At a wolf sanctuary in upstate New York, you can let your inner beast run free.
I howled with the wolves and all I got was a lesson in humility
Everything is collapsing. The senators are insider trading. The algorithm is relentlessly selling the most tepid, flavorless version of your life back to you. The last remaining industries are meal delivery apps, “cloud software,” and threadbare money laundering schemes. Your account has been deducted a fee and you’re just now hearing about it for the first time. We fluctuate between rage and limp nihilism and back again, and while this column won’t fix that, it will provide you with a small good thing to appreciate, a recognition of something weird and valuable and beautiful, despite it all.
Sometime this winter I became obsessed with wolves. The way they can seem in some moments like less-indulged dogs and then in others ghostly and elusive; as familiar as a sibling and yet as unknowable as far-away planets. At first it was this video edit in January: trailcam footage of a pack in Minnesota trotting along a snowy path, superimposed over footage of moose walking at the same location with only their enormous legs and hooves fitting in the frame, how tiny the wolves seemed beside the moose and the near-insanity required to hunt such a thing for centuries. Then this scene in February of them using a beaver dam as a bridge. The minor-brilliance of the idea, the interconnectivity of rivers and wolves — supposedly menacing but here just nimble and curious and with a quick twitch in all their movements, like at any second their bags are packed and they could disappear into the trees.
Then a few weeks later, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a 1612 Peter Paul Rubens painting of them being hunted by men on horseback. The painting was done with the help of assistants, except for the wolves; those he insisted on painting himself. I pictured Rubens trying to imagine the wolves’ panic, these semi-mythic creatures whose time was running out, and it churning up something inside him so terrifying and personal that he could leave it to no one else.
I think partly I was drawn to them for roughly the same reason you might be to a photo of Monica Vitti or a rare old Ferrari, some fragile and gorgeous thing that cannot be yours. But I began to admire the nature of their existence, their virtues. The life of a wolf is not cinematic. It is brutal and exhausting. Their hunting strategies are a series of minor maneuvers stretched out over miles and miles and can often only be documented by drones or helicopters from considerable heights because of the sheer land they cover. They are 80 to 100 pounds, launching themselves with tremendous visible effort through deep snow toward animals the height of Chevy Suburbans.
They can look regal in the way you would know them posed on turquoise gift shop t-shirts and vicious like you would recognize them as minor league hockey mascots, but usually they are shy and contemplative, lean and ragged, mud crusted to their ankles. They do not have any exotic skills — the absurd speed of a cheetah, the supreme muscular violence of a lion, the way a bear lumbers like a surly uncle no one would dare bother. Though we think of them as expert predators, the pack-as-covert-military-operation, they are actually mediocre hunters. They are not especially strong. What is so miraculous about the wolf is that they do not stop. They will chase you across a continent, till it gets dark, till you lose your patience. They can do this for days.
A gray wolf was once measured by its radio collar to have traveled 1,200 miles by himself from Oregon to California looking for a mate. He eventually had a daughter, who one day set off on her own to find a mate. She went 8,700 miles.
Lately I have been searching too and it may be something you’re familiar with. Escapes from the staid gray clench of one quarantine or another. From obscene displays of power and indifference by sweaty mayors and embalmed-looking half-conscious senators. From the piranha in Silicon Valley eagerly gnawing at your hobbies. Looking for purpose on a planet that is caving in and for any moment where you may step beyond these circumstances and commune with some lost and primitive urge in the deep wilderness of your mind.
And so in February I went to howl with the wolves at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York. It was a Saturday evening, a couple hours after a snow squall had blown through with such sudden intensity I had to pull my car over to the side of the road on the way there and wait for it to pass.
They are 80 to 100 pounds, launching themselves with tremendous visible effort through deep snow toward animals the height of Chevy Suburbans.
The WCC is spread over 28 acres of forest and rocky hills. There are 21 Mexican wolves, 10 red wolves, and three gray wolves, most of them divided into pairs or smaller packs in their own enclosures on the property. The gray wolves are the program’s ambassador wolves and are used for educational programs, like the one I attended, but the hope for the other wolves is that some may one day have pups that can be released from captivity.
