Fire in the Path

Christopher Camuto

Destroying the unknown creates confusion.
     Diga’kati’yi: “place of setting them free.” Once a site on the Tuckasegee River where the Cherokee released their prisoners of war, now the word could be used to refer to the backcountry acclimation pen for the Tremont wolves.
     Wolves seem to have a prejudice that they do not belong in pens. When watched from out of sight, they do nothing, or very little. They sit, walk about, feint at each other in spiritless adumbrations of dominance and submission, eat when food comes with no memory of having hunted, defecate shyly like dogs. There is no drama in captivity. Wolves don’t howl and hurl themselves at the chain-link fence. Suspended from real action, the mind of this creature designed for constant engagement retracts, coiling not like a snake but like an overwound spring.
     When you approach a wolf pen, the wolves slowly panic, stirred not by fear but from lack of choice. The closed geometry of captivity turns flight into a neurotic motion. The juveniles race half circles together, running an arc through the mud and shit in front of the corner opposite the gate where the humans are gathering. This creates a constant pounding that is unaccountably loud. The wolves change direction without apparent effort or motive, their uncharacteristically pointless behavior driven by some tic that will not serve them well in the wild. Intellectually, these young wolves know that they should not be near humans. But captivity forces them to entertain a contradiction, not something for which the animal mind is grooved. Occasionally one of them will stop and shyly pull a gape into a half snarl, vaguely assaying its power, careful not to fix its eyes on any of the men or women who are now entering the pen. Ears back, the wolf will lock its forelegs, which are spread defensively, involuntarily raise a ridge of hackle between its hunched shoulders, and tentatively clamp its tail down in the tense semaphore of threat display. But even the elaborate communication system of wolves is no match for the ambiguity of this situation.
     The adult wolves stand aside, wasting no energy, eyes sliding back and forth across the humans gathered now on the inside of the gate. They keep as much distance as possible, moving distinctly a little over and back to this spot or that, like knights in chess. They do not bark and snarl as captive feral dogs will. They watch and think.
     Despite the disclaimers in the technical literature, the wolves are red, some more than others—laced through the back of the ears and neck and splashed through their shoulders and haunches and legs. Not bloodred, gi’gage’i, but wa’dige’i, the brown-red color of certain animals like the copperhead and the grouse, a forest red that easily darkens to brown or black in a wolf’s shoulders and across its back and flanks, or bleeds into the ruddy yellow that fades to the pale fur of its underbelly. What a connoisseur of trout fly hackle would call furnace, or like the tawny blend of a cross-phase fox or of a fox squirrel in winter. Red in the signature way that a red-tailed hawk is red. Red as a point of departure. A red quickly hidden in the flowing motion of a running wolf, when the animal turns darker, almost black, not red at all.
     Once we are in the middle of the pen with an odd assortment of gear piled around us, the adults join the juveniles in their pointless race around the inner perimeter of the enclosure, effortlessly accelerating and decelerating, dancing the dance of the dispossessed. This is too much even for them. The family runs bunched up, stumbling over one another in a way they never do in the wild, stopping in the corners where they literally hang their heads and create a collective stare that is as intense and centerless as the strange sound of their running. Then they run again, silent ahead of the galloping sound, intent on their half circuits, as if they might create space with motion.
     The gathering of those faces in the corner of the pen, ancient images hovering in front of the gleaming chain link, is what I remember most vividly. I remember one face— the face of the red wolf—and different faces—these six red wolves that I would come to know as two generations of numbers: 337F, 357M, 520M, 521M, 522F, 525M. I liked that they were named with numbers. It made the subsequent narrative of their lives austere, almost abstract. The numbers protected them from human emotions, which is the only thing that can harm them. In history and mythology, red wolves had suffered from either too much love or too much hate. The numbers allied them with the other side, with Kana’ti and Selu and with the ancient Wolf People who failed to stop the Wild Boys from starting history. Whatever the taxonomists eventually decided, Canis rufus was one of the race of wolves that had made it into time. And here it was, about to be released into one of the fragments of that original world.
     The face of the wolf is one of the extraordinary masks of being—a triangle in a circle, a blend of bear and fox—a dense totemic look, a forest visage. The medial line of raised fur that divides a wolf’s face is one of the great edges in nature, keen diameter of perfectly balanced predatory senses. The bilateral symmetry of a wolf’s face comprises one of those rare, finished images of creation, something that could be improved no further. Another 10 million years of evolution and not a hair would move—no more than the shape of sharks will ever change. The wolf’s face, like the face of the bear and the mountain lion, is not so much a mask as nature’s embodiment of the idea of the mask, something final, like the form of salmon or falcons.
