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Book Review: The Hidden Life of Wolves

For six years, they shared a 25-acre enclosure at the base of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains with a pack of gray wolves. Their office was a Mongolian yurt; their sleeping quarters, a canvas tent. In the winter, the path to the outhouse required frequent shoveling to clear the snow away. This was the life of Jim and Jamie Dutcher, awardwinning documentary filmmakers. Their book, The Hidden Life of Wolves, is the culmination of this unique experience.

Although the book is oversized and contains hundreds of the Dutchers’ compelling photographs (as well as beautifully rendered maps and illustrations), it is not a skimmable coffee-table tome. An extensive study of wolves both inside and outside of the enclosure, it is comparable in depth to Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men.

The Hidden Life of Wolves details their social structure, hunting techniques and body language (among other things) as well as human-influenced issues, including the Yellowstone and central Idaho wolf reintroductions of the mid ’90s. The Dutchers explore similarities between the eradication of wolves in the 1800s and the current explosion of wolf hunting and trapping, which became legal when wolves were dropped from the Endangered Species List in 2011. Solutions to wolf problems, including livestock depredation, are discussed, and the “Little Red Riding Hood” myth is thoroughly debunked. The Dutchers also incorporate insights from a number of respected authorities, including Aldo Leopold, Gordon Haber, L. David Mech and Carter Niemeyer.

Acknowledging the vast disparity of opinion on Canis lupus, the Dutchers suggest that the wolf “may be the greatest shape-shifter in the animal kingdom.” Through intensive observation of their hand-raised pack, which they assembled from rescue centers in Montana and Minnesota, the Dutchers gained intimate knowledge of the inner workings of wolves. They came to the conclusion that their extremely social and complex subjects were “neither demon, nor deity, nor data.”

Readers come to know the Sawtooth wolves. Kamots, the benevolent leader, maintains order without undue force. Littermate Lakota is larger than Kamots, yet remains at the bottom of the pecking order, often harassed by the others; younger brother Matsi comes to his rescue, blocking blows from the aggressors. Clever Wyakin, a small female, loves to snatch extra food and cache it for later.

These individuals and other members of the pack are brought to life as they interact with one another and with the Dutchers, who record them with cameras and sound devices. Though their hearts are never quite out of the picture, the couple observes at a distance that allows for an objective view.

With a foreword by Robert Redford, The Hidden Life of Wolves is a richly layered work that speaks to the complicated and controversial place wolves occupy in the human imagination. While some consider them embodiments of a litany of evils, the Dutchers maintain that “more than wolves themselves, it is our relationship with them that needs to be managed.” Their aptly titled book provides a valuable roadmap to guide us through this process.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 76: Winter 2013

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