The Mexican and red wolf are two of the rarest mammals in North America. The red wolf has been on the brink of extinction since the 1970s and as of October it was estimated there were only 15-17 alive in the wild. Since 2003, the WCC has released seven of its own wolves, into Minnesota and in Tennessee and even out into the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in Mexico. In order to preserve the wolves’ healthy fear of humans, only the three ambassadors and two of the red wolves can be visited by the public. The rest are near you in these hills but at uncertain coordinates, just somewhere, slinking through crunchy frozen leaves.
It is a grim reality that these species are almost certainly doomed, even with our help, and that it is more or less only the speed at which this happens that we can manage. What the WCC offers is something like a living monument to our Previously Glorious Earth, three or four of them released out into the woods at a time, a last glimpse at the true wizards of nature we abandoned in the name of Industry and mankind’s rabid lust for violence.
Because of the squall, only about 10 people of the group who signed up for the event, called an Evening Howl, made it to South Salem. We parked first in a dirt lot and then walked up a couple hundred feet of steep, cracked asphalt to the visitors center. Above us crows swooped down at each other in a manner that could have been combat or affection. It was getting dark.
Our guide waiting for us at the top was Regan Downey, the WCC’s director of education. She has been howling to these wolves for the last seven years. We gathered briefly together and then she led us on a winding path over to the ambassador wolves, a rolling three-acre space filled with evergreen trees.
The few of us who came took seats on beer league softball bleachers while Regan stepped to a tall chainlink fence surrounding the wolves, about five feet in front of us, and introduced us to each of them.
Nature has worked on this 300,000 year-long Manhattan Project, generation after generation releasing minute but crucial updates to the software.
The wolves came to their feet and approached the fence slowly. They are smaller than you expect them to be. Even more precise in their movements. Standing there still, their skinny legs and thick round paws look almost like an elderly person’s walker with the tennis balls fastened to the bottom. From the other side of the fence they stood there studying Regan like they were learning some immense and hidden truth about her. The metal on the bleachers was so cold you could feel it through your pants just sitting there.
Regan snapped on some rubber gloves and now the wolves were moving as if touched by defibrillator paddles, the sound is all it takes, and then she reached into a container of some raw meat and tossed it over the fence to them. The de-facto leader of the group is Zephyr, an eight-year-old male, all black with candy corn-orange eyes. The other two are Nikai and Alawa, a male and female each with white puffed-out fur like the hair of a 1700s statesman.
Little birds landed intermittently on the top of the fence to peck at a few stray pieces of now-frozen raw pork that had gotten caught on a toss from a previous day.
Regan told us that wolves born and raised in captivity, not these ambassadors but the red wolves, the Mexican wolves, can still be released into the wild and their hunting instincts will activate even if they’ve never seen a proper hunt demonstrated by an adult wolf. Nature has worked on this 300,000 year-long Manhattan Project, generation after generation releasing minute but crucial updates to the software, always one step ahead of the climate and the eroding land and the elk that graze upon it. The wolves knew this before they were born.
After the wolves were fed we all together took in a breath and howled out for them. Zephyr had recently been sick and his throat was sore from throwing up, and all he could get out was a tiny squeak. The two others laid there too like we hadn’t made a sound at all.
You are bad at being a wolf. It is a sad, limp little howl, what came out.
You may think you are prepared to howl like a wolf, the approximate sound and a technique for duplicating it, but attempting to conjure one in a way that resembles the howl in your mind, to untether your animal spirit from the concrete pylons inside you of shame and ego after decades of carefully presenting yourself as Someone Cool with attractively casual and moderated reactions to things — you are hilariously bad at that part of it. You are bad at being a wolf. It is a sad, limp little howl, what came out. It is a howl sitting politely at the kitchen table as it meets its girlfriend’s parents for the first time. It is like if the default voice in the GPS navigation on your phone was asked to speak in the dialect of a carnivore.
We howled again and still there was nothing from the wolves. They barely seemed to notice we were even making the effort. We were nervous and self-conscious and I believe the wolves knew we were not for real.
