Wolves are incredibly intense, passionate creatures. Their loyalty to one another is phenomenal. Wolf packs are family, when one member of the pack is killed, all members mourn the loss. This is an exquisite slow motion video of Earthfire’s resident wolves, Wamaka, Midnight, and Echo running. Kemenche music was performed and recorded by Cal Arts resident Saba Alizadeh. The video was filmed by Brain Farms Cinema.
“You can go in,” Jean said. I was kneeling outside the male wolf pup’s enclosure, sketching him onto a postcard for my friend. I stammered, “Wha…really?” and jumped up, immeasurably excited by the chance for some alone time with the pup.
At three months old, this little Tundra wolf has already been through too much. Though seemingly born healthy, he broke his leg a month or so ago and has experienced complications since. At the time of writing, his lower back and hind legs (the source of greatest power in a healthy wolf) are paralyzed. Because of this, his physical development has been stymied and he is now noticeably smaller and frailer than his sister who once deferred to him.
Sitting in the enclosure, I was able to observe the boy’s interactions with his sister. Though the two can no longer share a space (her increasing strength repeatedly albeit accidentally overtakes his own), the boy eventually dragged himself over to the divider between them to press his nose against it while whimpering quietly. He did and does this many times throughout the day and the active little girl interrupts anything she’s doing to faithfully trot over to him and rub herself against the divider, licking his nose and snout. As much as the boy can manage, the two of them play though the gate with paws swatting, tails wagging, and a heartwarming amount of happy panting, yips, and whistles.
Prior to this interaction, I’d only ever been with the pups one at a time and in very different circumstances. The girl pup is physically active and lively, with all the powerful physical attributions appropriate to her developmental stage. Out in the garden, she was a little imp trying to tear out the hoses, discovering the ponds, and scampering around with adult wolves. She ran up to each of the artists in residence (Jamora, Saba and myself) to smile and greet, in between gamboling around the place. Amid the birdsong and sunshine, her vitality was impossible to miss.
The first time we met her brother was in a chiropractor’s office. Our initial interaction with him was on the other side of a screen, snapping photos and shooting video. Though a welcoming environment, it’s the furthest place imaginable from a lush garden and there was precious little in similarity to his sister’s everyday reality. In place of birdsong and sunshine were conversations full of technical medical terminology and office noises under weak fluorescents. All the pup’s vitality and childhood curiosity was confined to his eyes; his body was unable to share in that energy.
As a result of these disparities, their kinship was always a somewhat abstract concept for me. The colossal visible differences between them always classified the girl as “healthy” and the boy as “sickly” though in reality they are nothing more than siblings with a love for each other and desire for the other’s company.
With an older sister of my own, this display of interspecies sibling affection has been a very potent experience for me. Since the first instance, I have visited with the two several more times and find each occasion to be incredibly special and life-changing. Just as my sister and I don’t goof off or act like our insane selves around strangers, neither did the pups. Only when I had sat with the two of them for some time did they break down that barrier and engage and it’s for this acceptance into their sibling relationship that I am truly grateful.
We are moving towards treating animals with compassion. Not fast enough, but in the right direction.
In the last e-newsletter I wrote about a conference at the University of Cambridge held in July on the nature of human and animal consciousness where neuroscientists from different fields were moved to make a formal declaration, based on their findings, that animals, birds and other creatures such as octopuses have the neurological underpinnings necessary for consciousness. I had said this is a big deal.
A friend wrote back asking “You mean we are still trying to prove this? Will people who don’t already realize this ever have enough proof? I find it amazing that animal consciousness is a discovery or even news. I wonder if people who are unaware of this are capable of making an animal connection.”
I think it is important because it takes time for an idea to become accepted, especially one that has been so radically denied – that animals are conscious beings. But I understand her question. We are trapping wolves now all over Wyoming and Idaho in painful and terrifying leg-hold traps that only have to be checked every 72 hours. One hour in a trap like that is an eternity – ask people who have been caught in one or watched their frantic pets try to free themselves. Could we allow this if animals are conscious beings?
Scientific proof gives back-up to people who sense this but have been cowed (sorry cows) by the power of conventional beliefs of the time. It gives focus to we humans who are so busy with other concerns we aren’t attentive to the cruelty of what we do. It gives backing to politicians who are trying to break through to make better laws protecting animals against naysayers who have their political reasons for not acknowledging this change in world view.
