Wolves have long been viewed as savage predators by many people in the United States, making them frequent targets for hunters and ranchers. But after centuries of decline, wolves are now being reintroduced into parts of the American wilderness. Some people are challenging their vicious image as well. Jim and Jamie Dutcher offer a more sympathetic view in a recent cable television film called "Wolves at Our Door," Now they've written a book with the same title that recounts the story behind the film.,
Jim Dutcher says he's always liked to film elusive animals like beavers, cougars or wolves. But filming a wolf pack created special challenges, partly because they've inspired so many terrifying stories over the years.
Jim:"We learned that those stories really aren't true. There hasn't been a documented case of a wild, healthy wolf attacking a human being in the United States, never. We used to have two million wolves, and then we got rid of them all. Now they're starting to come back a little."
Jamie: "If you read the Lewis and Clark diaries, there are early stories about how wolves were quite curious. They would make their way into the camp and steal some of the men's shoes. Now it's a completely different story. Wolves have learned to fear humans, and the smart wolves are the wolves who stay away."
And that's why Jim Dutcher decided to set up a huge enclosure in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains and raise his own wolf pack. He began with two adults and four pups.
Jim:"We raised these wolves from tiny little puppies, from the moment they opened their eyes, so they would trust us. And then we added another litter the next year, and another litter, and finally our original pair gave birth to pups, which was really monumental for us because that hadn't happened in 50 years in the Sawtooth Mountains, or anywhere in Idaho."
Jamie: "Jamie Dutcher joined the project in 1993. She stresses that they bonded with the wolves only enough to earn their trust. They were never treated as pets"
Jim:"They would approach us on occasion, and that's when we interacted with them. We never would take it upon ourselves to invade their space, and I think it made a difference in getting behavior that was unaffected."
During the six year project, the Dutchers lived in tents modeled on Mongolian yurts, designed to withstand Idaho's cold winters and heavy snowfalls. They soon learned that their wolf neighbors could be mischievous: gloves, film equipment and other items mysteriously vanished from the camp over the years. The wolves could also grieve. They stopped playing for several weeks when a pack member was killed by a mountain lion. And they clearly had their own patterns of communication.
"When they whine or growl or howl, they're not just making these noises. It's all for a very specific purpose," says Jamie. "And over the years we were really able to tell who was saying what to whom. You could lie there in bed and say 'Oh yes, that's Wahots, and he's talking to Motomo.'"
"The distinct howls you're hearing are the more dominant wolves, and then you've got other wolves coming in who are doing more of a howl-whine and they'll start licking the more dominant wolves' faces. What will happen is this will start turning into a bit of a frenzy. This particular track, it was the middle of winter. It could have been particularly cold and crisp. And they were feeling good after a snow."
The way wolves interact is strongly influenced by their position in the pack hierarchy. At the top are the pack leaders, the alphas. At the bottom, the omegas. That can lead to very humanlike behavior from cruel bullying to loving concern.
"There was one wolf in the pack who seemed to care more about the pups than any other, and that was the beta wolf, that's the wolf that's just below the alpha. And he showed other signs of compassion we were surprised at. The omega got picked on a lot," says Jim. "He couldn't eat when the rest of the wolves would eat, and he was the focus of aggression. And the beta would sometimes come in and body block other wolves from attacking him and biting him, so he would drive away the pursuers."
The Dutchers also observed strong bonds of loyalty among the wolves. That became clear at the end of the project, when the wolves were moved to a Nez Perce Indian reservation.
"We moved them in crates and when we put the crates into the new enclosure and opened the doors of these crates, all the wolves were out except Lakota, the omega, the bottom of the pack," says Jim. "He was afraid to come out of the cage. And Kamots, the leader, went back for his brother. And they whined to each other, and Lakota after a while came out bug-eyed, and started to rub shoulders with his brother and they went into the meadow together. And what it showed was that Lakota cared so much for his brother, omega or not, he could not lead his pack to the new territory until his pack was complete. And to see that we move wolves around as we do with the wolf reintroduction program, without much care for this sort of thing was a lesson for us."
The Dutchers say the wolves taught them many other lessons as well.
Jamie:"They have incredibly social lives, and you can very easily see how Native American cultures, or early man, learned to become a family and how to hunt by watching these animals," says Jamie. "They do get into squabbles, just like any family, but the one thing they do so easily that we don't is forgive."
Jim:"We had a very privileged situation being there with the wolves, and from that I can see there are wolves that are brave like Kamots, and there are wolves that are compassionate like Matsi, and submissive like Lakota. We don't know them, but they're out there."
The Dutchers, who now live in Ketchum, Idaho, recently spotted wild wolf tracks on a return visit to the Sawtooth Mountains. Wolves, probably part of a group reintroduced nearby, were returning to the region for the first time in more than half a century. The Dutchers like to think of the Sawtooth Pack as the forerunners to the mountain's new inhabitants.
"Wolves at Our Door" was published by Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020.