IN PRAISE OF WOLVES by R. D. Lawrence (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: $16.95; 235 pp.) : DON COYOTE: THE GOOD TIMES AND THE BAD TIMES OF A MALIGNED AMERICAN ORIGINAL by Dayton O. Hyde (Arbor House: $16.95; 222 pp.)
After centuries of persecution, their numbers constantly diminishing, predatory animals have enjoyed a striking rehabilitation over the past few decades. For the bulk of our urban populace, cougars and bears and wolves and coyotes have graduated from menacing demons to romantic heroes of the wilderness. Trouble is, it’s love from afar, shallow in depth and understanding: The rare mauling by a grizzly, or a coyote helping himself to a suburban pet, tends to wipe out the reservoir of good will. Rural sentiment is almost equally contradictory, a concoction of local familiarity, pragmatic economic concern, old-fashioned myths and bigotries, and occasional intimate knowledge. Still, except for the relentless loss of habitat that continues to erode the living base for all wildlife, predators are doing relatively well.
R. D. Lawrence has been identified with the cause of wolf conservation for much longer than it has been fashionable. In “The North Runner” and “Secret Go the Wolves,” Lawrence won a large and receptive audience for wolves and the wild country of Ontario, Canada, where he makes his home. This latest is a different sort of book. It is composed largely of Lawrence’s observations of a captive--but untamed--wolf pack in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, of a pair of wolves he and his wife raised, and the conclusions that he draws about wolves and people, and relations between the two species.
There are a very few fine and readable scientific accounts of wild wolf behavior, including “The Wolf,” by David Mech, and Rolf Peterson’s “Wolf Ecology and Prey Relationships on Isle Royale.” But conditions for observing wolf behavior in the wild are generally so difficult that every snippet of information represents enormous effort and hardship. Captive wolves, on the other hand, virtually always live in physical conditions quite alien to their natural ones, and are deprived of the social organization critical to “wolfhood.”
Lawrence loves wolves passionately. He’s raised them; he’s observed wolves in the wild on numerous occasions; he’s visited with some of the best wolf biologists in North America, and he’s built his home in wolf country. Consequently, there is nothing dispassionate about this book, nor any other of Lawrence’s writings. Also evident is Lawrence’s intense desire for physical and “spiritual” contact with wolves. The wolves in Jim Wuepper’s two-acre enclosure in Ishpeming, Mich., the wolves Lawrence himself raised, and the wild ones he’s encountered have been fed, petted and otherwise communed-with.
Wolves are among the most complexly social of the higher mammals, and making sense of their behavior tends to be the kind of biology many people enjoy because it bears so many obvious comparisons with human behavior. Lawrence is pointedly critical of scientists who use mechanistic concepts to analyze wolf behavior--a criticism that would have been much more valid during the height of behaviorism 20 years ago--and indirectly hostile to scientific objectivity. Lawrence’s own insights into wolves benefit extravagantly from his intimate familiarity with the animals and the adoration that leads to tireless patience. His interpretations of the dominance hierarchy and social relations among the four-wolf Michigan pack are backed by detailed observation that nonetheless remain engrossing reading because of Lawrence’s own passion and story-telling ability. His own wolves, Tundra and Taiga, are an infinite supply of delightful anecdotes and object lessons about nature and the commonalities between humans and wolves.
Although this biologist-reviewer feels more than a little uncomfortable about the propriety of supposed intimacy between two species that have their own very separate destinies, and chafes at some theorizing well beyond the pale of mainline science, he can only salute a reverence for wild things so direct and so well spoken.
“Don Coyote: The Good Times and the Bad Times of a Maligned American Original” is so joyously ornery, so damned funny, so compelling that it’s tempting to try for a marathon start-to-finish read. Dayton Hyde is an Oregon cattle rancher with a few books under his belt, and an utterly improbable fondness for unplowed ground, scruffy wood-lot and brush patches, and irreverent coyotes.
You must understand that ranchers hate coyotes. Taking some sort of vow to this effect seems required for membership in livestock associations these days. Times have been very hard on Western sheep and cattle growers the past few decades: Land and feed keep getting more expensive; the price of meat and wool bounce wildly up and down from one year to the next . . . but more down than up. Coyotes like lamb, and maybe a calf once in a blue moon. It’s hard to say whether they’re delivering the coup de grace to stockmen or having much real economic impact at all. One thing’s for sure: Coyotes are closer and a lot less trouble to kill than bankers.
Dayton Hyde, in the meantime, has such a way with an anecdote that you wonder how much of it he’s made up. A wily old coyote that follows you around uninvited and sleeps under your Allis-Chalmers; city club ladies that show up at the ranch while your very-illegal captive coyotes are having pups and you’re running around with panty hose over your head; a man who says he’s spent his life as a cowpoke and rancher who’s written nine books and seems to have time to engage in a wide variety of delightful but economically unproductive adventures. I dunno, sort of reminds me of ol’ Farley Mowat, another fella with as much a sense of imagination as he has of the wild--which is quite a bit.
Howsoever, Hyde makes some telling points amidst his grand entertainment: Ranchers in southern Oregon, as in much of the arid West, have overgrazed, overplowed, overditched, diked, and drained, and overpoisoned, shot, and trapped their country. In this process of economic rationalization, the land has become poorer, more--not less--subject to the vagaries of drought and plague, and a damned sight uglier.
On Yamsi, Hyde’s ranch, they’ve not only come to peaceful terms with their coyotes, but refilled an ancient lake and restored the water regime to a more natural schedule. With less land manipulation and no destruction of varmints, not only has Yamsi become a haven for wildlife, but his cattle production has actually increased. In any case, it’s the coyotes who are the stars of this particular story, and they are naturals to the task. While wolves have nobility, coyotes have insouciance. Don Coyote, the wild old brush-wolf who inspired Hyde, is a true literary character. But in the coyote pups his family raises and ultimately releases, Hyde helps you see the multidimensionality and grace of these fiercely successful survivors.