If animals are conscious then we have to change the very foundation of how we treat animals we raise for food, how we hunt wild ones. And take their land. It is another “inconvenient truth.” Only it is not really an inconvenient truth – it is a beautiful one and with a bit of effort, once we change how we see animals, we will have a sense of companionship that adds immeasurably to our joy and meaning in life.
In a similar academic vein, the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics is another big deal. Their mission is “Pioneering ethical perspectives on animals through academic research, teaching, and publication.” Once research on animal ethics and consciousness reaches into the halls of science and academia, it will eventually seep into the public awareness and change our behaviors as a society. We are moving towards an idea, a realization whose time has come. Until then I pray for those wolves who were unfortunate enough to be born before then, and will keep working towards changing our consciousness through the animals of Earthfire.
I am a Los Angeles native and the “nature” I usually encounter is at the theater. In Hollywood, nature is a construction, compiled and then abridged by the movie industry: you have your one shot of a distant lone wolf behind a forest that’s probably computer generated. The aura you get from this movie wolf is also nonexistent—you can’t reach out and touch him from your seat. So the first time I saw and touched a wolf at the Earthfire Institute, I was completely blown away. No, I did not have some hokey Hollywood experience. Instead, I had something palpable. Our first wolf was named Cucumber and she was wise and old. She approached me very quietly. Cucumber let me touch her fur and then sat down in the garden for us to admire her in all of her wild beauty. She let me photograph her. The next wolf we met was Nightstar, a young girl pup new to the Earthfire Institute. Unlike Cucumber, who was gentle and slow, Nightstar zipped around the garden. She was my favorite to capture on video—a very exuberant and curious wolf.
I learned very fast that each animal is a complex and multi-dimensional being with individual characteristics. No two animals are alike. Just like people, you cannot assign wolves or bears or buffalo one kind of personality. This knowledge is very sacred to me as I feel like I have connected with the animals here at Earthfire. Forget L.A.! Coming to Earthfire was an experience a city girl like me has never had before—I saw nature for the first time as infinite and undefinable beauty. There were no computer screens or movie theaters involved. It was just us and the animals.
I will never forget my time with Cucumber, Nightstar, and all the other animals and I will never forget the Earthfire Institute.
Once a month the Earthfire staff congregates in the yurt for dinner and creative thought. At our last session we were delighted with the company of Cucumber the wolf. She was a great addition to our party as she greeted everyone therefore giving the staff a moment into her world as she explored ours.
We brought Wamaka the wolf into our heated cabin to protect him from the bitter cold. We didn’t know how Talkeetna the malamute (aka Wombat) would respond. This was HER cabin, and she doesn’t like other animals. We put Wamaka in a pen & brought her in on a leash. She stood stock still in shock. Pretended he wasn’t there. Then started to sneak little looks from the corner of her eye. We must say that Wamaka is a huge gorgeous wolf, w/ regal presence, masculine, w/ melting green eyes. To our amazement it wasn’t long before she was flirting outrageously, rubbing sensuously up against the pen, & giving little pink licks w/ her tongue. And he, in turn lost all dignity, bowed down on his long front legs butt in the air in an invitation to play, & with glazed eyes turned into a besotted wolf. She apparently was feminine perfection. . .
Sometimes when people call us in the morning they comment we seem rushed. This is our current early morning schedule, which starts about 7 am – we are at the moment a two-wolf two-dog cabin.
Every winter Wamaka the wolf loses the hair on his back end, loses weight and goes into depression. We just can’t leave him out in the below zero cold half naked and sad. He has to come in to the cabin for warmth, love and light. But we have learned from bitter bitter bitter experience and the cost of thousands of vet dollars that if Cucumber the wolf doesn’t come into the cabin every morning for love and treats and a dollop (small but it’s the principle) of organic heavy cream she starts to fade, droop, lose weight, go into dramatic physical decline. She used to be very clear and assertive about her annoyance when we left her out, but she is now 14 and her response is drooped patheticness. A beaten-down displaced wolf. We have learned, and paid for, the consequences. . .
