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Waiting For Lobo

Like most of my personal revelations, it begins at the liquor store— in this case John and Jen’s Tall Tails Sports & Spirits in Boscobel, Wisconsin. It was as I was sliding my bottle of Old Thompson whiskey across the counter that my eyes drifted down to the front page of the local weekly paper and there, above the fold read the headline: Wolf Shot Near Steuben. At the bottom of the article, a photograph of a bespectacled vaguely bewildered man kneeling near the unfortunate, grey-coated victim. My work, the reason I found myself in Wisconsin, explores the tools and techniques humans have used throughout our history in our efforts to control the natural world around us. This felt like a rare and serendipitous opportunity to examine on a very immediate and micro level the frequently fatal outcome of these types of adversarial relationships. I had not even set foot on the ACRE campus yet, but I already knew what my first project would be: I needed to track down this wolf. I wanted to see it and smell it and be near it, and being a fairly tactile person with a lifelong love of animals I was excited by even the posthumous possibility of touching such a rare and beautiful wild thing.

 

 

In my mind this would be different. Different from seeing a wolf in the zoo pacing safely behind a fence or a moat or lounging in the shaded dirt of an artificial den, on display for the public’s education or as a conservation marketing tool. It was different from the wolf in a museum, stuffed and austere and sanitized, displayed for posterity. Different from the wolf in the photograph hanging limp from a tree or a fence or in the bed of a pickup, it’s tongue lolling, displayed as a trophy. It would most certainly be different than the intimate, narrated glimpse into pack hierarchy and the dramatic ballet of the hunt served up to us in the vivid HD of a nature documentary. Quite different as well from the dispassionate measurements, graphs and tracking data on the wildlife services website, displayed for further analysis. All of these are examples of the varied motivations behind and justifications for the actions we have taken against wolves. These also exemplify the lenses through which our conceptions of wild animals and nature in general are mediated. But perhaps the most consequential to the wolf population overall has been the incentive of the farmer and the rancher to protect their livestock, both as a source of food for themselves and their families, and also as a valuable economic commodity in a growing capitalist marketplace.

 

wolf bounty

 

As European settlers moved west they brought with them from the Old World a long-standing prejudice against the wolf. To protect themselves and their property traps were set, poison bait laid out, and most insidiously bounties were placed on the heads and hides of wolves, fundamentally shifting them from a reviled nuisance to be dealt with as needed, to a targeted quarry with more economic value dead than left alive. The Gray Wolf had been all but eradicated in the United States by the middle of the 20th century. Since the endangered species act of 1973 a slow and controversial recovery has been underway, and as a result wolves and humans are coming into more frequent contact, which more likely than not ends poorly for the wolf.

For a week I hunted. I met with Jeff Drake, the farmer in the photograph and adjacent neighbor to the property where ACRE takes place, and got a tour of the hilltop pastures where his herd of fifty or so cows grazes. He recited the familiar story of how he had lost an estimated eight valuable calves in the last three years to wolves. He described the morning he happened to stumble upon the predator chasing a calf and it’s mother and ultimately, and legally, eliminated this “problem animal” with a single rifle shot to the chest.  Eventually I learned that the wolf’s body was being stored in a freezer about an hour north of Steuben and I had the name of the person who could unlock the door for me, game warden Shawna Stringham. The next day we met outside the wolf's temporary morgue: a house-sized, nondescript equipment shed on a sleepy county road, running through a valley about an hour north just outside Westby, WI.

Inside, as we lifted the freezer door the images I had imagined for days in preparation for this moment cycled through my mind. Essentially, I was expecting to see a dead dog in a trash bag carelessly heaped atop a mass grave of assorted parts of a half dozen other unlucky woodland creatures the way the chest freezers in my friend’s garages growing up were filled with haphazard piles of fish sticks, cheap ground beef and Fla-Vor-Ice.  In reality what I saw was much more clinical; the freezer was otherwise empty save the uncovered, frozen body of the 80 lb., 3 year-old male wolf.

 

self portrait with wolf

 

From above, the fatal gunshot wound was not visible and he lay in an unnatural fetal position, his head gruesomely twisted beneath his right shoulder in necessary accordance to the constricted, plastic space. The air in the utility shed was still and silent, and our intrusion had kicked up a light dust that hung shimmering in a few thin shafts of late afternoon sunlight. My breathing was short as I reached down to the body and ran my fingers through the tawny fur on his shoulder. He wore his thinner summer coat, and I thought to myself how he looked like nothing more than an overlarge coyote.

We hoisted his rigid, contorted body out and rested it on the freezer lid to get a better look. His coat was a palette of nuanced neutrals, save splashes of red: sanguine dried blood mixed with dirt clumps in the grey fur on his back, and a purer, glistening crimson coated his stiff tongue and spattered across his perfect, ivory-colored teeth. His claws shone jet-black and lustrous as though some thorough, but misguided mortician’s assistant had applied shellac to them for this open casket viewing. The tiny hairs on the fleshy pads of his paws glinted silver with condensation. His abdomen was strangely hard to the touch, and the hairs felt both soft and coarse simultaneously, like those wire-haired dogs who’s wispy texture always made me feel slightly uneasy. A few dark birthmarks were visible through the fur of his belly, like ink dripped from an overfilled calligraphers pen. I looked at him for a long time and tried to make a few photographs to help me remember what this looked and felt like, to try and process this impossible image.

On the hour and a half drive back to Steuben, and for days afterwards, I felt a sense of accomplishment blended with a profound sadness. It had turned into something resembling a feeling of success, but lacking the usual elation, which is all too frequently the sole reward for one’s artistic labor. I had done what I set out to do, but it did not feel good. I think now about my desire to not only see the wolf and be in it’s presence but also to touch it and document it in my own way, and use it to inform my current and future work. I think about the quote from Judge Holden in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, “whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent." Knowledge is power, and perhaps it was some similar subconscious drive to know and therefor lay claim to this being that had pushed me towards this singular and quietly momentous experience.

Shawn Creeden, 2013


This article was originally printed in The Expo Register,
a collaboration between ACRE Projects and Bad At Sports
for EXPO Chicago. Edited by Dana Bassett