It is impossible in this moment to not briefly consider that with age you have developed some soul-mineral deficiency, that the valves and pistons of a once-snarling machine have been swallowed by rust and you exist now as only its faint silhouette, an Adult Man In His 30s. I felt humbled by it all. Not “humbled” the way someone accepting an Oscar says it to mean “I appreciate your attention,” I mean that I felt dwarfed by how mighty and focused the wolf is and how microscopic and easily disrupted I am by comparison. I was humbled by the tug on my hamstrings walking up the asphalt, by the slice of the cold itself which on this night was, even for humans, relatively mild but to me was an inconvenience I have grown or to endure dramatically and only briefly after astronautic preparation. I was humbled by the wolves’ casual indifference to all of it, their survival in spite of it for thousands of years, their survival while literally howling in its face.
Regan said that when the squall blew through, the wolves just went out and stood in it.
I felt a kind of pristine stillness just to be in their vicinity, even though they did not speak to us, something like sitting in a pew in an old and empty church. As the sky turned pink and then black behind the trees we walked back down the path and then the hill and to our cars and all of us left.
By March of this hunting season, hunters had killed more Yellowstone wolves than they had in the 27 years since they were reintroduced to the park. Yellowstone itself is protected, but recent reclassifications of the wolves’ endangered status has meant that the moment they wander outside Yellowstone’s boundaries, they can be slaughtered basically to the whims of Montana and Idaho ranchers.
To the ranchers, wolves have become an emblem of government regulation, of the barricades Democrats and environmentalists seek to build around any bounty they believe belongs to them. Not their livestock or their farms specifically, but the premise that they may take anything they want in the exact gluttonous quantities they want it. The “Liberty” they believe is under siege is just the permission to chase something small and timid in a helicopter to the point of exhaustion and then kill it from close range.
In May of last year, a red wolf named Deven, who was born at the WCC, was released along with three others into North Carolina. At the time they were among about 20 red wolves left in the wild. Less than two months later, Deven and two others were hit by cars and killed. Then in October, the fourth was shot and killed.
Hunters use words like “livelihood” and “conservation,” always the benevolent martyrs, chased from their American Enterprises by the mongrels pacing at the edge of their farms. In truth, wolves are responsible for fewer deaths of livestock than respiratory illness. In the photographs after the hunts, the ranchers hoist their corpses up like the slain despots of a kingdom out there in the woods. In these last, wheezing days of the American empire, there are no frontiers left but the more distant extremes of sadism and the fresh and fleeting conquests by men in Performance Camouflage cosplaying as warriors.
I considered all of this after the night in February, their time running out as Rubens may have imagined, not only the wolves but their forests and rivers, the beavers’ dams and those who would share it with them, and I decided in early-April to go back to South Salem to howl with them again.
It was warm and the snow was gone and this time there were two dozen people. Our guide was Dana Goin, a wildlife specialist. We hiked over to the three ambassadors, their winter fur beginning to shed now, the frozen ground thawing and turning to mud.
We bent our necks to the sky and all of us howled. As we did the wolves laid there across some rocks with their eyes closed not moving again. We were not wolves and we could not access any remote facsimile of Wolf and they understood this even as we tried to convince them otherwise. We howled a second time, the guy with the Oakleys and the head-to-toe windbreakers, the fathers holding small children, the Boy Scout troop that asked thoughtful questions about the migratory patterns of herbivores, men with beards, all of us there howling and still the wolves did not budge.
But then, Dana called Regan on her walkie-talkie and asked if she could howl from the entrance hundreds of feet back down the hill, and without hesitation Regan let loose something that was not an ah-wooo but more high-pitched, like the shriek of a just-detonated firework; not a wolf howl as you might imagine but one that felt in the air like a great unburdening, something sailing off to ricochet between mountains, pitched and held at a steady tone, piercing through the trees and the Someone Cool shame and in this way it was identical to a wolf howl. Immediately all the wolves behind the fence in front of us shook alive and there was a rigidness in their necks, something beyond hearing and more like a deep and concentrated knowing, and all the wolves not just the ambassadors but distant unseen wolves as well, the red wolves and the Mexican gray wolves were howling now, coming in at a lower volume but unmistakable still, one by one synchronizing while we stood there quiet. We couldn’t possibly know what they were saying, though maybe we did.