BOOKS: Wolves At Our Door
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2002:
Wolves At Our Door
by Jim & Jamie Dutcher , with James Manful
Pocket Books (c/o Simon & Schuster, 1230 Ave. of the Americas,
New York, NY 10020), 2002. 302 pages, hardcover. $26.00.
Emmy Award-winning documentary film maker Jim Dutcher began
writing Wolves At Our Door as an intended “behind-the-scenes look at
the making of a wildlife documentary,” also called Wolves at Our
Door, which he produced for the Discovery Channel. But just making
the documentary took much longer than was originally planned. The
Dutchers ended up spending six years on site, because making the
film itself, complicated as that was, turned out to be less
problematic than ethically placing the wolves that they raised in
captivity–albeit very spacious captivity–in order to do the filming.
Jim Dutcher eventually had to found the Wolf Education and
Research Center, a nonprofit organization separate from his
for-profit film company, and set up his own wolf sanctuary. He did
not want to become a fulltime sanctuarian, however, and as he
delegated duties to the board of directors, WERC slipped beyond his
Some of the people WERC brought aboard, meanwhile, were
more interested in wolf advocacy than in the hands-on side of the
job. As the time frame coincided with the long preliminaries to the
1996 reintroduction of wolves to nearby Yellowstone National Park,
and the controversial aftermath, there was much opportunity for
everyone involved to engage in politicized infighting–as occurred.
A separate complicating factor was the mid-project arrival of
former National Zoo staffer Jamie Dutcher. Not initially involved at
all, she became Dutcher’s wife, and may have ended up spending more
time with the wolves than any other project participant.
The book Wolves At Our Door ends up going far beyond the
scope of the film, also telling the stories of Jim and Jamie
Dutcher, and their side of what happened to WERC.
The latter, albeit seemingly much understated, is the part
of the book containing the most important messages for animal
advocates and rescuers.
The Dutchers learned the hard way why legitimate sanctuaries
take a dim view of anyone breeding animals, especially large
carnivores with expansive and costly habitat needs: there literally
are no fit-and-ready places for them to go.
The Dutchers also learned the hard way that funding and
staffing sanctuaries is even more difficult than raising the capital
and hiring the staff needed to make a film. The competition for
sanctuary funding is every bit as keen as the competition in the
wildlife film making industry, with far less money available
relative to the number of projects already started.
The Dutchers finally learned why no rational founder of an
animal-related nonprofit organization should ever allow control of
the board to pass to anyone else, no matter what some of the leading
organizations monitoring nonprofit accountability say. In all other
branches of charity, the intended beneficiaries have a voice, for
example as students and faculty of a school, hospital patients and
staff, or members of a church. In animal care and advocacy, the
beneficiaries cannot speak for themselves, and charities are
correspondingly easily hijacked when the founders’ voices and vision
no longer firmly guide the board.
Unfortunately, the Dutchers lacked sufficient overview of
the animal-related nonprofit field to use their own experience to
illustrate the trends that the whole field needs to be aware of.
They did not mean to write a cautionary treatise on
sanctuary-and-animal-advocacy group management, or to use themselves
as Exhibit A of common failings. Neither do they seem to have
realized the potential value of their experience as a warning to
other people who are taking on animal-related projects with the idea
that the sanctuary community can eventually bail them out of any
jams–or to those who have the erroneous notion that they themselves
can set up, fund, and run a sanctuary with less than fulltime