The Hidden Life of Wolves
Nat Geo Filmmakers Talk About Their Six Years with the Sawtooth Pack
It’s a paradoxical truth: They are the origin species of society’s beloved dog, yet humans have relentlessly persecuted and killed the gray wolf. Now on and off the endangered species list, the Canis lupus story is a tragic one. No two people know this better perhaps, than wildlife filmmakers Jim and Jamie Dutcher, who spent six years intermingling with a group of wolves in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains to study the emotional and social dynamic of this misunderstood creature. The pair documented their experiences in a beautiful, highly informative book called The Hidden Life of Wolves.
In 1990, the Dutchers were given a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service to create an expansive space in which they would live with a pack of wolves. To be allowed intimate access by the animals, however, they had to create their own pack. After great searching, they were given a male, female, and four pups from rescue and research centers in Montana and Minnesota and the Sawtooth Pack was born. “Under the looming peaks of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains…we built a vast enclosure, rich with aspen groves, streams, ponds, and meadows,” the Dutchers write in Hidden Life. “From the beginning, it was our hope that these wolves would act as ambassadors and educators, guiding us to a better understanding of their species.”
For the next six years, the Dutchers devoted their lives to observing the Sawtooth Pack. To gain the trust of the first residents, they bottle fed the pups, taking care of their needs around the clock. The four little ones bonded with the Dutchers, playing with the humans and even curling up on their laps. “We raised them from puppies so they didn’t fear us,” said Jim in a recent phone interview. “But we didn’t over-assert ourselves into the pack; we were just observers, and they went about their business and we went about ours. If you go out into the wild and you try to film wolves they’re so impacted by your presence that they change their natural behavior.” Added Jamie: “We never tried to dominate them or submit to them, and so in turn everything was very neutral; we were able to observe them without changing their behavior.
During their years with the pack, the Dutchers learned myriad myth-dispelling truths about wolf behavior. One particularly surprising—and touching—observation was how compassionate wolves are to their members. “A mountain lion killed one of our wolves and the pack’s behavior changed,” Jim explained. “They were mourning this loss of this member…They stopped playing completely—wolves play all the time, even into old age—for about six weeks.”
Since leaving the Sawtooth pack in 1996, the Dutchers have devoted their lives to educating people about the true nature of these elusive and wondrous animals through lectures, films, their nonprofit Living with Wolves (livingwithwolves.com), and now their book Hidden Life. Published by National Geographic, Hidden Life is comprised of more than 200 pages of stunning photography, personal stories, and stand-alone sections that, for example, describe wolf behavior and communication; depict the former and current range of the gray wolf; and introduce the Sawtooth wolves via a family tree. It’s an essential tome that allows people a rare glimpse into the complicated social fabric of the North American gray wolf.
Recently, the Dutchers spoke with me over the phone about the plight of the great gray wolf. Below is the full interview.
So I just got your book. It’s so beautiful. I am envious of the time you spent with the wolves. I know they’re not dogs, but they sure seem like dogs.
Jim: Well, that’s where dogs came from.
How was it when you had to say goodbye to the pack?
Jamie: Pretty painful. It was pretty hard on us.
You said in the book that you let the wolves come to you, as opposed to treating them like dogs and approaching them or trying to play with them.
Jamie: Yeah. Wolves shouldn’t be pets and you can’t really teach them anything, so everything was on their terms. We gave them names but they didn’t come to them, and you couldn’t ask them to do anything.
Did you feel like you became part of the pack?
Jim: Because we didn’t interfere with them, we were sort of neutral. We raised them from puppies so they didn’t fear us. But we didn’t over-assert ourselves into the pack. So we were just observers, and they went about their business and we went about ours, and so we could see their lives. If you go out into the wild and try to film wolves, they’re so impacted by your presence that they change their natural behavior. We wanted to get into their social lives, so we raised them from puppies, gained their trust, and lived with them for those six years.
Jamie: But we never tried to dominate them or submit to them. So in turn, everything was very neutral and we were able to observe them without changing their behavior. They just kind of went about their business.