     The face of the red wolf is a further refinement of the idea of a wolf—the snout elongated, the eyes more narrowly set than those of a gray wolf and tilted more steeply, the ears almost dainty. There is a foxlike quality to the look of this wolf, but drawn heavier and bolder than a fox, as if the idea of a wolf had been whittled down to the idea of a fox and then molded back into a wolf as a finer form stained with new shades of fur. There must be at least a dozen colors in the swirling pelage of a face nearly lost to extinction and still shadowed by an uncanny hatred from which wildlife management alone will not rescue it. The juveniles have more white around the muzzle and larger patches of grizzled fur above their eyes. They have not earned their colors. The faces of the adults are darker, redone in those shades of bled umber that take red into black and brown over the underfur of gray and cream, an art that makes a red wolf in dense vegetation no more visible than a grouse on the forest floor.
     Eight people have entered the Tremont pen to witness or assist in the preparation of these animals for release: Chris Lucash of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who is in charge of the Smoky Mountains red wolf reintroduction; his assistant Barron Crawford, then of the National Park Service; Lucash’s boss, Gary Henry, a veteran of endangered species work who oversees the project from the Asheville, North Carolina, office; two student volunteers; and two cameramen from a Knoxville television station. Lucash directs the work, but all the principals know what they have to do. The first time I walked into Chris Lucash’s office, a government-issue house trailer planted near the Cades Cove Ranger station, he was on the phone haggling for cattle carcasses produced by a tractor-trailer accident on I-40 east of Knox- ville, an unexpected bonus for the wolf program, which was always looking for roadkill. And Lucash was, first and foremost, a pragmatist who was well aware of the obvious contradictions of trying to manage wildlife and of the supreme irony of trying to manage wolves. But his job was not speculative. A windfall of wolf chow might not make the pages of the Journal of Mammology, but here in the Great Soggies, it made life a little easier.
     With an undergraduate degree in zoology, Lucash had worked his way up through the ranks in the wolf business, first in Minnesota with David Mech’s gray wolf project and ultimately for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. From 1985 to 1990 he was one of the backcountry biologist-caretakers at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in coastal North Carolina, site of the first permanent reintroduction of red wolves and a breeding source for some of the animals he was handling now.
     Fish and Wildlife sent Lucash to the Smokies in October of 1990 to test the feasibility of red wolf reintroduction there while Crawford was doing his study of the park’s coyote population. A year of experimentation with free-ranging wolves in Cades Cove convinced Lucash that the red wolf could survive in the mountains without undue controversy and simultaneously convinced Fish and Wildlife to put Lucash in charge of that effort.
     When I first talked to him in 1991, Lucash told me so emphatically that he wasn’t a “wolf groupie” I assumed that he once had been. Tried it in college, perhaps, but hadn’t inhaled. But if this dark, wolfish-looking midwesterner had brought any Romantic feelings about wolves east with him, he had worked through them during his tour of duty at Alligator River while living in a dank houseboat moored to a mosquito swarm from which he sallied forth to poke gingerly—there were alligators at Alligator River—around blackwater swamps radio tracking Canis rufus through the cypress, cedar, blackgum, and sawgrass.
     By the time he had gotten set up in the Smokies, the thirty-something Lucash was seasoned and all business. Except for defending their significance as a unique North American canid, he never expressed any feelings about the animals under his care. And he seemed to pride himself on how well his operation took care of its wolves without coddling them. His acclimation pens were well-run, minimum-contact staging areas, not zoo exhibits. The whole point was to prep the animals to leave and never voluntarily come near humans again. With an animal as psychologically sen­sitive and socially complex as the wolf, quality of captivity was critical.
     I grew to appreciate Lucash’s clarity of purpose more and more as time went on. He and Barron Crawford knew exactly what they were—and what they weren’t—doing. They were neither practicing science nor dancing with wolves. They were physically delivering an apex predator, a major North American carnivore, to what was left of eastern mountain wilderness—right under the nose of the twenty-first century and flat in the face of American history.
