Decades ago, Dr. Erich Klinghammer was my professor for Ethology. It’s the study of animal behavior. He was a naturally handsome man and tall with a beard. It appeared he wore only natural fiber clothing, and socks with sandals. When he spoke, I detected a slight German accent. He was unlike most of my professors who arrived at the classroom well before their students or habitually late. Instead, he entered the classroom each day, right on time.
The first day I met him, Dr. Klinghammer asked if his students had purchased the assigned textbook. Without judgement, he said that if anyone still needed the book, he would bring them a used copy. Dr. Klinghammer responded we would use it as a reference book. And yes, the one book would be enough.
Oddly, his class required only the one book. With just twelve chapters and a mere 210 pages of text, it was my smallest hardback. The price I paid for the book was a meager $25. Each of my other classes had more. Sometimes three and four, very thick and expensive books that cost $100-$200 each.
Next, Dr. Klinghammer gave an overview of the class. He announced there would only be one exam for the semester. He wrote on the blackboard, “Do wolves play?” That would be the one and only question, for our one and only essay exam. He boldly announced that he was not going to babysit us, flood us with trivial homework assignments, and waste his precious time grading them. If we wanted to pass our exam and class, we needed real life experience for real life answers. To do that, an outdoor classroom was required.
As it turned out, we would study at Wolf Park, on the rural side of town. Dr. Klinghammer explained that a bus would take us there. He stated the bus would leave promptly at the set time, with or without students and without exception. I was impressed. This man was serious and I liked how he set firm boundaries. And if memory serves me right, at that moment three students stood up and left the small class.
Perhaps, for those students the class was not going to be an easy A. After all, lazy students knew it was harder to cheat on essay exams. This class would require their real work. Maybe they were not interested in real learning or capable of critical thinking. Or maybe the concept of an outdoor classroom was just too much for them to handle. Regardless of the possibilities, I thought their leaving had more to do with the boundaries that had been set. As for the rest, they would soon learn the boundary between physical life and death is often separated with only a fence.
As the “almost” students left, Dr. Klinghammer smiled broadly. I smiled, too. After all, I was majoring in Psychology and it was obvious that my new teacher was skilled in weeding his garden and culling his herd. He then said something to the effect of, “Now we can get on with our learning.” He was an intelligent and confident man. While he was no no-nonsense, he did a sense of humor. He was also humble and generous.
One afternoon, I stopped by his office during lunch time. As we were discussing my questions, he opened his sack lunch. From a cloth napkin, he pulled out a living sandwich. He also had corn chips that were blue. He insisted that I sample them. I felt guilty eating half his lunch. But, I am so glad that I did. Even the chips were nothing like I had ever had before. They were thin, light, crispy, and not oily. And the flavor? Oh, they were amazing! They had been made with fresh, stone-ground corn. It was all very satisfying and unusually, filling.
As my professor ate with gusto, he asked if I had ever eaten sprouts before. Just by looking at me, I think he could tell that I had not. I responded it was my first time. His sandwich was packed with them. He smiled and highly recommended all kinds of sprouts. His brown bread was thick and homemade with seeds and chopped nuts. It was the best bread I had ever tasted. Little did I know, I had shared lunch with a world-renowned scientist. And some thirty years later, I’d see his very real contributions. In fact, I’d watch a pack of them in our own backyard, near the Canadian border…
The autumn evening started out cloudy and it quickly turned pitch black. As the clouds moved eastward, dapples of moonlight set the stage. The peaceful slumber of the world around us was penetrated by a distant, solitary howl; shrill and prolonged. There was a short dramatic pause before another howl answered. More followed and joined together, in a climatic chorus. Their revelry announced the forthcoming of their shadowy presence. When it ceased abruptly, there was absolute silence. Not even the leaves on the trees rustled. It was an eerie, suspenseful, wait-for-the-scream, time-stands-still, dead silence.
After what seemed like an eternity, they marched in from the south. I detected two grey wolves walking briskly in tandem. Their light color made them easier to see in the dark. They passed in a tight formation within yards of our secure spot. Others traveled the perimeters. I had goosebumps. As I was watching two meld into the shadows, a solitary one took me by surprise. It was just there and directly in front of me. It’s gold eyes locked with mine and they pierced my very soul. My heart pounded wildly.
He or she smelled my presence and was so close that I watched its exhaled breath vaporize into the cool night air. After a few moments, it turned away and continued its journey north. I then realized I had been holding my own breath. My sniper had been well camouflaged in a midnight black coat. That’s why I had not seen the wolf’s approach. But, it’s up close and personal visit proved that it was a very large timber wolf.