I wonder what they thought you were.
Jamie: Probably really inept pack members, we were just useless. [Laughs]
What was the most surprising thing you found out about wolf behavior that you didn’t expect?
Jim: How compassionate, how caring they are to their members. A mountain lion killed one of our wolves and the pack’s behavior changed. They were mourning this loss of this member…They stopped playing—wolves play all the time, even into old age—for about six weeks.
That’s a long time.
Jamie: They really care about their families. They really take care of each other. You watch wolves and it really is a reflection of our own families. One of the neatest things we observed is that our omega wolf Lakota, which is the lowest member on the totem pole, was the one that has to eat last, that gets picked on, he’s a scapegoat. Still, he was an important member of the pack and he instigated play; he got all the other pack members to play a lot. We were able to observe another wolf, which was the beta wolf, the second in command, that really took Lakota under his wing. If things got too out of hand, if some of the mid-ranking wolves were picking on him a little too hard, Matsi, the beta wolf, would insert himself into the trouble and break things up, allowing the omega to get away. [Lakota and Matsi] would often spend time together and play with each other. So even though the omega was picked on, he really did have a friend and a protector in Matsi.
Did you feel that you had to study dogs to understand the wolf, or vice versa?
Jamie: Jim and I have lived with dogs all our lives. It’s more the similarities than the differences, because really all dogs came from wolves. Their DNA is virtually the same. The wolf was the first animal that humans domesticated into the dog, and that then allowed us to domesticate other animals. So wolves really influenced our evolution, or each others’ evolution, turning the wolf into the dog. And you watch your dog interact with other dogs or other family members, and you can see how they need that family bond, and the human family becomes the pack, it becomes the family, for the dog.
I have two Chihuahua mixes, and this morning I was trying to see the wolf in them…
Jamie: Well, you know, the way they take care of each other, the way they play, the way they lick each other, the way they dominate each other—it’s all there.
Jim: One of the other surprises in having wolves back, since reintroduction, which took place in the 1990s, is that ecosystems are starting to be more healthy. This research is taking place in Yellowstone and many places. Since the packs were reintroduced—they [brought in] captured wolves from Canada because there were no wolves in Yellowstone or Idaho—the wolves have chased the prey, elk, and made them much more alert. Before, they would just hang out in the riparian areas, eating all the vegetation and really destroying the environment. But having [wolves] back has pushed the elk and made them much more alert, they’re up in higher ground, and the vegetation now has come back….Trees, bushes come back along the creeks and that cools the water and makes the habitat better for trout…
Proving that wolves an essential part of the environment.
Jamie: Right. They really are a keystone species.
Jim: There was this huge population of coyotes in [Yellowstone], and now with wolves [in the mix], they’ve either pushed them on or killed them, so there’s about 50 percent gone, which has helped rodents—hares and rabbits and mice and such. [The return of] those animals has helped birds of prey. So owls and hawks are doing much better.
It’s horrible how much humans mess the ecosystem up.
Jamie: That’s all we’re good at.
Why are people so afraid of wolves? It seems like if you just leave them alone they leave you alone.
Jamie: They really do. And I think unfortunately it comes from a lot of misunderstanding and people living with wolves. For the longest time, people didn’t live with wolves, they lived with the myths of wolves—the stories that their granddaddy told them, and things were exaggerated. And then you have the perpetuation of the fairy tales—Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood. Even today—in Disney’s film Frozen, the wolves are the evil animals lurking in the woods ready to attack, and Liam Neeson in The Grey, being stalked by superwolves. So it’s Hollywood that just can’t let the myth die, it’s too much fun for them, and all it does is it gives wolves a bad rap.
You know, wolves are very curious of us, but they’re also very afraid of us. The curiosity is what allowed us to domesticate them into the dog. [And] this mutual [lifestyle], you know, we both lived in family groups, we hunted in packs, and a lot of scientists believe that early humans and Native Americans really learned how to hone their hunting skills by watching wolves.
By working as a team.