     The pen is the standard fifty-foot chain-link square surrounded by an electrified fence. Two roofed plywood boxes serve as rudimentary shelters. A few trees have been included within the perimeter to provide shade in summer, but the ground has been churned into a barren, muddy yard. There are water troughs and the black-haired carcass of a wild boar that has been eaten down to its nose, a delicacy that even here didn’t pass muster. When the wolves are not running, you can hear a stream tumbling through the foggy woods. This pen is maybe a dozen miles and half a dozen headwater drainages from the Cades Cove acclima- tion pen. The big spine of mountains, heart of the Smoky Mountain backcountry, rises abruptly to the south, which explains why the small stream runs so hard.
     The site is remote enough to have made it necessary to helicopter the fence sections into what was once a logging camp, the last in the area where, in a final spasm of greed, the Little River Lumber Company destroyed a watershed of old-growth forest that had made it to the brink of preservation before handing the stumps over to the federal government to make a national park out of in the 1930s. Skidder cables and other rusty junk still lie strewn through the ­second growth of mixed oak, hickory, and maple where, with a little forebearance you might have seen trees twenty feet around whose roots reached back to the contact. The surrounding woods are as lean as the wolves, which are themselves a kind of second growth.
     The idea is to release another family of red wolves here—at a backcountry site where the prey base is smaller and more widely scattered and where the terrain is rougher than at Cades Cove. To see what wolves off the tourist route will do. As a release point, the Tremont pen comes as close to what is now called wilderness as it is possible to get in the southern Appalachians, which is to say we’re a few miles into some quiet woods visited only by the occasional backpacker and trout fisherman.
     Lucash is clearly enthused about this release although somewhat daunted by the prospect of having a dozen wolves at large. But keeping track of the Cades Cove wolves had already become routine, and by December the project needed a few new wrinkles. And the Tremont release was intended to have less predictable, more interesting effects. If these wolves stayed in the backcounty, they would be much harder to track but they would give Lucash and Crawford a better idea of how red wolves used mountainous terrain and the great variety of vegetation zones for which the Smokies were famous.
     The home range of the Cades Cove wolves was unusually small and their movements perhaps less complex than they would have been without the centralized prey base provided by the woodlots and pastures. The movements of the Tre­mont animals should provide better information on the red wolf’s relation to deep-forest habitat where apparently it had once thrived. That readaptation was essential to the red wolf’s long-term survival, since the edge was, even within a national park, not the best place to be. And beyond national parks, there is nothing but edge. It’s quite likely that massive deforestation made the wolf, and many other North American animals, much more creatures of edge habitat than they were naturally. Fish and Wildlife needed wolves that, like the surviving population of black bear, were inclined to stay in the mountains.
     Unlike the Cades Cove wolves, which were a natural family, the Tremont wolves were a makeshift arrangement, not unusual in captive breeding programs—for wolves or other species—where candidates for release are often in short supply. But given the importance of early emotional bonding in wolves—between parents and offspring and among siblings—the adoptive status of three of the juveniles raised questions about the bonding within this composite wolf family, which had been pacing off the dimensions of its pen since summer.
     The four-year-eight-month-old female, 337F, was born at Alligator River, where she had a run of ten weeks in the wild before being paired with the three-year-eight-month-old male, 357M, which had been born at the Texas Zoo in Victoria, Texas. They mated and then bred in April of 1992, producing 525M and three other wolves that died soon after birth. Around the same time, a large litter of seven pups was born at Alligator River to a pair of red wolves out of the Horn Island, Mississippi, and the Bull Island, South Carolina, facilities. Three of these pups—two males (520M and 521M) and a female (522F)—were transferred at two weeks of age to the Tremont pair. Adoption in the wild was not unknown among wolves, so this strategy had some precedent.
     In any event, Fish and Wildlife couldn’t afford to be too picky; the Red Wolf recovery program was still racing to escape the narrow genetics of the founding population of wolves. At the time of the Tremont release, in early December of 1992, the original band of fourteen red wolves had increased to several hundred animals, a small but increasing fraction of them wild born. Most of the captive-born wolves were at least born in open-air acclimation pens in wild settings, which exposed Canis rufus to the sights and sounds of a portion of its historical habitat. But the relatively small size of the red wolf population left considerable genetic overlap among the wolves available for release—and even within a given wolf’s ancestry—a breeding density that was an afterglow from the species’ brush with extinction on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast in the 1950s.
