What do wolves and Disneyland have in common? On the surface, not much.
But the way that humans treat wolves, like they were a fairground attraction that one could line up for and experience, can sometimes feel a little theme park-ish.
Directors Isabelle Groc and Mike McKinlay’s new documentary Part of the Pack explores the complex relationship between people and wolves. Although it isn’t wolves who emerge as the more unpredictable of the two species.
Cheryl Alexander spent seven years documenting the life of a lone wolf named Takaya on a small island just off the coast of Victoria, B.C. Alexander discovered the animal accidentally, after which she visited it every few days, taking photos and filming its activities. Her presence was so ubiquitous that she said Takaya sometimes seemed a little fed up with her.
“Have you ever imagined that you would matter enough to a wild wolf that he would care about you?” she asks. “Imagine” is perhaps the operative word.
Alexander turned Takaya into something of a global celebrity. She published a book and was part of a documentary about her relationship with the wolf. In one scene, she shares with the Pack filmmakers the paintings and drawings of Takaya that people have sent her from around the world. It’s a touching moment, until one remembers that the end of the story for the wolf, at least, was the end of its life.
After swimming to Vancouver Island, Takaya led authorities on a chase throughout a suburban Victoria neighbourhood before getting cornered in a backyard. Conservation officers tranquillized the animal and relocated it to a more remote part of the Island. Despite these precautions, however, Takaya was shot and killed by a hunter.
There isn’t a direct causal link between Alexander’s many years observing Takaya’s life and the wolf’s death. But more than animals who turn and run at the first sight of people, animals that become habituated to humans run a far greater risk of being killed by them.
As conservation scientist Chris Darimont explains in the film, it’s not wolves that want contact. It’s humans. “Some may feel that perhaps when they’re approached by wolves, that wolves are seeking some sort of connection. I don’t think that to be the case,” says Darimont.
“I think wolves are investigating the context. I think if anyone’s seeking a connection, it’s humans.”
Wild apartment life
The film follows the life of Samantha Law, who grew up in a small town in northwestern Ontario and adopted a wolfdog named Luna before moving to Vancouver. As she says in the documentary, she took on the animal in spite of her then-boyfriend’s advice to steer clear. After her boyfriend broke up with her, Law says it was Luna who nudged her away from taking drastic action after the breakup. When the pair was standing on a bridge, watching the rushing river below, Luna interrupted her owner’s fatalistic train of thought with a gentle nosing and look of concern. “She saved my life,” says Law.
Living with a partly wild creature in the middle of a city proves difficult. Law is frank about her struggles with Luna, whose activities ranged from destroying sections of her apartment to burying an entire turkey deep in the couch cushions. Eventually Law was forced to padlock her fridge in order to prevent her furry roommate from breaking in and taking food.
While wolfdogs are a particularly challenging animal in a domestic setting, this isn’t exactly their fault. They embody a fracture between two competing natures: they are part pet, part wild predator. This gives rise to an animal that is effectively split in two, and the deep division gives rise to a being inherently in conflict with itself.
In spite of the difficulties, the Luna and Law pair did their best to get along, even developing ongoing friendships with other dog owners.
In the face of attacks on humans, carrying on as family
The film also follows Gary Allan and his wife Sally, who raised a number of wolfdog hybrids on their property outside Nanaimo.
Although they describe their older wolfdog Tundra as a social creature, the other two animals, living outside in a fenced enclosure, were less than easy with humans. As Allan explains, “I don’t have the same kind of relationship with those two as I do with Tundra… I would never take anyone else out there and walk them around.” The intimation being that the two wolfdogs were not accepting of people they weren’t familiar with.
When the pair bred and two pups were added to the pack, everything seemed sweet and fuzzy at first. But the death of the mother’s mate, as well logging on the property next door, created an atmosphere of stress for the female wolfdog that led to a near-tragic situation in which Sally was severely mauled.
The film takes pains to explain what happened that day and why, but the end result was another deeply sad outcome for the animals.
Another couple from Port Coquitlam, whose wolfdog attacked a young child, appear in the film. In their interview, they seem more concerned with the fact that authorities impounded the wolfdog and eventually designated it a dangerous animal, than the well-being of their human neighbours.
But as the wolfdog’s owner maintains, she and her husband and their wolfdog are a pack of three. “We’re all going to fight for each other,” she says. The couple hired an animal rights lawyer, who describes the case as longest of her career, featuring the most dangerous dog. “Their dog [Shyloh] meant everything to them, and the City of Port Coquitlam took their child away and put him on death row.”
This level of anthropomorphizing is problematic but also largely unexamined in the film. I would be curious to know how the parents of the injured child and the couple’s neighbours feel about the animal. But they’re not interviewed in the film.
If you love something, set it free
There are a number of people featured in the film who are deeply respectful of and very careful with wolves, ensuring that their territory is protected. As humans continue to encroach on wild areas, the conflicts between animals and people are bound to increase.
As Bob Hansen, a wildlife coexistence specialist says in an interview, it might seem mean, but the best thing to do if one encounters an animal in the wild is to chase it away. “The wolves have shown that they’re perfectly capable of coexisting with us. But for them to survive in the long term, we have to teach them survival skills for this modern world and the main survival skill is be wary of people,” says Hansen. “Be cautious of us.”
Humans do not make this easy. Takaya became such an attraction that authorities urged people to leave the animal alone. Warnings that had little to no effect.
Meanwhile, Gary Allan still takes his wolfdog Tundra into schools and other facilities to offer educational talks about the human-wolf connection, although he’s not above getting into arguments with random people in parking lots about the wisdom of having a wolfdog in a public place.
The story of humans and wild animals is often not a very happy one. Despite the film’s commitment to allowing people to tell their stories without editorializing, the misunderstanding, confusion and occasional outright harm become difficult to rationalize.
Wolves are not paid mascots, happy to pose for photos with tourists in Gore-Tex jackets and hiking sandals. They are wild predators who should be left alone.
By the end of the film, you might be feeling a mite frustrated with the folks profiled, all of whom purport to cherish, love and care for wolves. They seem sincere in this endeavour. But there is an element of self-serving neediness that undercuts the sentiment.
At the heart of it all is human sadness. I see loneliness. And a desperate need for validation. Pity the poor animals that have to bear the weight of this burden.
‘Part of the Pack’ screens at the VIFF Centre from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2. The filmmakers will offer a Q&A following the screenings on Jan. 27 and 28.