SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
November 05, 1979
The odd hold wolves have on man moved Jack Lynch to give up his job, spend all of his money and devote all of his time to the preservation of a vanishing breed
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November 05, 1979

Keeper Of Something Unique

The odd hold wolves have on man moved Jack Lynch to give up his job, spend all of his money and devote all of his time to the preservation of a vanishing breed

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Once, in northern Canada, I camped near a den of wolves and spent most of the softly lit Arctic night enthralled by the sight of three adults of the species feeding and playing with four woolly pekingese-sized pups. In Alaska, I saw a great black wolf pull down a caribou on the ice of a frozen lake. Another time, in the central Canadian Arctic, six of us were paddling along a river a day or so after a wildfire had left the vegetation along the banks charred. Out of a jumble of rocks stepped a Mackenzie Valley dog wolf. He stood perhaps three feet at the shoulder, and his coat was snow-white, and he stood out against the blackened landscape like a monument. For a mile or so the animal trotted along the shore following us. Nothing in his manner suggested alarm or hostility. It was quite possible that he had never seen either men or canoes and, while it is an anthropomorphic judgment, he had about him an air of joyful curiosity.

I have had few other moments that I recall so clearly as those when I saw wolves in the wild. A good wolf is esthetically magnificent, even awesome. Like rare works of art or extraordinary athletic achievements, wolves tend to inspire transcendental thoughts.

Man's reaction to wolves is evident in the symbolism that surrounds them. The wolf is right up there with the lion, the tiger and the eagle as a metaphor for valor, strength and freedom. Wolf images adorn coins, seals, battle standards. We assign them honorable, or at least admirable, characteristics; compare being called a wolf to being described as a dog, a jackal, a coyote or even a fox. Though some wolves may go bad, like those who pestered the Little Pigs and Ms. Hood, we tend to feel about them as we did about John Wayne. They may be prickly, easily roused and dangerous, but they are essentially proud, true heroes. Even in fantasy it was unthinkable for Mowgli to have been adopted by jackals or the red dogs of the Decan; these lesser canines were sneaky villains against whom the jungle boy had to be vigilantly protected by the gray heroes of the Seonee wolf pack.

In practice, of course, we have treated wolves as if they were crosses between boll weevils and Martian invaders. In this country, clearing the place of wolves was a work that European settlers kept at for the better part of three centuries. For good or bad, real or imaginary reasons, we set after wolves with guns, traps, poisons and even biological warfare. Captive animals were infected with mange and released to mingle with wild wolves that, it was hoped, would become hairless and freeze to death.

The final solution to the wolf problem was not accomplished until the first quarter of this century, when federal and state agencies fought the last of the wolf wars on the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountains. Now only a few hundred timber wolves survive in national park and forest sanctuaries in northern Michigan and Minnesota. There are occasional reports of wolves that, like defiant stragglers from a long-defeated army, may be hanging on somewhere in the northern Rockies. A red wolf or two may survive in the Southwest. Otherwise, the U.S., once inhabited from coast to coast by eleven subspecies of the animal, is wolf-less, although there are still sizable wolf populations in Canada and Alaska.

There is an irony to our elimination of wolves. Once we had rubbed them out—even as we were rubbing them out—we began to miss them. Oldtimers who had taken part in the westerly movement began to note sorrowfully that the old, free days were gone; now there was only Omaha and all it implies. That a man could no longer hear a wolf howl was seized on as the sad symbol of these changes. Nostalgia for wolves grew and in our times has been reinforced by environmental considerations. As a result, even though the animals themselves are now of minimal ecological significance, there are an inordinate number of wolf students, of people trying to buy wolves and keep them as pets, of people looking for wolves to sell, of people deeply concerned with the survival of the few wild wolves left—in short, a lot of wolf buffs.

There is probably nobody more fiercely devoted to wolves than Jack Lynch, who has spent the last 19 years living with, caring for and guarding wolves. His good works have extended to several subspecies, but he is principally, almost religiously, concerned with the fate of the most renowned of all North American wolves, the almost mythic lobo, the buffalo wolf, Canis lupus nubilus. Lynch, 54, lives in a fenced compound on the Olympic Peninsula of the State of Washington. Along with representatives of five other wolf subspecies, he shares the place with 72 buffalo wolves. They are, it is generally thought, the last of their kind, there having been no reliable reports of nubilus in the wild for almost 50 years.