     The last of the original red wolves died in 1988. The Tremont female was two and three generations removed from that founding stock, closer than most wolves in the program. The male’s bloodlines went back three, four, and five generations to the last free-ranging wolves. Between them, they shared seven of the fourteen founders. Of the female’s twelve ancestors in the program, all but one also appear in the male’s family tree. Within the male’s ancestry, four wolves showed up in both its maternal and paternal lines of descent, with two of those animals also shared within its maternal line.
     You did not have to be a geneticist to see that the evolution of Canis rufus was starting over. Twenty-five years after the species was first listed as endangered, the people at Fish and Wildlife who were piloting the genetic recovery were staring at some dangerous if slowly improving readings on their instrument panel—distribution of the founders’ alleles, survival of founding genomes, retention of wild heterozygosity as well as an inbreeding coefficient they watched as intently as a rate-of-climb indicator during a foggy take­off. The recovery program’s goal was the same as it had been from the beginning: Increase the population and genetic variety of red wolf stock and expose as many animals as possible to the shaping forces of natural selection within their historically known range. With any luck, the Great Smoky Mountains would have two litters of wild-born wolves in the spring of 1993, and the natural history of Canis rufus, never studied under natural conditions in any part of its historic range, would begin to unfold as it had in and around the blackwater swamps at Alligator River.
     The cage in the woods was history, the eye of the needle.
     The work in the pen is routine. The student volunteer approaches the racing wolves with the kind of long-handled net used to boat salmon or steelhead. When she has a wolf singled out, she intercepts it along the fence, trapping it with a lunge and instantly snapping the net mouth to the ground. As the wolf surges in the net, rocking the net handler about, Crawford grabs the animal’s head from behind while simultaneously kneeling on its body, the aluminum rim of the net helping ro turn the glaring teeth away. The wolf struggles until it exhausts its options and senses it is pinned. Then it idles, mixture rich, breathing hard and straining in a controlled way, cycling its muscles through a continuous test of the possibilities of escape.
     The mesh is pulled back enough to enable Lucash to tie a strip of cloth around the middle of the wolf’s snout as a temporary muzzle, at which point the net is pulled out of the way. Crawford shifts his weight about like a wrestler to keep control over the animal’s head and back so that it can neither bite nor jump upright. A nylon muzzle is exchanged for the cloth noose. The wolf is now all eye—black and amber outrage—but struggles only if the pressure on its neck or hindquarters is eased. Then it will surge against the opportunity and try to free its head and get to its feet, which are soon loosely tied together.
     The wolf is inspected for injury, vaccinated, and then weighed. Finally the animal is fitted with a radio collar. The crew works methodically but quickly. All this takes about ten minutes but seems much longer, as if in the presence of wolves, wolf-time takes precedence. Lucash is keenly aware of the dangers of contact time. Not the danger to the handlers, which is minimal, but to the wolves, which is enormous. Then the legs are untied, the muzzle is removed, and the wolf, unhanded, springs away without a sound and stands off with its mates, distinguished now by the thick, brightly-colored collar.
     Despite all the handling, intimate in its way, there doesn’t seem to be any contact between man and wolf in this exchange. There is no oohing and aahing over these beautiful animals. No one says anything to calm the wolf being handled, as you would to a dog at a vet. The animal is rarely alluded to in what little instrumental conversation goes on. The wolves have not been given pet names, as was once the odd fashion in wolf research, and although their numbers will take on character and narrative significance once they are released, in the acclimation pen the studbook designations are merely a bookkeeping convenience, tags to each animal’s genetic ancestry and medical history that now are pegged to a radio-tracking frequency. This intense work goes on in an emotional vacuum with the tacit hope that the necessary handling, all the better for being perfunctory and a bit rough, will not ruin the prospects of release.
     The adults are the last to be prepped and collared and are noticeably harder to deal with, partly because they are twenty pounds heavier than their young but also because of their stronger emotional, or psychological, reaction to this contact. That intransigence is a good sign, since both are well traveled and have been handled before. Good wolves never get used to this.
     Not surprisingly, the Tremont male is the most difficult. For a zoo-born wolf, 357M is assertive. He wants no part of what is happening to him and cannot be handled in the open. Eighty pounds of healthy, independent-minded red wolf doesn’t make for a docile patient, and shouldn’t. If the proponents of the red wolf are correct, this bristling canid represents the wildness descended from all those red wolves lost in history.
