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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Living With Wolves--Fact and Fiction

The fiction is Lone Wolf  by Jodi Picoult which led me to the memoir of Shaun Ellis, The Man Who Lives With Wolves.

Here is what I had to say about Lone Wolf  on Goodreads:

                                     2012 Golden Mask Award for Most Viewed Book Review           

 The wolf researcher, Luke Warren, is an interesting character though not completely sympathetic. The character I liked most was his son, Edward. I also consider him the most pivotal character. All the other characters react to what Edward has decided or done.

I gave some thought to the meaning of the title in the context of the novel. Many humans think that a lone wolf is one that prefers to be alone. Yet wolves are a social species. A lone wolf wants to be a member of a pack. As shown in this book, humans aren't very different from wolves. Humans do tend to seek out membership in a pack.

Though Luke Warren's accounts of wolf behavior are scattered throughout the novel, the main focus is on the behavior of the  very human Warren family pack. I liked the ambivalent ending which is both saddening and hopeful.


After reading The Man Who Lives With Wolves it seemed to me that Jodi Picoult read this memoir, imagined the perspective of  Shaun Ellis' family, and chose to construct a novel focusing on that aspect.  It would be possible to write other very different novels focusing centrally on a more sympathetic version of a wolf researcher like Shaun Ellis, or perhaps a novel from the perspective of the wolves that chose a human wolf researcher as a pack member.  Shaun Ellis is intriguing enough to be the subject of any number of books.

This is definitely the best book I've ever read on wolves.  It's an example of how truth can outshine fiction.   I can understand why Jodi Picoult focused on a fictional version of the family of a Shaun Ellis type of researcher.  Yet the main theme of her book is fairly universal.  It could have dealt with the family of any man who prioritizes work over family.  Shaun Ellis's work is unique.  He wants to make a difference for wolves, the relationship between humans and wolves, and for the environment where all the species on this planet live.  Yes, he may have deceived himself about his ability to balance human family life with his all-consuming career, but many others have been failures in this area.  It doesn't make him a bad human being--only a flawed one. 

Shaun Ellis is not a scientist.  He has no advanced degrees.  What he does have is the gift of animal empathy.  He has a particular attachment to wolves and their evolutionary descendants, the dogs.  I have read statements by biologists that dogs are radically different from wolves.  Shaun Ellis is quite certain that dogs and wolves have a great deal in common.  Since wolves and dogs can interbreed, they can't be two entirely separate species. His advice about understanding dogs in terms of specific wolf pack roles has the potential to revolutionize the way we look at dogs. It is obvious that wolves and dogs are completely different in their social orientation.  Wolves are oriented toward other wolves.  Dogs seem to be primarily oriented toward humans.  They lack the drive toward the self-sufficiency of a wolf pack.  Certainly, that's the result of enculturation.   Thousands of years of domestication  has bred this wolf sub-species that looks to us rather than their own kind. 

I appreciate that Shaun Ellis wants to help the Nez Perce who assisted him in gaining his initial experience with wolves.  It's laudable that he wants to pay them back, and that he feels a kinship to Nez Perce wolf advocate Levi Holt.

  Here's a wonderful article from the World Wildlife Federation website about what the Nez Perce have been doing to preserve wolves.

Nez Perce Re-Introduce Wolves in Idaho



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