During the 19 years, Lynch has reduced himself to, or a bit below, the poverty level, has given up most of the comforts and necessities that are considered ordinary, has parted from his wife and has worked himself into a chronic state of exhaustion in order to do what he feels must be done for the wolves. Beyond the posthole digging, fencing, shoveling, cleaning, doctoring, question-answering, money-procuring and inspection-resisting (a particular nuisance), there is the matter of food. Lynch, who knows as much about wolf nutrition as anyone ever has, says a mature wolf needs 35 to 40 pounds of meat a week to remain fit. This cannot be chopped liver, so to speak, much less the dried, processed meal fed domestic dogs. Lynch becomes very agitated when he talks about what grain will do to wolves, which do not have, he says, the enzymes to handle it, and about people who try to maintain wolves on this sort of feed. According to Lynch, the meat must be real meat, with blood, bone and guts, of the sort buffalo wolves got for themselves in better days. Because during these 19 years he has seldom had the money to pay for a sufficiency of meat, Lynch has scrounged for it—around slaughterhouses, on ranches and farms where stock may go down, especially along roads for deer and other animals killed by cars and trucks. Upon discovering a carcass, often a high ripe one, Lynch will butcher it—covering himself with gore, offal and flies in the process—and lug the meat home to his wolves. Under such circumstances, supplying a single wolf with 35 to 40 pounds of meat a week for 19 years might be considered at least a semi-Herculean labor, but since he started keeping wolves, Lynch has never been responsible for fewer than 32 of them, and he currently lives with 98, of which 80 are mature. For nearly all of the 19 years, he has done this by himself—a job that a century ago would have occupied 98 wolves. Year after year, come heaven, hell, high water, lawsuits, divorce, bill collectors, sprained backs and the flu, he has scrounged and dragged back the meat, a ton or so every bloody week.

There may have been only one other man able to fully understand what Lynch has done and why he has done it. That would have been a tiny, pugnacious physician named E. H. McCleery, now nearly two decades in his grave. He was the First Keeper, who for 40 years kept the ancestors of Lynch's lobos. More or less on his deathbed, McCleery, acting like an ancient pagan priest appointing a successor to guard sacred trappings, turned the buffalo wolves over to Lynch and charged him with protecting the gene pool, which both men regarded as precious. The coincidences, some of which now seem to him almost fated, that led to Lynch's becoming the Second Keeper are much on his mind. He is aware of his own mortality and he is preoccupied with the questions of who will be the Third Keeper and from where—and if—he will appear.

Trained as an engineer, McCleery, a Pennsylvanian, went West in the 1880s but soon decided that part of the country was more in need of doctors. He returned East, earned a medical degree and went West again, establishing a kind of circuit-riding practice in Wyoming. Sometime before World War I he had an experience that was to change his life directly, that of the then-unborn Jack Lynch indirectly, and collectively those of all buffalo wolves. At a jackpot rodeo McCleery observed a "wolf bait," which had been put on the program as an added attraction. A trapped, hobbled wolf was thrown into a ring where cowpunchers and their dogs set about worrying, roping and racking it to death. Though a frail man, only a few inches over five feet in height, McCleery apparently went berserk and tried to halt the event. The cowpunchers shoved him out of the ring and suggested that if he didn't like their sport he could leave, not only the rodeo but also the territory of Wyoming, that they didn't need a doctor bad enough to put up with one who was a wolf lover. McCleery said he didn't need barbarians and sadists, and he packed up and went back East, finally settling in Kane, a village in the ridge country of western Pennsylvania. There he set up a practice and continued to brood about the fate of the wolves, which were then being exterminated throughout the West. Using his influence with former university friends who had risen to high places in the government and also through direct correspondence with professional wolf hunters, McCleery began to purchase live-trapped animals and have them shipped to him in Pennsylvania. Between 1920 and 1931 he obtained 25 wolves. Having become a knowledgeable canine taxonomist, McCleery determined that most of his animals were true lobos, a subspecies that would become extinct in the wild by the late 1930s.

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