Jamie: Yeah. If you really wanted to delve deeper into it, humans and wolves lived very happily and cooperatively side by side until humans became more pastoral. We started domesticating other livestock and the wolf became the adversary. They became competition. And [in] religion, it was always the pastoral lamb and the evil devil-dog. That’s been carried over from Europe to the New World and it just dies hard. It’s easier for people to hate.
Jim: There aren’t even two cases where a wolf possibly killed a human being in North America in 100 years. And you just take 12 years and bears have killed 35 of us and cougars have killed nine, in North America.
Jamie: Not to mention how many dog attacks there are, and killings of people by people.
It is odd, because it’s such a “dog nation.” Dogs are so popular, it seems strange that people could transpose such evil onto essentially a wild dog.”
Jim: Especially when you see how loving they are with their pack members, and caring and compassionate.
It’s a huge undertaking, trying to educate the people about the wolf.
Jim: Kids get it. We spoke in Seattle to 12,000 people in three days. One presentation was to 2,500 students and teachers. And when Jamie mentioned what’s happening with the hunting and killing of wolves, the kids yelled, collectively: “No!” They were just startled. Couldn’t grasp it.
Jamie: They get it. They know wolves are special and they need to be wild, and it really is up to the younger generations to change the way that their parents are thinking.
And it seems to just be ignorance on the part of the parents.
Jamie: Yeah, it’s purely ignorance. If you really took the time to know the wolf, you’d find that it’s not a threat, it’s an animal to be revered. We feel differently about elephants in Africa, we’ve come to know them as caring, social, maternal family animals. The same with whales, dolphins, the great apes. And here we have an animal in North America that’s the same way, and it really deserves our respect. We’re so lucky to have it, and to have it make a comeback. To be killing it the way we do, it’s just nonsensical, the myth that wolves are bloodthirsty killers and they’re going to kill all the cattle and sheep.
Wolves will occasionally eat livestock, but the numbers are so small compared. [The same is true for elk], but hunters don’t want wolves eating “their” elk. Wolves are what keep the elks strong. They keep elk moving. One of the big complaints from hunters is, “Well, I’ve been going out to the same meadow every year getting my elk and they’re not there anymore, the wolves have eaten them all.” Well, of course the wolves haven’t eaten them all. Wolves and elk have been living together forever, and they don’t decimate their prey base. What they’ve done is to move the elk, so they keep the land healthy, and they keep the elk healthy by keeping them moving. So yeah, those elk may not be in that same meadow where they have been for 60 years, they’re in a new meadow, where they haven’t been before. And that’s the wolves’ purpose. To keep the elk moving, and unfortunately, that requires better hunting.
So it requires hunters to actually hunt, rather than shoot fish in a barrel, so to speak.
Jamie: Yeah. We know a lot of hunters [in Idaho] that are traditional bow hunters and they go out and track and they’ve said, “Hey, ya know, we love having the wolves, because we know if we can find the wolves, we can find the elk.”
I don’t understand hunting, unless they’re actually needing their kill for food. Why are people out there just shooting animals? It’s not for survive.
Jamie: That’s one of the unanswerable questions.
Have you gotten riled up people who are against the saving of the wolves?
Jamie: Oh yeah. But it’s better. We’ll do a presentation–and this has happened several times–and a guy will come up to us and say, “I’m a hunter and I’ve always wanted to kill a wolf, and I can’t do it now. I didn’t know they were family animals. I can’t do it.” And those are the guys who’ll go off and they’ll tell their friends. You know, really, what’s the purpose of killing an animal like that?
I’m not sure what the purpose of killing any animal is. Do you find that you have more ignorance about wolves in the cities or in the country, or is it pretty much universal in what people know about wolves, which is very little?
Jim: It’s mostly in the country that we have the most hatred. People in the West, they also hate the Federal government, which brought back the wolf, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife capturing them in Alberta, Canada, and reintroducing them. So they just hate that program.
