It seems almost trite, in my neck of the woods, to say that wolves are deeply misunderstood. They are highly intelligent and very social. They are a keystone species critical to ecosystems: add wolves for a healthy ecology, take them away for an unhealthy one. And yet I’m sure many of the old myths and attitudes persist. Wolves have, after all, been hunted almost to extinction, and mild population gains today seem to always bang up against nervous ranchers and eager hunters.
Jim and Jamie Dutcher know more about the perception of wolves than most anyone else. For years, they lived with and filmed a wolf pack in Idaho. And when I say “lived with” I don’t only mean “observed.” At one point they moved their own sleeping quarters into the multi-acre enclosure the wolves lived in. Running With Wolves is a middle-grade book that documents life with the wolves of the Sawtooth Pack. (Early reader and adult versions of their story, both named Living With Wolves like their website, are also available.)
When I first saw the premise, I was surprised. It was well known, even in the ’90s when the book’s main events occur, that exposing wild animals to human contact makes it difficult to release them back into the wild, but right away they address that by pointing out they used wolves who had already been around humans, and they ultimately released the pack into another reserve. Not a complete picture of wild wolfish life—roadkill was brought in for food, for instance—but still a much more close-up look than had really been done before. And sensitive readers be warned, the contact with humans didn’t prevent natural tragedies from happening. One wolf dies, others get hurt.
The book is primarily about the wolves themselves. Readers will get to see the wolves in the pack as individuals, with unique personalities and even howling styles. We get to know them and follow their lives. We see how the hierarchy of wolves works, from alpha to omega, and how that plays out in practice with actual wolves you come to know.
But this book also covers the relationship between the Dutchers, from a chance meeting on a plane to long conversations by phone to eventual marriage. Narration goes back and forth between the two, offering different views on their lives and the pack they lived with. Along the way, readers will learn what being a field biologist or nature documentarian entails. The crew lived year-round in the Idaho wilderness; they had to figure out how to weather hard winters far from the nearest signs of civilization.
If you’ve got an animal-lover or future naturalist in the house, they’ll almost certainly enjoy this close-up look at wolves and people who study them.