Digging with Wolves
by Kelly Plante
Her left paw, then right paw, rear-paw rear-paw, trotted out onto the crunchy snow in the vast, sagebrushed valley of the wild country, her nose a magnet to the ground to track elk and bison. She--the bulky alpha wolf of the Lamar Canyon Pack of Yellowstone--was unaware of the invisible realm that afforded her protection from the ear-piercing thunder, or the smooth stone that would sail into her body to stain her soft white fur red. The GPS collar wrapped around her neck to protect her, to send signals to the men and women who studied her every move, did not stop the man from shooting her. In April 2017, the most stunning wolf in Yellowstone, mother who whelped 20 pups, was illegally shot dead within earshot of the protected park.
That same month, President Trump--“two words that,” said John Oliver, “will always sound unnatural together, like ‘fuckable clown’ or ‘Wolf Blitzer'”--signed legislation to strip protections from wolves, bears and other predators in national wildlife refuges in Alaska. Wolves and their pups can be killed in their dens; bears can be gunned-down at bait stations.
The Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., has granted Wyoming the authority to kill wolves, who are just barely repopulating piddly portions of North America, on sight.
“Wild Life and Wild Woman are both endangered species,” writes Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, in 1992. “Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back, and over built. For long periods it has been mismanaged like the wildlife and the wildlands. For several thousand years, as soon and as often as we turn our backs, it is relegated to the poorest land in the psyche. The spiritual lands of the Wild Woman have, throughout history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others. It’s not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as our own inner wild natures fades.”
Have you ever wondered why horses and cattle were domesticated, but not deer? Our earth boasts thousands of domesticable species, but only dozens have been. (We’re not just talking “tame”; in order to be considered “fully” domesticated, the species must become genetically and behaviourally distinct from its wild ancestors--often after hundreds or thousands of years of selective breeding.)
Question: Why domesticate at all?
Answer: To secure a more predictable supply of resources.
Charles Darwin was the first to make a distinction between conscious selective breeding--direct selection of desirable traits--and unconscious selection--wherein traits evolve as a byproduct of natural selection.
Deer were never the ideal candidate for domestication. They were skittish and darted around, jumping fences and flashing their white tails. They had those beady black eyes on the sides of their heads, and couldn’t even look people in the eye when they were talking to them. If someone had cared enough about these panicky protein sources and persisted long enough with unnatural selection, those traits could have been bred out. Why bother when there were meaty, conquerable cows and majestic, shiny-coated horses whose gaze pierced the very soul?
As with many human behaviors, it comes down to economics. As one Internet expert/commentator on Reddit put it, “Once some culture makes the long effort to domesticate a species, it's easy to just spread it everywhere, rather than to start from scratch again with a new species.”
Reindeer were domesticated in Siberia, though not “spread everywhere,” by the indigenous inhabitants previously known as the Samoyedic people.
To assist with the herding of reindeer, as well as other diverse duties like hunting polar bear, babysitting children, snuggling in beds with families for added warmth, and providing soft fur that could be brushed-out to weave into scarves, the Samoyedic people also domesticated the most ancient of dog breeds--the Spitz--into the Samoyed.
After Russia’s two-centuries-long process of conquering Siberia--which culminated in the nineteen-hundreds and in the subsequent exodus of the indigenous population spurred by the Soviets--native speakers of Russian dominate Siberia today.
“My” Samoyed dog’s name is Noël. I put “my” in quotes because I don’t believe she is “mine.” Jerry Seinfeld said, “Dogs are the leaders of the planet. If you see two life forms, one of them's making a poop, the other one's carrying it for him, who would you assume is in charge?”
Over the first several months of her life, near the border Detroit-Ferndale border in positive-reinforcement/clicker-based Fido Personal Dog Training, we took Puppy I, Puppy II, Intermediate, and Advanced, wherein we learned “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “come here,” and how to walk with a loose leash through Geary Park while I balanced an egg on a spoon. Finally, she learned how to read. If I hold up the canvas that I painted with the word “sit,” she sits; “down,” and she lowers into a sphinx pose. Later, we dabbled in agility training so she could have fun running through tubes and climbing ramps, but stopped when I unleashed motherly fury on the trainer who squeezed her muzzle to stop her barking.
Some people give dogs “commands”; positive reinforcers say “cue.”
Some people still actually punish their dogs physically, a la the miserable human being in the beginning of Call of the Wild.
In positive reinforcement, you reward behavior you like, ignore behavior that you don’t, and you take treats or toys away as “punishment” rather than whacking your “best friend” with a newspaper or worse. When Noël was teething, I didn’t tell her to stop chewing; I gave her an antler or a “bully stick” (aka bull penis--grass fed, of course) to chew on to redirect the natural behavior while saying the cue, “chew toy.” When she started digging in my flower bed, I was to channel this ancient habit, engraved in her genes and in her dog-soul, to a designated digging pit--her Virginia Woolfian “Room of One’s Own.”
I call her “my baby,” sing to her, and spoon with her. She attends daycare, there is an oil painting of her hanging in the family room. She holds my hand when I cry, and when she sits in the passenger seat of my car. I would safely say she is domesticated.
