BOOKS: The Man Who Lives with Wolves

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2010:

The Man Who Lives with Wolves
by Shaun Ellis with Penny Junor
Random House (1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019), 2009.
288 pages, hardcover or e-book. $24.99.

Living among wolves, not bathing for years and eating out of
a carcass, is Shaun Ellis at best guilty of bad taste, or is he
just extraordinarily dedicated to his work?
Ellis bonded with animals as a child in the English
countryside. His companions were frogs, ducks, and dogs. His love
for animals collided with fox hunting.
“Many were the times I came across a den where the vixen had
gone to ground and the huntsmen had dug her out and gassed and killed
the kits,” says Ellis. That they killed for sport, not for
survival, upset him.

“No one would listen to me when I tried to protest that
foxhunting was cruel,” Ellis remembers. Foxhunting was officially
banned in the United Kingdom about 30 years later, but is still
practiced through various loopholes in the law.
Ellis dropped out of school at age 16. He worked at a few
petty jobs, then joined the military, serving in Northern Ireland
and Cyprus. After discharge, he landed a job at the privately owned
Dartmoor Wildlife Park, which keeps captive wolves. His obsession
with wolves began.
“I found myself looking forward to the end of each day when I
could go and be with them again,” Ellis recalls. The more time he
spent with the wolves, the more he learned about their behavior.
Alphas are the decision makers and the leaders of a wolf pack, but
the social structure of wolf packs otherwise varies. The member
wolves each have different jobs.
Ellis broadened his experience on several trips to the Wolf
Education & Research Center in Idaho, directed by Nez Perce tribe
member Levi Holt. The center was involved in the Yellowstone wolf
reintroduction. By day Ellis worked at the center. At night he
patroled the woods studying wolves. Then he began living in the wild
among wolves, much as Never Cry Wolf author Farley Mowat did in
1948-1949, seventeen years before Ellis was born.
“Above all things, I wanted to be like a wolf,” Ellis says.
That included eating raw meat like wolves. He lived completely apart
from civilization. “I hadn’t changed my clothes in months or done
more than splash water from the river now and again over my face, my
crotch, and under my arms. My hair was uncombed and my beard
unshaven,” he recounts.
Ellis returned to normal living, at least temporarily,
during breeding season. For months he had been accepted as part of
the pack, but he wondered if the wolves would finally recognize that
he was not one of them.
Ellis entered a relationship with a woman named Jan, who had
three children from a previous relationship. Together they had four
more children. For a while, Ellis worked in a dog kennel while Jan
immersed herself in wolves.
Word traveled about Ellis’ work. The BBC broadcast an
interview. So did National Geographic. A movie was made about
Ellis, called Living With Wolves. Ellis became known as the Wolfman.
Frequent trips to Idaho, forays to live among wolves,
demands by the press, and a decision to raise wolves took a toll on
his marriage. “My preoccupation with wolves and building a home for
them hadn’t helped my relationship with Jan,” Ellis admits.
The Man Who Lives with Wolves is a peculiar story. On the
one hand, Ellis digs deeply into the lives of wolves, an often
misunderstood creature who has been both maligned and inappropriately
romanticized. On the other, Shaun Ellis goes well beyond the
experimental eccentricities that Farley Mowat acknowledged in Never
Cry Wolf, published in 1963.
Sacrificing family, regular meals, hygiene and sanitation
to follow a passion can be ascribed to scientific dedication, but
could also be ascribed to derangement. Not bathing for months is
What about keeping and breeding wolves in captivity? Among
the lessons learned from the red wolf reintroduction in the Great
Smokies, the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction in the Southwest, and
the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction is that captive-bred wolves tend
to fare badly in the wild. The successful Yellowstone releases
were of wild wolves recently captured in Canada. Reputable wildlife
centers rehabilitate injured wolves, and when possible, release
them. Only when a wolf is so severely injured or habituated to human
contact as to be unsuitable for release is the wolf kept in captivity.
Does living with wolves and understanding their behavior
ethically entitle Ellis to keep wolves indefinitely and perhaps for
all of their lives in a captive environment?
Readers of The Man Who Lives with Wolves will find Ellis
either a fascinating person who truly follows his dreams, or feral
and outrageous. –Debra J. White

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