By Josh Magill
Their eyes are dark, sometimes yellow-tinted, or even a dark orange that some mistake as the color of blood. Those eyes are mysterious and chilling, yet we are drawn to them like a trance and we can’t break free.
Patricia Wagner recently came face-to-face with such eyes. The haunting eyes of … a wolf.
“I was a little unnerved by his eyes, not like a dog’s eyes,” says Wagner, an equine farrier in western Washington. “He had definite pupils, like … well, like a person. He was looking not just at me, but straight into my eyes, like he was about to have a conversation with me. He was gorgeous.”
Wagner was pulling up to a home of a client to trim the hooves of their horse when she saw the bushy coat of the wolf. He was dark, almost black colored. His eyes were light gold with black pupils. Wagner only left her vehicle after the horse owner, who had dubbed the wolf “Nicky,” assured her it was safe.
“I had enough respect for him not to reach out and try touching him,” says Wagner. “I just let him sniff every inch of my stuff – my apron, tools, everything – before I approached the gate to get to the horse.”
The horse owner explained that “Nicky” comes every evening to remind him when it is time to feed the 31 year-old horse that has outlived his pasture mates and is now alone.
Is there a friendship between the horse and wolf? Is the wolf protective of the horse? Both are questions that neither Wagner nor anyone else will ever be able to answer.
Variations and different species of the wolf roam all over the United States, but especially in the highly wooded and mountainous regions of the west and north. Their intelligence has never been fully assessed, but it is commonly accepted that they have the ability to remember and learn. We have tried to cross-breed them, yet, they are still considered wild and difficult to train, unlike a domesticated dog. Wolves travel and hunt in packs – or families – that make them somewhat similar to humans. It is often thought they are simply hunters, but their eyes seem to tell more.
We use them in mythological stories to illustrate both good and evil.
Remember the story of Little Red Riding Hood? She noticed the eyes, saying, ‘What big eyes you have,’ thinking she was speaking to her grandmother. Depending on the version of the folktale you read, she and her grandmother were swallowed whole by “the big bad wolf.” The tale suggests the differences between the safe world of the village and the dangers of the forest, and it is still told to some young children to instill them with an awareness of the perils outside the home.
Then there is the tale of Romulus and Remus – twin brothers abandoned by their uncle next to a river to die. The uncle was an evil ruler that had seized the power of their kingdom. The brothers were saved by a she-wolf who suckled and cared for them before they were found by a shepherd and his wife to be raised. After growing up to defeat their uncle, the myth says the brothers founded a city they named after Romulus. The myth captures the ideas the city – Rome, Italy – has of itself. Having been a teenager in the southern town of Rome, GA, where a statue of Romulus and Remus stands in front of city hall, I learned of this fable as a young man. I was strangely riveted by how a wolf could nurture a human child.
Wolves are also highly touted in the mythology of most Native American tribes, including many in the Pacific Northwest. The Quileute people of western Washington proclaim in ancient stories that the first-ever person of their tribe was transformed from a wolf. This tribe is most prominently fictionalized in the Twilight series as shape-shifters, capable of changing into wolves to fight vampires. Even the Shoshone tribe, like the famous Sacagawea that helped Lewis and Clark explore the western United States, see the wolf as a noble creator god.
Our fascination with these great animals has not ended with ancient fairytales and folklore. An upcoming novel by author and professor, Benjamin Percy, titled Red Moon, continues the practice and will bring the enchantment and fear of wolves back into our lives. Red Moon is due to be released in May of 2013 and it explores the mythic connections between humans and animals in a new twist on werewolves, namely, creatures who are half-man and half-wolf.
Percy told the Iowa State Daily that Red Moon is about an infectious disease that affects five percent of the world’s population. He explained that the illness in the novel is a chronic wasting disorder transmitted by an infectious agent called a prion. It originated in 17th century Scandinavia and was first contracted by people who ate infected wolves.
“Part of the winter solstice ceremony is to take in, to consume wolf meat, to take in their power and cunning for the long, dark, cold winter ahead,” Percy said. “During the ceremony, the disease is taken in by humans. It mutates.”
Percy further explained the disease in his thriller causes increased levels of rage and hunger in its victims. To protect the rest of the world’s population, the infected people are monitored and given medication.
As a former college student of Percy, I’m looking forward to Red Moon, his third published book, to see how he transforms our terrors and interest for wolves into a story.
A somewhat rugged, yet polished-looking fellow with long sideburns and usually wearing boots and jeans, Percy says he has always been interested in horror, and ironically it was a wolf he remembers.
“One of my earliest memories is pulling off the library shelf The Universal Book of Monsters and seeing Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman staring back at me, and being completely horrified and fascinated by the sight of him,” Percy said. ”So, this has been a long time coming.”
But what happens when the wolf truly invades the realm of humans?
In the past, wolves have been exterminated with fervor amid outcries from preservationists. Gray wolves were eliminated as a breeding species in Washington by the 1930s, but they have since migrated back to the state from Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia. They are listed as endangered throughout Washington under state law and the western two-thirds of the state under federal law.
In the past few months there has been outrage regarding the killing of the “Wedge Pack,” a so-called group of wolves that lived and hunted in a triangle – or wedge – of Forest Service land between the Columbia and Kettle Rivers. Washington State Fish and Wildlife officials made the decision in late September to remove the pack by shooting them, including the alpha or leader of the pack, which they had originally hoped to keep. But experts say once a pack becomes dependent on livestock for food it is nearly impossible to force them to change that habit.
“Once wolves become habituated to livestock as their primary food source, all of the wolf experts we’ve talked to agree that we have no alternative but to remove the entire pack,” Fish & Wildlife Director Phil Anderson told King 5 News in September. “By doing that, we will preserve the opportunity for the recovery of gray wolves in balance with viable livestock operations.”
It is a clash, such as the one between the “Wedge Pack,” cattle ranchers, and officials that builds the metaphor of the werewolf. The two – humans and wolves – do not mix well. It is the conflict inside ourselves, between the refined and wild, the calm and the angry identities that we share with the world that both frighten and entice. This struggle continues and will always remain because so many questions about humans and wolves endure.
NOTE: Percy has kindly committed to an interview with me early next year prior to release of his novel, Red Moon. I will bring that interview to you, the readers. Should you be interested to learn more about Percy, visit his official website at www.benjaminpercy.com.
© 2012 Josh Magill