In my 900-square foot white bungalow circa 1922 eight blocks north of Detroit, on the fourth of July 2016, reality came to call.
There was a mysterious patch of yellow hay in lieu of grass in my backyard that I had noticed but not looked into for a week or two. I let Noël out into our civilized, fenced-in yard and shortly thereafter heard a strange noise: high-pitched squealing. MEEE MEEEE MEEEEEE.
Warning: What you are about to read is graphic. It’s what happens when pets stop being polite, and start being real. Please skip to the next section if your dog has never, say, swung a dismantled opossum by the tail in front of your face, like my coworker’s beagle purportedly did to his wife.
I learned from a pest-control professional the day after the carnage that the yellow grass had been a bunny’s nest, or whatever rabbits’ living spaces are called. And the dozen-ish squealing, pink shapes with gaping mouths but no fur were baby rabbits, likely waiting for their mother to return with food. Didn’t this mother instinctively know that an Arctic dog bred to kill polar bears lived here? During this mass killing spree, all I could do was scream from the sideline that was my driveway: “Stop! Drop it! Come here!” I couldn’t walk onto the grass to save the babies she had pulled from the ground and slurped-up. Nor did I particularly want to, as this disgusted me.
My neighbor, a braver, older and wiser single woman than I was--weathered by years of independence in her own house killing and disposing of her own rodents--took pity on me as I wailed, NOOO. NOOOO! NOOOOOO! (I might have been kneeling on the ground.) My hero slid those pitiful lifeforms not gulped into a cavernous belly from the blades of grass, onto a shovel and into an orange Home Depot bucket/grave, sealed with a plastic lid until garbage day.
She didn’t get them all, though. When I started cutting the grass I heard MEEE MEEEE MEEEEEE over the lawnmower, emanating from the grass next to my foot. I would rather have been at my cousin’s pool for an Independence Day barbeque, yet here I was, tiptoeing around animal fetuses with a wild animal-traitor staring out from the picture window. A couple girls in the yard behind mine were sunbathing in a baby pool enjoying a cold one while I muttered, “must be nice.”
I didn’t let her sleep on the bed for (a couple of) days. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep next to such a murderer. I felt like Simba when he realized Scar killed Mufasa: “Murderer,” he growled. I said “Murderer” to her when she opened the bathroom door with her muzzle and tried to watch me pee.
On the third of July, I had let her stay up late to watch a National Geographic documentary about wolves. Sitting attentively in front of the lifesize TV, tail wagging, she witnessed a pack of wolves tear an elk to shreds, their muzzles stained blood red. I thought about turning it off because it was a bad influence.
Cesar Millan’s tactics are disdained in the professional-dog-training community, which is constantly swatting at his made-for-TV approach with science. He treats dogs like they are still wolves, and educates people to not let their dogs become the “alpha.” According to dog whisperer university, dogs are constantly trying to dominate us and if we’re not good “pack leaders” we will have to resort to dangerous behavior such as chasing them into corners, or tackling them with a swift “alpha roll.”
Positive-reinforcement pioneer and veterinarian Dr. Ian Dunbar says in his TED Talk that the “dominance” school of thought is a “Mickey Mouse interpretation of what is a complex social hierarchy.” He says, “So often, people train dogs by making up human rules as they go, then punishing the dog for a rule they didn’t even know existed. It’s really very scary the abuse that dogs get,” Dunbar says.
“Dogs, horses, and humans--these are the three species which are so abused in life and the reason is built into their behavior is to always come back and apologize. ‘I’m sorry you had to beat me, I’m really sorry, this is my fault.’ They are just so beatable. And that’s why they get beaten.”
Nate Blakeslee writes in 2017 bestseller American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, that once shepherding became a dominant human behavior, wolves came to embody wickedness: think fairy tales and werewolf stories. In the Bible, Jesus is known as the good shepherd and the lamb of God: guess who is the devil?
Once the devil himself was brought back to life in the Northern Rockies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a “steady stream of complaints from ranchers, especially as wolves expanded their territory even further,” according to Blakeslee: local ranchers now had to deal with a force that their ancestors had relinquished long ago.
Here are some facts about wolves and women.
At the same time that wolf populations are reclaiming Yellowstone, parts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Minnesota, and other such places they used to roam naturally before unnatural mass-killings by humans in the early nineteen-hundreds, requiring pro-wolf groups to fight to keep them from kill lists in Congress, #metoo is rendering some men accountable for predatory behavior against women.
In September 2017, Betsey “if everything is harassment, nothing is” DeVos, in an effort to protecting rape perpetrators from their victims, raised the standard of proof from “preponderance of the evidence” back to the harder-to-prove “beyond a reasonable doubt.” She re-enabled those accused of rape on college campuses to cross-examine their accusers--a practice known to scare rape victims from coming forward.
The man who killed Yellowstone’s beloved matriarch-wolf, known as O-Six, also remained anonymous. Authorities allowed him to conceal his identity from the public, for fear of pro-wolf wrath.
