Ernest and Lobo the wolf

It was more than 100 years ago that Ernest Thompson Seton wrote a tale named “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” the story of the sovereignty of the wolves. He related how Lobo avoided every killing device of man—traps, poisons, and guns—for five unbelievable years. Seton then described how the legendary gray wolf was brought down, heart-broken and with the fight gone out of him because of the capture of his beloved mate Bianca. It was Seton himself who finally trapped Lobo, and he realized that even though helpless in the trap, the wolf was the true victor. Seton, perhaps reflecting the empathy of all dauntless men for the courage of the vanquished, could not kill him. Lobo, refusing compassion, died with his eyes not on the man who had finally brought him down but on the New Mexico wilderness that had been his home range. Seton’s story established Lobo as a symbol for his species and instigated awareness on the part of many that the wolf might be hounded to extinction. Today, though the wolf is still both hated and valued by various segments of society, its numbers have been stabilized in several northern states, including Alaska, and in Canada. Recent sightings of wolves in northern Illinois, including Winnebago County, and the recent remarkable recording of one in Indiana that had somehow made its way across Illinois from Wisconsin, indicates that wolves are reverting to a long-inherited instinct to range far and wide. Wolves, of course, were a vital part of the fauna of North America when the first settlers arrived, performing admirably in their role in the predator-prey relationship within the complex web of life. But, as civilization increasingly intruded on the wilderness, and the food chain was disrupted by the killing of large numbers of deer, elk, moose, bison and other prey animals, wolves had to look elsewhere for their food supply. Naturally, they turned to the sheep, cattle, and other livestock the invaders of their homeland had brought with them. Every weapon imaginable was employed to kill any and all wolves, including in more recent times the use of sharpshooters from aircraft and the use of the deadly poison sodium monofluroacetate (1080). In spite of all the forces brought against them, the wolves managed to survive in small numbers in isolated areas of the lower 48, Alaska, and the wilderness areas of Canada. Though hunted and hated, the favorite object of man’s wrath, the wolf never surrendered. He trotted deftly around the traps; sniffed contemptuously at poisoned food, stayed out the range of high-powered rifles, and in the predawn stillness rendered his defiant howl, indicating his indifference to the presumed superiority of man. The wolf’s “cousin,” the coyote, was persecuted in the same way for the same reasons. But, though it has also been relentlessly victimized, man’s hatred for the coyote has not been as great as it has for the wolf. The coyote requires considerably less food, and in the past 50 years its numbers have dramatically increased throughout its range. This cunning canine has become so adapted to civilization that it is frequently observed in close association with man in his towns and cities. Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) arguably did more in his lifetime than anyone else to promote the idea that nature was a very good thing. He was born in England but migrated as a young boy with his parents to Canada, moving later to the United States. He was a self-trained biologist, superb wildlife illustrator, writer, and he played a major part in bringing the Boy Scouts organization to this country. His notable stories on the many facets of natural history were widely read and brought him kudos from such prominent men as Theodore Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain. Seton developed an almost mystical reverence for wolves and Indians as he believed them to be the most clever and noble of all creatures. He dubbed himself “Black Wolf” and believed Native Americans were the best of the human race because they were more attuned to and respectful of the natural world. It is largely because of the efforts of Ernest Thompson Seton, and other early wildlife biologists, such as Drs. Olaus J. Murie and Clarence Cottam, that the descendents of Lobo live today. I can still remember the eerie feeling I had sitting around a campfire one night in central Alaska when, suddenly, the head of a wolf appeared at the perimeter of firelight. One of my companions quickly chambered a cartridge into the breech of an army carbine.The wolf just shook his head, uttered an insolent growl, turned, and slowly retreated into the forest. I will always think of that condescending snarl as “The Call of the Wild.” Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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