By Rasha al Raisi
Continuing the theme of reviewing international classics, this time I chose a Canadian book called Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (1921-2014). The book talks about the writer’s experience as a biological researcher sent to the North of Canada between 1948 and 1949 to investigate if the Arctic wolves are behind the declining numbers of the caribou population.
Mowat spends almost a year studying wolves’ behaviour – something that was rarely done before – by following a particular pack that consists of two male wolves, a female and their four pups. Using the first-person narrative, Mowat takes the reader in an eye-opening journey that helps in understanding one of the most misperceived beings in the animal’s kingdom.
Wolves are not blood-lusting rabid creatures that enjoy attacking other creatures. Surprisingly, their diet mainly consist small mammals such as rodents and hares. An adult wolf can devour more than thirty rats at a one go. Even when it comes to heavy kills such as caribous, wolves would collaborate with other packs and focus on does and fawns.
Before hunting any of the two, the wolves would ‘test’ the prey by trotting after it for a few seconds to check its suitability for the hunt. Healthy ones are left aside and only the sick and injured are pursued. The meat of the game is consumed for days and sometimes weeks, with wolves hiding the good bits in their caves away from the foxes. Wolves are social animals where family ties matters. They get visits from their relatives (aunts, grandparents… etc) who’d also help in raising the pups. Wolves mate for life and if a female wolf gets killed, her pups are adopted by other families and raised like their own. Howling is a medium of communication through which different messages are exchanged such as caribou and human group movements across the wild, also expected visits from other relatives.
One of the fascinating information that Mowat represents is the Eskimo’s ability to understand and interpret different wolves’ messages. Mowat’s study concludes that the main reason for the decline of the caribous’ numbers is human activity, especially leisure hunting that was considered a tourism attraction and approved by the Canadian government at the time.
The culling of wolves and foxes was also advocated and hunters were paid an amount of money for each head. Published in 1963, the book was criticised by many such as the Canadian Wildlife Service – that funded Mowat’s expedition – calling it “semi-fictional”.
Mowat’s claims of being sent to justify the extermination of wolves and foxes was met with anger by the organisation, who recognizes wolves as an integral part of the ecosystem. He was also accused of plagiarising the observations of other biologists and claiming it as his own, an allegation he totally denied. However, Mowat’s book was received well by the public, who’d sent thousands of letters to the Canadian Wildlife Service opposing the culling of wolves. It helped in changing people’s perception of the wolf to a more positive one.
The book was translated into Russian and published in the Soviet Union. It soon became influential and caused a public reaction against wolf-culling efforts. The book was made into a movie in 1983 by the same name starring Charles Martin Smith who played Mowat’s part. The book is enlightening, thought provoking and funny with many laugh-out-loud moments (especially his first encounter with the wolves in person). Mowat’s concludes that the image that we created for the wolf merely reflects the real image of ourselves: Savage and ruthless killers. We simply made the animal a scape goat for our sins. A recommended read for everyone.