There are more types of wolves than you can shake a stick at: the big bad wolf, mother wolf, lone wolf, she-wolf, badass wolf donned on bikers’ leather jackets. But the wolf type I specifically requested for my (twenty-ninth) birthday was either the ironic/badass wolf surrounded by lightning and imminent darkness on a T-shirt, or the howling-wolf-in-smoky-white-on-back-of a-black-wolf-fur-esque fleece, preferably bought “up north” in Michigan.
My future husband, Eric--we’d been dating a mere two weeks--and I were enjoying our pre-meeting-of-the-family status basking in the sun on my driveway/sometime-scene-of-carnage that doubled as patio, when the creak of a metal gate alerted me my mother, sisters and brother-in-law arrived an hour and a half early.
It just so happened that my older and wiser friend and dating-realm spirit-guide, Nikki, had previously given me sage advice to the effect of, Don’t tell him about mystical wolf obsession yet. Let him get to know and love the Kelly we know and love first, then you can talk all you want about wolves.
However, my mother gave me life and she can take it away, I thought. When I opened my present, out came a powder-blue fleece with a mother wolf cleaning her pup's fur with her tongue, with a yellow star sewn on. This was not the right wolf type. Nor was I prepared to like it for my mother’s sake in front of Eric.
Eric said he had to go.
On the screened-in front porch, my sister scolded: “Mom was really excited to give you that mystical wolf,” which Eric overheard from his car.
For a while I would have dreams of, say, a fox, wolf, lion or polar bear then look up what these “meant.”
“Wolf dreams can have a positive or negative connotation and, like all animal dreams, they can represent animal or primal instincts,” The Huffington Post assured me one night when I Googled “wolf dream” in bed, blue phone-screen illuminating my curious face. “Wolves are seen as majestic, beautiful and as a source of sacred wisdom. They are also seen as sly, insatiable and evil.”
Some people think certain animals come into our lives at arranged times to give guidance, to teach us about some aspect of our inner selves which we need to engage to survive our current situation.
I thought for sure that Wolf would be my spirit guide, so it was to my dismay that when I took an online quiz, “What spirit animal are you?” a cat appeared on-screen.
I called my sister for support.
“It’s not that bad,” she said. “It’s not a dumb house cat, it’s a wild cat--like Simba.” (It was actually the sexually deviant lynx.)
At the bar later when I made my friends take the quiz, one of my friends got Bear--a huge step above Cat.
“You are so not a bear!” I said.
“Why can’t I be a bear?” she asked, puzzled as to why I cared.
Women are also placed into various archetypes such as the prostitute, the girl-next-door, the devoted mother, the milkmaid, the princess, the shrew, the hag, even the Playboy Bunny.
Women have to embrace the dirty, the wet, and the moist as they dig past their assigned archetypes to reclaim their full selves. “Now, understand me. Women have died a thousand deaths before they’re twenty years old,” Pinkola Estés writes. “They have gone in this direction and been cut off, and they’ve gone in that direction and been cut off, and they’ve had this hope which has been cut off and they’ve had that dream which has been cut off.” In their thirties and forties, Pinkola Estés writes, women face a fork in the road: to turn to bitterness, or back to the instinctual nature. If you choose the instinctual psyche, you are reborn.
“There’s a lot to be said of pinning things to the earth, so they don’t follow us around. What it really means, is laying your rage to rest so that you can create the Wild Woman.”
When I was a kid, family legend has it that I would play in the sandbox in white stretch pants, white socks, white shoes, and a white windbreaker with a teddy bear sewn on the right pocket. Due to my signature combination of OCD and perfectionism, I miraculously emerged time and again unscathed by sand or mud, to sit down clean at the dinner table.
A single woman in my late twenties when I bought my first house (said white bungalow above), I took up gardening. Crowds of yucca plants proliferated in my back and front yards, along with mystery vines, mint, blueberry, and a preponderance of unknown plant breeds; wild or domesticated, I knew not. (Never buy a house in the winter in Michigan, or at least don’t assume grass lies beneath three feet of snow.)
“Dirt may be the new Prozac,” I had learned via an article in Outside Magazine: “Working in soil raises your spirits, in part because you pick up cheerful germs while digging.” Out of 14 habits with which to cultivate happiness, digging in the dirt was ranked #2. Pets made #14: “Pet owners have greater self-esteem and tend to be less fearful.”
While I was digging up some of the dozen-plus yuccas in the sunset, Noël was pummeling her snowshoe-paws into the earth by my side. After much labor and confused as to why this was taking so long, I unearthed bricks--roughly three per yucca--from two feet underground. The elderly woman who inhabited the house before it was condemned then flipped not only walked her cat in a stroller but also planted bricks, around which the yucca roots tangled, chaining them to the earth. Her motive, I would not know. And yet I persisted in digging them up one by one, and planted purple, yellow, and pink dahlias in their place.
For the finishing touch, I later placed into the flower bed a smooth-stone statue of a bunny, which I’d put on our wedding registry as an inside joke with myself.
About the Author
Kelly Plante teaches writing while pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She holds a B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in English. Her writing has appeared in the University of Michigan's Bear River Review, AFAR Magazine, and Detroit area newspapers, among others.