Michiana Chronicles: Howling Back - A Lesson in Empathy
I imagine I’m not the only person to puzzle over how to wrap up another pandemic year and unpack a new one. I’m not alone in wondering how to string together the beads of loss, hardship, gratitude, pleasure, and joy and how to prepare for what has yet to arise both in our family circles and our communities, locally and internationally. To solve this puzzle, I personally needed to do something new that would release this year’s residual frustration and anger while generating a sense of community and joy. Naturally, I opted for howling with a pack of wolves – real ones – right here in Indiana. Not your typical solution, I realize, but doesn’t the idea of howling as a group with wolves, other human adults and children under a full moon strike you as teeming with potential to tie together the memory-filled yarn of 2021 with the unpalpable thread of 2022?
What I received from howling with wolves beyond the feeling of release, the sense of
community, and joy was a lesson in empathy from playful four-year old wolves and a pack of
humans dedicated to advocating for their fellow non-humans by learning their language and
Wolf Park, located in Battle Ground, Indiana, in the greater Lafayette area, is “a not-for-profit organization dedicated to behavioral research, education and conservation, with the objective of improving the public’s understanding of wolves and the value they provide to our environment.”
The wolves who live in the park’s seven-acre main enclosure are the highly energetic Timber –
often separated from the pack –, her 2017 pups, Máni, Aspen, and Sparrow, and two additional
gray wolves coming from Mountain Wolf, Niko and his sister Khewa. They are semi-wild
wolves used to engaging with the park’s staff from an early age. As a result, the visitors stand
inches away from the wolves behind a meshed metal enclosure to witness the wolves at play,
chewing on each other’s faces, and confront their own misconceptions about these highly social
animals who live and hunt together.
Like many visitors, I came to the park holding more than my share of misunderstandings about our fellow wolves. The first one was that reintroducing wolves into the wild was an ecologically wise initiative, but a potentially dangerous proposition for the wolves’ human neighbors. It turns out, wild wolves are neophobic: they are afraid of what is unfamiliar to their natural environment, including humans and their cattle which they will not approach unless their environment is severely compromised. My second misconception was that gray wolves were an endangered species. This is a highly controversial issue. Wolves were removed from the Endangered Species list by the Trump administration in October 2020. Since then, states like Idaho passed the Idaho Senate Bill 1211 Stance that enables the killing of 90% of the wolf population in that state. The Biden administration has not supported re-listing the wolves to the Endangered Species Act which would provide wolves with federal protection. One of the issues here is that deprived of their slaughtered elders, the famished young wolves who are not taught how to hunt by older wolves may have to override their fear of the unfamiliar and find easier preys where humans live. Are we, as humans, selectively neophobic – of the wolves among others – when the fear of the unfamiliar tend to serve us?
Lastly, I thought that wolves howled at the moon, more specifically a deliciously round full moon. This is not so. The moon cycle does not influence the wolves in that way. Instead, wolves howl more often than not at dusk and dawn because they are nocturnal animals. They howl to communicate in different contexts, and each howl is unique to the wolf that sends its call across vast distances. They howl in chorus to communicate their location to call back pack members separated from the group and to claim their territory. They solo howl to each other to express positive emotions or while looking for a mate. They occasionally answer to sirens and train whistle. But here we were, a group of enthusiastic, shivering humans bundled up in colorful blankets featuring Olaf from Disney’s Frozen lined up in neat-ish rows under a full moon, howling messily to the wolves who were listening intently to us and staring somewhat incredulously a few feet away from our frosty bleachers. The irony of the situation was palpable. Why were we inarticulately communicating our location in the face of our interlocutors when we were just right there next to them? We could not possibly be looking for a mate, pitiful-looking as we were, or claiming territory. Humans don’t do that. We howled twice for a few minutes until finally a female wolf graced us with an answer, despite the cacophony. She howled back, standing tall, letting us know that we were, for a moment, honorary members of her wolf pack despite our inarticulateness.
From my pack to yours, Happy New Year listeners! May 2022 be a year of empathy and
community across differences and divides.
Many thanks to my two howling companions, Aaron and Nina, and to Shayna Breslin for
introducing us to Wolf Park.
Music: Audio taken at Wolf park. Anywhere during the human howls but featuring the wolf’s howl.