Jamie: For people in the cities, I think sometimes they feel helpless, because the wolves are “out there.” [But] the gray wolf was brought back by the mandate of the ESA [Endangered Species Act], and it was brought back with federal tax dollars, it was brought back with all of our tax money and for the most part, the majority of wolves live on federal land, which belongs to all of us. So we all have a say in the future and wellbeing of this animal, it’s not just a “Western” issue. The states would like you to believe that, “Oh, these wolves in Idaho and Montana and Wyoming, don’t you worry about it, they’re ours, we’ll take care of it.” No, they’re living on our land, our federal land. We all have an obligation.
These states have such barbaric killing methods and hunting seasons for these animals that it’s really absurd.
Jim: In [some places in] Idaho you can hunt a wolf for 11 months. It used to be you could shoot one a year, and now you can shoot and trap 16. So they’re really trying to get rid of them. Actually the governor has put together a committee, I think a million-dollar project, to get rid of the wolf. After all effort by the Federal Government to bring them back.
Is Idaho one of the harshest anti-wolf states?
Jim: Oh, it’s probably the worst of the three. We have Wyoming and Montana, where wolves live also. There are a few in eastern Washington state and Oregon. But now there’s a proposal to de-list the wolf [from endangered species] in all the states where the wolf used to live, even places where they don’t live anymore. So the wolf is not welcome back.
Jamie: In Wyoming, actually, a judge put wolves back on the endangered species list because Wyoming laws were so bad, pretty much you can kill a wolf any time of the year, without a permit, in 86 percent of the state. I think basically that’s anywhere outside of [Yellowstone]. So if a wolf wanders anywhere outside of Yellowstone National Park, it has a huge bulls-eye on its back. It was just so heavy-handed that a judge took it upon herself to put the wolf back on the endangered species list. I think they are trying to appeal it…These states really want wolves gone….They want the lowest possible number of wolves….They’re incredibly social family animals, and when you kill them so randomly, and especially the alphas, you’re killing the knowledge. You’re leaving the pups and young adults that don’t have the proper tools to take care of themselves, and that’s when they get in trouble. So you’re really perpetuating a bigger problem. It’s like someone coming in and slaughtering the adults in your family and leaving the kids.
Also, wouldn’t killing off the wolves leave it open for another predator to come in?
Jamie: Well yes, the coyote fills that niche.
So it’s not like they can actually resolve what they see as a problem, anyway.
Jamie: It just creates a bigger problem.
How can people help the wolves?
Jamie: It’s important for people to make their voices heard, not only with their local governments, but with the federal government, with the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell. One thing that has happened in California is that California has decided on its own to put wolves back on the endangered species list.
Do we even have any wolves in California?
Jamie: You don’t, but you do have a visiting wolf. There’s this very famous wolf by the name of OR7.
Jim: For “Oregon.”
Jamie: And OR7 broke away from a pack in Idaho, and he made his way into Oregon and that’s where he got his name. He’s collared, and he’d travel unbelievable distances, back and forth from Oregon to California and back for three years. I think he was all by himself, obviously searching for a mate. Well, he settled on the California-Oregon border in Oregon, and he’s got a mate, and he’s got pups. So that’s a big, big deal. So it was a really courageous thing for California to do, a really correct and upstanding thing.
We have a lot of coyotes here in Santa Barbara, and I love to hear the coyotes at night, you can hear them all chattering. It’s one of my favorite sounds.
Jamie: But it’s amazing how many people hate coyotes.
People here don’t really complain, but Santa Barbara’s a funny town, it’s really animal and environmentally oriented. We have warnings—keep your cats inside, things like that.
Jamie: Yeah! If you just do the right thing, you don’t leave your pets outside, you don’t leave food out for coyotes you can live with them very easily.
A wolf howl would be just amazing to hear.
Jamie: Yeah, a wolf howling is just an awesome, awesome sound.
Jim and Jamie Dutcher will give a multimedia presentation Sunday, October 19, 3 p.m. at Campbell Hall as part of UCSB’s A&L National Geographic Live series. For more information and tickets, 893-3535.