Yet Another Journal

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» Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Howl From the Past
I recorded Nature last night; it was an offering called "The Wolf That Changed America." The story was a familiar one which I had read years ago, in a Whitman edition of Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton, but the special set it into a context I had not known.

Seton was born in Canada and grew up considering wolves as vermin, as most people in the 1800s did. In 1893, he traveled to New Mexico to try to claim the amazing bounty of $1000 for a super-intelligent wolf the ranchers called Lobo, who led a pack that was decimating the growing herds of cattle and flocks of sheep increasing in the countryside as the wilderness became domesticated. Seton considered himself a wolf expert (he'd written what was considered the manual of wolf eradication) and was astonished when Lobo outsmarted him again and again.

Then Lobo found a mate, a white wolf called Blanca. Seton cleverly trapped Blanca and then used her as bait to catch Lobo, who missed her so much he became careless. Seton found Lobo next morning, the wolf who had evaded traps, poison bait, and all sorts of pursuit, caught with a trap on each leg.

But Seton found he couldn't kill Lobo and brought him back a captive to his camp, where the wolf died, "of a broken heart" as Seton stated. From then on his attitude toward wolves changed: he never killed another and championed the cause of all wildlife, national parks, and the visiting of nature (and leaving it as it was!—he was one of the founders of the Boy Scouts).

I always found the story of Lobo powerful and sad. Even as a child I understood the ranchers' impulse to protect their livestock, but wondered if the extermination was necessary. Discovering that the story had been a turning point, not only for Seton, but for all naturalists, brought the tragic tale I read when I was nine or ten to a better ending.

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