Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by a bear in 2003. The circumstances surrounding the attack are unknown (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grizzly_Man).
Then there are those who do have some sort of science background, but still choose to conduct their studies in very close contact with their subjects. Dian Fossey and mountain gorillas in Africa (see Gorillas in the Mist––the book or the movie––or Farley Mowat’s biography of Fossey, Woman in the Mists) and, more locally, Lynn Rogers and black bears in northern Minnesota are two examples. Though the information gleaned from these studies is sound, the methods used to collect it have been criticized.
Having said this, I am open to the insights people gain from these encounters (except for the “Grizzly Man” mentioned above). I am open to other ways of seeing the world and all that lives in it. As cultural anthropologist and writer Richard Nelson noted, “Certainty is for those who have learned and believed only one truth.” Strictly objective science is not the only path to knowledge about the natural world. It is from this perspective, then, that I read Shaun Ellis’s book, The Man Who Lives With Wolves. It is not a book I would even consider buying on my own, but my aunt gave it to me as a Christmas gift, so with an interest in wolves, I started into it. Incredibly, I found it to be a well-written story with intriguing insights to wolf behavior.
Shaun Ellis is an Englishman who at an early age found he had a special way with animals, particularly dogs. He is humble, and the tenor of his story reflects graceful acknowledgement of his gift. That humility is what made it possible for me to continue reading the book. Often, a person tells these types of stories in a sort of carefree manner, building up the suspense or the danger when it suits their delusion of grandeur. Ellis does not do that.
After a stint in the military, Ellis goes to work as a volunteer for a wildlife park, and it is here that his relationship with wolves begins to flourish. He pursues this fascination in an unconventional way, but it achieves incredible results.
Curiosity soon got the better of me. I wanted to get close to those animals and to know more about them and so I started sitting quietly inside the enclosure … hoping the wolves might take an interest and investigate me. They didn’t. Then I realized what I was doing wrong. I was invading their territory in daylight, when I felt comfortable. What would happen, I wondered, if I switched the odds and approached them … at night when they had the upper hand? Might I then get a truer understanding of what those creatures were really about?
And so he does just that, he enters the wolf enclosure at night, sitting quietly and waiting to see what happens. Something does, and eventually the wolves begin to accept his presence. Here again, it is Ellis’s humility that sets him apart.
Over time, Ellis feels a need to get close to wild wolves and learn about them in their natural setting. So he takes a chance on a low-paying internship at a Wolf Education and Research Center run by a member of the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho. This leads to an incredible journey that includes two years living alone in the Idaho mountains with a wolf pack. The pack actually adopts him, and he becomes something of an integral member of the pack. In one instance, he relates how a young male actually saves his life.
It was late afternoon and yet again I felt an overwhelming desire for water. I got to my feet and started down the usual track in the direction of the valley. As I did so, the young male flew at me from the other side of the den area and knocked me to the ground. He was a big, strong wolf and I felt as if I had been rugby tackled by three players at once. I lay there, shocked and winded and unable to move. This was completely out of character but he meant business. He was standing over me growling and snarling, his eyes blazing, ears flat against his head, hackles raised, tail in the air, and teeth bared. … Looking as though me might rip my throat out, he backed me into the blackened hollow of a tree that had been struck by lightning some years before, I crouched, imprisoned, in this bowl of charcoal while he stood over me, and every time I tried to move he growled and snapped the air with his jaws…
I couldn’t work out what was going on, or what I had done to make him so hostile. I began to think that maybe he was planning to wait for the rest of the pack to come back before he killed me. …
Then suddenly, as dusk began to fall, his mood changed. The aggression vanished and he was balanced and calm once more. He looked at me with soft eyes and blinked. I didn’t trust him. I thought, here we go––he’s giving me a false sense of security; but he began to lick my face and all around my mouth, as though he were apologizing to me. This was no longer a wolf that wanted to kill me; this was the brother I had known and loved all this time.
Shaking, I ventured out of the hollowed tree, and he made no attempt to stop me. He then started to walk down the track that I had tried to take earlier toward the valley. After a few steps he stopped and looked back, which I knew meant he wanted me to follow him. So I went after him and the pups came, too, and about seventy or eighty meters from the den area, he stopped and scented a scratch mark on the ground. I looked down and there was the biggest pile of bear droppings that looked and smelled different from any I’d ever seen. There were deep scores on the ground and gouges in the bark of the surrounding trees, where a huge grizzly had scraped his claws and left his calling card. What I later learned from the Native Americans was that a bear will indicate his intentions by what he leaves on the ground, and this bear was out to kill a predator.
Suddenly it all became clear. The wolf hadn’t wanted to hurt me. On the contrary, if I had walked down that track three-quarters of an hour earlier, the bear would have had me. The wolf had saved me from certain death and prevented the bear from being alerted to the den and the young [pups]. I owed my life to him.
These types of stories are always a little hard to believe, but after all the time Ellis spent with the wolves up to this point, and based on the behavior he describes up to and including this incident, I think it’s plausible that this episode is exactly what he says.
Ellis returns to England and opens his own wildlife park, educating visitors about wolves and helping to change people’s attitudes about wolves. In many ways, this sort of education can only be achieved by the “non-scientist” who has a more subjective view of the non-human life around us. His work becomes more widely known, and he becomes the subject of a National Geographic documentary, A Man Among Wolves, and the star of a show on the cable TV channel Animal Planet––“Living With the Wolfman.” I haven’t seen either the documentary or the TV show, and I do not want to. I also do not recommend going online to see photos of him related to this show. They were clearly made to promote an image that I do not believe Shaun Ellis totally inhabits.
I am keenly interested in animal behavior, so I found this book to be fascinating. Ellis’s descriptions tend to match up with what I have read or learned from other more scholarly sources, so think there is truth to what he says. Despite being closely involved with his subjects, I think his work can be viewed more as learning than as true research. I also think his willingness to share what he has learned is a great gift to the reader.
The Man Who Lives With Wolves, by Shaun Ellis with Penny Junor. 2009. Harmony Books, New York.