This is a short story about me and my wolf (Lupey) with whom I lived for most of the years of his life. We lived together in England, New York, Oregon and Nova Scotia. He was the joy of my life. My essay is about trust, human understanding when we try to cross species, and the limits of this understanding.
Mutual trust was at the heart of our connection. It began early, on that very first day when I allowed Lupey to come up onto my bed. His small snout shoved under the pillow, and he slept. The next day he followed me both inside our rented house and in the back garden. He would run as fast as he could with those then stubbly legs between me and one of my housemates, responding to our alternating calls. Soon Lupey and I took walks together, attached to one another by a small string around his muscular neck. That took a while. At first he pulled, then growled. But soon he would willingly place his head into the string’s noose, realizing in some wolf way that we were about to share another adventure. To the garden, then to the animal behavior lab a short drive away, then back into my van, arriving home for a snack. It was special.
Words like trust and heart in this context are difficult to define precisely. It was a willingness to respond to each other’s ways, as strange as they might first seem as we crossed our individual species differences. It was a confidence that no matter what, we had developed a bond. Many had questioned whether this would be possible. Whatever doubts I had I tried to block from my mind. Whatever doubts Lupey may have had, if any, I will never know. We became partners in a life long adventure together.
By any reasonable measures wolves are highly intelligent animals, including their ability to connect with one another in deep social bonds. Their hunting skills have long fascinated those who have observed them, each animal serving as an important component of the overall pack in pursuit of prey. Wolves also spend many hours in play and mutual care. Lupey exhibited his own social skills and willingness to form a bond with this foreign species, me.
Again we have to be careful of words like intelligence. Each animal has its own skills and limitations. But Lupey exhibited many traits that we would call intelligent if human. He had other skills that gave him a certain genius that I will never attain.
I felt that Lupey could read my gestures as documented by his responses to them. I also felt I could read his gestures. Here “reading” is something that is difficult to put into concrete words, but mutual responsiveness cannot be questioned. Within this conversation trust builds, bonds strengthen. In some deep but difficult to define sense I felt Lupey and I understood each other. Understanding is one of the obvious roots of trust.
It was not so much the words I used, but Lupey’s attention to my tone of voice and my gestures. He would peer into my face with those intensely staring eyes, as if to pick up what I suspect were often subtle cues and clues. Then he would calmly turn away and go about his business. That was his streak of independence, always tempered by sensitivity to the social relationship we had established. That was trust.
As time went on Lupey became ever more adept at anticipating my actions. I am not certain what cues I gave at times, perhaps just a change in mannerisms that I was not myself aware of. These perhaps sound as remarkable events, but then we must always remember the subtleties by which wolves can read other pack members. Lupey and I had a small nuclear pack of two. It worked.
As I mention elsewhere I believe wolves also have a strong sensitivity to what in human terms we might call betrayal, an act which goes against previously established foundations. There was the man who hit Lupey once with a shovel many years later who could never safely be with the wolf again. In contrast during Lupey’s second year he developed a nasty infection on his left hip from spring hair that had somehow caused blisters as he tried to shed it for the warming days. Here my landlady and I together held Lupey and placed potassium permanganate, a smelly purple oxidizing disinfectant, on the sore. Lupey winced, but never growled. I felt, with no clear evidence that he somehow knew we were trying to help.
Here I enter the limits to what I will ever know. What did Lupey really feel or think in his wolf mind during these times. I could only respond to what he did or did not do. But I trust we had a special connection, one that grew stronger over the years. I leave it to the reader to fill in the blanks, because blanks there are. We remain trapped in human minds and can only reach out indirectly to what may be the minds of other creatures. But the fact that Lupey and I formed a life-long bond is beyond question. I feel very honored by this fact.
When I use the word “heart” in the book ‘Lupey Journals: Lessons From The Heart Of A Wolf’, I simply mean to move beyond the rational parts of our minds. We touch animals in emotional ways. They touch us in their own ways, ways that do not involve what we think of as reasoned calculations. Sometimes we use the phrase “intuitive connections” to reflect these ways. Intuitive connections, by definition, do not have easily defined objective roots.
The issues here touch upon themes of animal consciousness. We can measure what animals do, how they do it and when. Then we are left with inferences that cross species lines. It is a fact that through evolutionary roots we share much of our basic neural circuitry with other species, what Darwin emphasized with the phrase “continuity of species”. It is also true and widely recognized since Darwin’s time (and before) that even though we share core roots, the branches of evolution take special paths that are unique for every animal form on earth. So here is the comparative challenge: when do we emphasize similarities and when do we emphasize differences? When in the realm of unseen inferences, we often do not even know what to look for in any comprehensive way.
Wolves and our dogs of course share ancestral roots, and dogs connect with us in deep ways. We get an intuitive sense of what they are up to, and I suspect the same can be said for their awareness of us. We communicate well together, in often-subtle ways. But at the end we are left with many unknowns how this works. I can say with confidence that Lupey and I connected in obvious and not so obvious ways. That mystery, how we did this, remains one of the deep joys in my life. I am grateful to him for helping me appreciate and explore these things – even though final (full) answers may never be available. Lupey was a wolf. I am a man. We joined in our separate ways. And what a joy that was.
At some level I should perhaps temper my use of the term “trust” in my relationship with Lupey. He was, after all, a direct descendent of other gray wolves. Several individuals had expressed their doubts to me that I was entering into safe, even sane, territory. And yes, I did stay vigilant in our early days together, checking for signs that might mean that our relationship would fail. After a period of time my checking was done without conscious effort, rather like the way I might hit my hip pocket to be certain I have my wallet, or noticing a clock only when it stops ticking.
Clearly trust is a fundamentally subjective term and that fact hits upon how my life with Lupey contained so much more than easily documented observations. With time I moved from trust for this animal to a deep affection. I will never fully know what Lupey felt, but am happy with the image that our affections were mutual – different in kind and degree perhaps, but mutual. The joyful mystery is that I shall never fully know.
Words that refer to subjective states are rarely if ever satisfactory. Nor do the same words mean the same things to all who use them as they reflect upon our individual internal states. But as humans we use language to communicate, and must live with the limitations this entails, especially in the subjective realm. While we clearly do not know the detailed subjective states of animals, for we are not they, it is critical to recognize that they too may have rich inner lives. This is especially obvious with our fellow social mammals, a category firmly held by our wolf brethren. At the very least, trust – along with concepts such as intelligence – are not uni-dimensional entities, and surely are both shared and distinctive across species, even individual, lives. There is more to lives than its rational veneer.
There are many deep tangles in these explorations. When I ventured from ethology into the behavioral neurosciences I became fascinated by the details through which our brains and those of other creatures operate. These are great advances, as are the advances in evolutionary theory, development, cognitive psychology – and so many more. Yet we are left with deeper human questions such as who are we and how do we connect with others that are both so similar and so different from us. There are no final answers here. Lupey did not give me final answers. But he helped me explore. I will always thank him for this. Thank you Lupey.
All Photos © John Fentress – All Rights Reserved
Guest Author Bio
I began my academic studies in psychology, with a minor in the biological sciences. From an early age I sought to explore the roots both of human existence and our relationships to nature. I had the amazing good fortune to live life with a special wolf when I pursued my PhD studies at Cambridge UK. The field is called “ethology”, the comparative and biological study of behavior. In addition to my scientific studies, which have moved into the neurosciences, I have long had deep philosophical interests concerning questions such as what we as humans are all about, and how we connect with the universe more generally.
Blog / Website: Lupey Wolf