This wolf also seemed strangely familiar to me. Perhaps, it was related to those that stalked the hidden recesses of legendary fables. Or maybe, I remembered it from my children’s bedtime stories, of long ago. And aside from the birth of my children, this wolf encounter was the most intense experience of my life. While, the ebony lobo was the most majestic creature I had ever seen, it was also the most intimidating. After all, wolves are powerful predators and that by itself will always command my deepest respect.
In 1912, Esther E. Larson wrote, “It is not unusual to hear a pioneer…tell of his early experiences here…not seldom the blood-curdling howls of a pack of gaunt wolves hailed his appearance among trees, the fierce creatures being kept a bay only by the flickering glean of a lantern which they feared to approach.”
Larson was writing about the pioneers who settled the original homesteads here, including the one we live on today. Yesteryear’s men and women often walked through the dark woods, with only a lantern between them and a pack of hungry timber wolves. While, I can never know how they felt with certainty, I know how I felt in my encounter. And I do know my legs were weak and trembled. If I had been without shelter, I would have been tempted to run. Alas, even running would have been futile. Wolves trot at 5 mph and during full speed chases, they reach about 40 mph.
To date, I have seen lone wolves from time to time. But, I have yet to see another wolf pack. However, I know they come and go. And our livestock can sense when they are around. We also see their tracks and hear their howls. So far, we have lived together without incident for over a decade. Yet, some folks say it’s only a matter of time before I share their hatred of wolves. I respectfully disagree. While, I may hate to see livestock eaten alive (or ham-stringed and left to die; “surplus killing”), I do not hate wolves for being wolves. And I do not agree with those that want them extinct. I also do not agree with those who say wolves should never be hunted or their population kept in check.
Perhaps no one on opposite sides of this heated debate will understand. All I can say is, I was privileged to study under a man who knew more about wolves than anyone else I know. A man who spoke their language. A man who respected them and knew of their important role in Mother Nature’s delicate balance. A man who spent his life bringing them back from the edges of extinction. Yet, he was also the same man who was not opposed to responsible management. He knew it was necessary for both wolves and humans to coexist.
Speaking of management, I saw an antique picture of a dead timber wolf. It is strung up by its nose to show its relative size. In the background are birch trees, patches of snow on barren ground, and the corner of a home. In the foreground, a man is kneeling beside the wolf with a child standing on his left side and child on his right knee. They are wearing red knit hats with tassels and matching mittens. Both are staring wide-eyed at the wolf.
Behind the wolf is the family dog. It is sitting and looking up at her canine cousin. It’s three to four times her size. The wolf was as long as the man was tall. And since wolves average 120 pounds, it nearly weighed as much as the man, too. The wolf had been harvested near the family home. The photo is an unnerving reminder of the fine line between predator and prey.
Now 50 years later, many Americans need posted signs that say, “Caution: Wild animals!” Honestly, how many of these signs can we possibly put in a forest or zoo? And what good does it do when 75% of our nation cannot read above a 4th grade level? And those that can will ignore the signs and boundaries anyway. How many times must tourists be told by park rangers to keep their distance? “No Ma’am. That is not a kitty. That is a cougar. Please step back.” “Lady, now that you saved the fawn we have to kill it.” “Yes, Florida has real alligators.” “No Sir. That is not a dog. That is a wolf. Not only can it bite you, it can eat you alive. Yes, I’m serious. Sir, put away the dog biscuit!”
I’d bet that these are the same folks that require sporks, so they don’t put their eyes out while eating. They must be the same ones that need a warning that their hot cup of coffee is hot. And they’re the ones that blame everything and everyone else, but themselves for not watching out for their own children. Speaking of which, I have chickens with brains the size of peas that do a better job caring for themselves and their offspring than these Americans.
When I hear our wolves cry their acapella dirge, I think of Dr. Klinghammer. And I think about our lack of respect for Mother Earth and her offspring. I also think about the ignorance of our supposedly “advanced” society. A nation where, if people know wolves really exist, some do not know that wolves are not domestic dogs and that domestic dogs are not humans. I think of hungry wolves and hungry people, too. Those poor people who have never been fed the brown bread of common sense. Bread that is sprinkled liberally with seeds of truth, sweetened with the honey of real life experience, and filled with sprouts of wisdom. And sometimes, I cry along with the wolves,
“A cry of defiance, and not of fear,…
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear…
the midnight message…”
 (Hirst, 2010)
 (Longfellow, 1861)