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Mech's name is known to biologists around the world, and privately he enjoys the fame, but he's not especially interested in fortune. More than half of the royalties from his latest book, The Arctic Wolf: Living with the Pack, are being split between the International Wolf Center, in Ely (of which he is vice-chairman), and The Wolf Recovery Program of the Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife. When he's on Fish and Wildlife business, he drives a government-issue Plymouth. It smells faintly of dead animal—a couple of winters ago Mech tossed a frozen muskrat into the trunk and only remembered it the following spring.
There was little in Mech's upbringing in Syracuse, N.Y., that suggested he would eventually turn into the foremost expert on wolves. Certainly it wasn't the blue-collar neighborhood in which he grew up, where the wildest animals a youngster might encounter would be the drunks staggering from bar to bar on Friday evenings. Mech, the oldest of three children, was named after his father, who worked all his life as a laborer in Allied Chemical's Solvay Processes chemical plant.
But Mech could escape to the birch and pine woods just to the north of Syracuse, which he did at every opportunity. When he was 14, he attended a conservation camp in the Catskill Mountains, where professional fur trappers taught the boys the rudiments of their trade. He still takes time off from his wolf studies to run trap lines. "I liked hunting and fishing, but there was something about trapping that meant so much more to me, and still does," he says. "There's a phrase known as trapping fever, and any trapper knows what you're talking about. It's an obsession."
The profits from his trapping and other part-time jobs helped Mech get through his conservation studies at Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in Ithaca, N.Y. He trapped animals in the Adirondack Mountains during Christmas and spring breaks. In the summer, Mech worked for the N.Y. Department of Conservation, trapping and releasing black bears. In 1958, his senior year, he met Betty Ann Smith, a fellow Cornell student, and they were married that August, after he spent the summer alone studying the interaction of wolves and moose in Isle Royale National Park, which is on an island in Lake Superior.
In 1963, Mech and Durward Allen, the founder of the Isle Royal wolf project, wrote about their experiences in National Geographic. Three years later, Mech's The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species came out. That wide-ranging look at the wolf—in which Mech describes the tactics and selection practices wolves use when hunting, and which proves that they are not indiscriminate or very efficient killers—has been ranked as one of three books published this century that have drastically revised perceptions of the species. The other two are The Wolves of Mount McKinley , naturalist Adolph Murie's treatise published in 1944, and Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf, a work that Mech deeply resents.
When Never Cry Wolf was released in 1963, Atlantic-Little, Brown, the publisher, sent Mech a review copy of the book, an account of Mowat's experiences as a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service living with a pack of wolves in northern Canada. The book stunned Mech. "I'd just spent three years trying to get near the wolves on Isle Royale without success," he says. "Here this guy shows up doing all these things nobody else had been able to do.
"As a scientist, I hate to see the public think that book is true. It's not," Mech says.
Mowat stands by his book, though he readily admits to having embellished some of the facts. He calls himself a "subjective nonfiction writer" and says, "I have a little saying: Never let the facts interfere with the truth. I'm a little teed off at these scientists, because I, more than anybody, set the stage for the general interest in the wolf. I would say, frankly, that most of them were just bloody jealous."
Mech snorts at the idea that his criticism of Mowat is motivated by jealousy. "Passing that book off as fact is cheating, is what it is," he says. But it is a fact that because Mowat's book was made into a critically acclaimed movie in 1983, some of the thunder was stolen from The Arctic Wolf, Mech's account of living with the white wolves on Ellesmere Island, which was published in 1988.
Mech first became interested in Ellesmere when he was researching The Wolf He read an ornithologist's account of a pack of white wolves that, unlike its counterparts in the forests of Canada and the U.S., showed no fear. But it wasn't until 1986 that Mech could get to Ellesmere, a barren rock outcropping only 450 miles from the North Pole. He and Jim Brandenburg, a photographer, camped near what they had identified as one of the wolves' trails, and gradually the animals began approaching the men.