Thursday, September 12, 2013

Never Cry Wolf

by Farley Mowatt
247 pgs

I've mentioned this before, but I don't read a lot of nonfiction, not that I don't enjoy it when I do read it. It's just that there are so many novels out there that I want to read, that I rarely take the time to read it. So why did I choose a memoir by a Canadian naturalist who studied and observed a den of wolves for several months? It's because of my dad. My dad has a whole shelf filled with books by Mowatt, and when I was about 10 years old, he had me watch the movie Never Cry Wolf which was based on his memoir. I thought it was great, and I probably rewatched the movie a dozen or so times growing up. So I finally got around to reading it.

Half a century or so ago the number of caribou in Northern Canada was declining rapidly. The Canadian government, believing the reports they were receiving from trappers and traders in the area, that the wolves were behind the decimation of the herds, sent Mowatt to live on the frozen tundra to substantiate the reports and to determine what needed to be done. Mowatt quickly found a den of wolves to observe and spent a spring, summer, and fall watching them day and night. The results of his observations might seem obvious to readers today, but they flew in the face of the common misconceptions of his time.

The wolves, as he observed, were highly intelligent and social animals. They lived in family groups with parents mating for life and spending years raising their pups. They subsisted for most of the warmer months on a diet of mice, fish, and other small animals, eating caribou primarily in the winter months only, when easier prey was unavailable. When the caribou were available, the wolves operated in accordance with the ideas of Darwin; they sought out the weak, injured, or frail from the herd and fed only on those. Instead of killing caribou indiscriminantly and out of a sense of blood thirst, as the reports were claiming, the wolves were ultimately responsible for maintaining the health of the herd through natural selection.

Never Cry Wolf is a fun, entertaining, and thoughtful book. Mowatt is a very endearing narrator who has an enjoyable sense of humor and whose affection for the wolves he spends so much time observing is evident throughout the book. His recounting of marking off his own territory based on the wolves' practices, or of using himself as the test subject for an experiment of whether a large mammal can truly live on a diet of mice alone, or of trying to explain himself to an Inuit tribe who catch him dissecting buckets full of wolf scat while wearing a gas mask are highlights of the book and explain why it's worth the short amount of time it takes to read this book.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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