     Somehow 357M is driven into the three-foot-square plywood kennel, the sliding door of which is quickly closed. Perhaps he just dives into it to escape the net handler’s futile moves. Once in, 357M settles down. This is escape, not aggression. The wolf is seeking space he can’t find, a wolf’s fate.
     When the roof is slid off, the Tremont male seems stunned to find itself confronted from above. The animal looks trapped but not frightened. It has no moves to make in this man-controlled world. Crawford gets a long-handled noose on the wolf, and Lucash lowers himself into the box to pin the animal with his knees. The noose is the last straw. The Tremont male bares its teeth for the first time in this struggle, a silent, neck-twisting, eye-bulging snarl, momentary flash of gleaming dentition—that ridgeline of incisors, canines, premolars, and molars archaeologists love to find—a New World tool that can be traced back to the Irvingto­nian, when the idea of canine predation hereabouts was refining its resourcefulness in a real-life diorama of Smilodon and mastodon, ground sloth and tapir. The wolf in the box has come a long way, its slashing jaws the working edge of a timeworn wildness.
     Crawford controls the animal from above with the noose while Lucash does his work—cloth noose, nylon muzzle, inoculations, radio collar. The juveniles suffered the indignity of being hog-tied and hung upside down for a moment from a large spring scale. The big wolf’s weight is guestimated. The animal is covered with mud and shit, as is Lucash. But this muddy, shitty, cold, and bloody work—Lucash has cut himself with the knife he’s using to trim the excess length off the radio collar—is how wildness gets back into the world. A man and a wolf wrestling in a plywood box. It’s come down to that—this unruly inheritance from the Wild Boys.
     Lucash is done and out in ten minutes. Crawford releases the noose and the kennel door is opened. The Tremont male bounds out and reoccupies the netherworld of the perimeter where it has taught itself to wait. Its posture is neither submissive nor aggressive. The young wolves watch the elder wolf closely. Judging from its neutral body language, 357M seems psychologically unharmed.
     Physically, the Tremont male or any of the wolves could have pounced on the human intruders and taken a piece out of someone, but there was no suggestion of any such possibility. There is so much natural separation between man and wolf, this intrusion is accomplished quite casually. Wolves, too, observe taboos, adhere to a rational nature when they are allowed to do so. The animal is a predator, but predation is not the same as violence. No one who knew wolves would think of bringing a weapon into a wolf pen. The danger is all on one side. Except for what history has done to them, these wolves have come through the prep unharmed. All they need now is to be allowed to take their numbers into the woods they have been observing with great interest for half a year. They watch us with intense indifference.
     The prep is done in an hour. The gear is gathered up and we troop out, backs to the wolves. Someone stops to chain and padlock the gate. The gap in the electric fence is restrung and the juice turned back on. This is not to keep the cunning, rapacious beasts at bay, in case they should pick the lock, but to protect them from humans for one more night.
     Last I saw of them, the mud-spattered Tremont wolves stood together on the opposite side of the weird enclo- sure staring obliquely at us through a dismal grain of sleet. I remember the filthy boar’s head and the hull of muddy ribs and that the wolves looked more like lean, offbeat survivors in a Beckett play than sweaty heroes in a Jack London story. But Canis rufus had run the gauntlet. Six wolves were headed home.
     As we moved down the trail single file, I realized that except for that eerie pounding of their paws on the frozen mud, the wolves had not made a sound. All the language, all the vocalizations I had heard that morning on Anthony Creek, they kept that to themselves.
     When, on the way back down to the vehicles, I asked Lucash when he would consider the reintroduction a success, the pragmatist threw an unwittingly Emersonian answer over his shoulder.
     “When wild-born wolves give birth in the wild.”
     Then he stopped and we stood aside and let the others troop by with the nets and gear.
     “When we’ve got wolves out there that don’t remember this shit. Then we might have something going.”
     The next day, exactly two months after the release of the Cades Cove family, the gate on the Tremont acclimation pen was left open and the backcountry wolves were free to leave. The crew from WBIR had mounted a video camera over the gate hoping to capture the moment on film. Whoever opened the gate turned the camera on. That afternoon the first winter storm of the season settled into the mountains, and the recovering forest slowly filled with snow. Some time after the videotape ran out, the Tremont wolves stepped into the woods to begin, in private, a recovery of their own.