Our “infirmary,” especially in winter, is our cabin living room area 15×18 feet in which we have Jean’s desk, my desk, bookshelves, a couch, a dining room table, a wood burning stove, two dogs, ferns, orchids and barely enough room in which to turn around. Cucumber has to come in every morning – no option. It’s too expensive in vet bills and psychic toll otherwise. Wamaka has to come in. But Wamaka is a very big and somewhat rambunctious wolf and, from past experience, known for leaping on desks and table tops as if he is made only of air and huge paws, and the computers, papers and plants don’t do well. Part of the cabin concrete floor is still pink from where he spilled paint last time. Also, this is Cucumber’s special, high status lair and she doesn’t tolerate anyone else. So we brought in an oversized portable cage for Wamaka to protect him from Cucumber (1/3 his size but she is fierce) and the cabin from Wamaka. We made it into a cozy nest for him.
Our mornings consist of putting Talkeenta the malamute out in the Wildlife Garden (she is a runaway and can’t be let loose), because Cucumber sees her as competition and wants to do her in. Because Wamaka has a jaw deformity and can’t eat easily he gets crazy around food. So we put Wamaka out in the enclosure back of the cabin with a treat, and prepare Cucumber’s special breakfast: high quality dog food (she can’t digest raw meat any more) mixed with Joint Aid, protein powder, digestive enzymes and salmon oil, and bring her in. Or rather we let her out of her enclosure and she races to the cabin, slams open the door and is into her breakfast so fast you see only a blur. Jean and I have a standing joke: “Did you see a wolf come in?” “No. Whatever it was it was too fast.” Or “Oh my god there’s a wolf in the cabin!”
Once she has wolfed down her breakfast, had her cream and been properly greeted and petted, I take her out and distract her while Jean brings Wamaka back in. Once he is safely ensconced in the cage and settled to his satisfaction we bring Cucumber back in to join us in our morning meditation. She insists on it – has for the past two years. She has taken over from where Stardance the wolf started us on our meditations until she passed away two Novembers ago. All this time Boychuk our German shepherd whom all the animals love is sleeping peacefully on a mound of cushions under the table. His presence is a reassurance to all our animals, from wolf to bear, keeping them calm (er). We can’t leave Wamaka alone in the cabin even in his pen. He would destroy it, tear it apart, and let himself out into the cabin; then start tearing the cabin apart in his attempt to find companionship. So poor Boychuk is sacrificed as babysitter.
Figuring out all these arrangements took a while. At first we didn’t know if Cucumber would attack Wamaka. She wasn’t happy about the intrusion and for several days circled his pen menacingly, stalking, prowling, patrolling, letting him know who was boss, making herself very large on tippy toes. There is only perhaps a foot of space between the table and the pen where she manages to squeeze herself through on her patrol emanating domination from every pore.
It took a few weeks for things to settle down. Eventually the arrangement was accepted – as long as it was very clear that Cucumber was top wolf and #1 special wolf and Wamaka stayed in his pen. After properly dominating Wamaka she eventually settles herself under the table near Boychuk. We have to push the pen with Wamaka in it toward Jean’s desk to make enough room for Jean to sit so we can meditate. When we signal the beginning of the meditation by ringing the Tibetan singing bowl Cucumber gets up and begins to circle us several times, pushes her nose vigorously into Jean’s armpit as she goes around, then lays down peacefully under the table, joining Boychuk, her paws or head on his paws in loving companionship.
Finally, things settle down. Wamaka curls comfortably in his pen. A deep peace reigns. There is a sense of enjoyment from all the living beings around us including us. We invite in all the spirits of the animals and trees and land around us.
We signal the end of the meditation with the singing bowl. Cucumber rouses herself, gets up and circles us again several times, pushing her nose again into Jean’s armpit or my lap, giving quick little licks as she passes around us. This is her ritual- she developed it and does it absolutely without fail. Then she gets her second breakfast, we put her back out, and bring Talkeetna back in. Another story. . .
So now what? Wamaka is positively delighted with the new arrangement, and has settled in as if it were permanent. If we put him back out we fear he will go into depression. Perhaps not as intensely as Cucumber, a highly emotional wolf where it basically turns into a matter of life or death if she comes in or not, but still, if you “promise” in effect, something really important and then take away it can have a major impact. On humans too. And now Uintah, Cucumber’s companion, howls mournfully, longingly, aching, when Cucumber comes in and leaves him alone. He needs special attention too, after nearly having died as well. How do we manage three wolves? Or five wolves?
By now it is usually 8:30 in the morning and we need to start the day. . .
Named after a passionate earth-mother wolf with a fire in her belly to protect anything vulnerable, Earthfire was founded in 2000 to develop a new model of relating to nature through the voices of the rescued wildlife>