The Reign of Wolf 21:
The Saga of Yellowstone’s Legendary Druid Pack
by rick mcintyre
greystone books, 272 pages, $26.90
The Redemption of Wolf 302:
From Renegade to Yellowstone Alpha Male
by rick mcintyre
greystone books, 288 pages, $26.90
The wolves behind the fence at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York, were lithe and rangy. They weren’t big. They didn’t slaver. They trotted up and down as our human guide told us charming tales of wolf-ambassadors, wild creatures who trusted their handlers enough to come out into the world of people. We heard about a wolf who padded through Manhattan on a leash, then visited a television studio and, like unruly stars before him, peed on the set. The wolves at the preserve are not ravenous beasts running behind a troika or cunning, sleek predators camouflaged in Grandma’s nightie. They like to eat hard-boiled eggs.
And yet there was still something uncanny about those slender creatures pacing at the edge of their enclosure. When they put their paws up on the fence or opened their jaws to get a treat from the handler, they looked like dogs. (A wolf’s jaws are powerful enough to bite through a human thighbone.) But when they dropped back down, when they loped swiftly and silently along the edge of their woods—then we caught our breath. Then we saw the wildness hidden in the wolves.
I’ve loved wolves since childhood. I read Wendy and Richard Pini’s comic book series ElfQuest, which featured a group of child-sized elves (the Wolfriders) who were psychically bonded with the wolves they rode, and I became a “wolf girl.” Years of wolf dolls, wolf T-shirts, and wolf books followed.
The wolves of ElfQuest are sometimes chubby, tumbling cubs and sometimes working animals, no more unsettling than a Clydesdale pulling a beer wagon. But at other times the comic touches a more mystical string. When the Wolfriders learn the secret of their origins, we enter the mind of the elf woman who first sealed the compact between elves and wolves. We see the world as she sees it—and it is overwhelming. Rainbows and galaxies flash beneath the paws of the elf-wolf: “Her thoughts are like the open sky . . . like a plunge into a bottomless chasm.” The elves who thought they understood the wolves they loved must realize that “to [share thoughts] with a wolf is one thing. To be a wolf is another.” The Wolfriders’ first encounter with a wolf, it turns out, was not a bargain or a befriending. It was shattering ecstasy. Beneath the endearing wolf, the playful wolf, the hardworking wolf, the admirable wolf—there is still the wild wolf.
Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. They flourished, setting off what an article on Yellowstone’s website calls “an avalanche of change”: By keeping the elk population down, wolves made space for the plants and animals these big munchers were crowding out—from willow trees and magpies to beetles and beavers. Rick McIntyre, a retired National Park Service ranger, has spent more than forty years helping people get to know wolves, and is the author of the three volumes so far released in Yellowstone’s series of alpha wolf biographies. (The term “alpha” has become somewhat controversial, but McIntyre uses it as a forthright description of the shifting hierarchies visible within packs.)
I read The Reign of Wolf 21: The Saga of Yellowstone’s Legendary Druid Pack first, even though it’s the second book in the series, and I’d recommend starting with it. Wolf 21 is a fascinating fellow. He was raised by a foster father, Wolf 8 (chronicled in The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone’s Underdog). Wolf 8 was a small wolf who spent his youth being bullied by his bigger siblings. But he was fearless. He lost his own father to a wolf from a rival pack; McIntyre’s books make clear how many wolves die at the paws of other wolves. Years later, Wolf 8 confronted his dad’s killer. This time he was big enough and determined enough to defeat the killer—but instead of taking a bloody revenge, Wolf 8 let his rival flee. Wolf 21 was a witness to this act of both bravery and magnanimity (this is clearly how McIntyre sees it—we’re all anthropomorphizers here), and McIntyre believes that Wolf 8’s example shaped his foster son.
Wolf 21 was gorgeous: a powerful wolf, whose deep black coat turned a fetching gray as he aged, with lush fur and big yellow eyes. He used cooperation rather than aggression to build up the biggest wolf pack ever recorded. Although the Druid pack dwindled from its peak of thirty-seven wolves—a necessary diminishment, since packs that grow too big risk depleting the prey animals in their territory—the sheer number of wolves who followed 21 suggest his prowess as protector and provider. As far as McIntyre knows, 21 never lost a fight—and he never killed a defeated opponent.
Despite a lifetime of wolf fandom, I learned a lot from McIntyre’s books. He emphasizes the playfulness of wolves, especially of the most successful alphas, and how much of their play involves pretending to be weak, low-status wolves. Wolf 21 was one of the most playful adults McIntyre watched, even becoming “goofy” in his antics with the pups. The alphas allow the pups to pin them, not only to chase but to catch them, and in this way they prepare the pups for an adulthood that may include leadership, submissive followership, or alternating periods of each.
The first three Yellowstone wolf biographies cover alpha males. The next volume will cover the alpha females. McIntyre notes that although “alpha male” has become a catchphrase for domineering or aggressive human behavior, “male wolves accept rejection, do not bite back when bitten [by females], and do not force females.” Female wolves determine the composition of their packs at least as much as male wolves do, choosing mates and choosing when to leave home just like the menfolk. They make decisions about where to hunt and, crucially, where to den so that their pups have the best chance of survival. She-wolves can be vicious toward their rivals: Wolf 21’s longtime mate, the equally impressive Wolf 42, was frequently “beaten up” by her sister. When Wolf 42 came into her own as the alpha female of her pack, she chose a different path, resolving disputes with other wolves peacefully and helping them care for their pups. McIntyre loves to learn lessons from his wolves, and he composes brief but heartfelt sermons on cooperation and bravery.
McIntyre loves Wolf 21, Wolf 42, and Wolf 8. (If you’re wondering whether these number-names sometimes make the books tough to follow, I admit that they do, despite frequent helpful epithets like “the Druid alpha female” or “8’s largest brother.”) But perhaps the funniest wolf bio is the one about the wolf he despised.
A beautiful black wolf with soulful eyes gazes out from the cover of The Redemption of Wolf 302: From Renegade to Yellowstone Alpha Male. I showed the book to a friend, commenting that the ladies went wild for this “bad boy” wolf, and my friend lifted her eyebrows and said, “I can see why!” Wolf 302 sneaked around various packs, flirting with and impregnating the females, who loved to get with him on the down-low in spite of the opposition of their alphas. When the pups were born, he took off. Wolf 302 ran away from fights, even if that meant leaving the womenfolk in danger. This guy even stole a vole from a pup, the wolf equivalent of taking candy from a baby. McIntyre is so frustrated by this rogue wolf—and yet both lupine and human females adore him: “[A] young girl named Andrea gave me a drawing of 21 and 302. She encircled 302 with little hearts.”
McIntyre works hard to convince us that Wolf 302 had a conversion of heart. The wolf does eventually start bringing food to pups and fighting to defend his pack. He never becomes an extraordinary wolf like 21, but even an ordinary Yellowstone alpha will have to risk his life again and again for his pack, and Wolf 302 clears that bar. McIntyre attempts a charitable judgment—“302 was a free spirit who marched to a beat that was different from the other male wolves I had known”—but I’m not sure his heart is in it.
McIntyre’s wolf stories show us what you might call the wolves’ human side: the recognizable, intelligible ways that wolves are just like you and me. But he also describes, again and again, the fervor of his desire to help people “see wolves.” Just that: to see them, often through a scope, in the distance. If wolves were just like us, would we go to the woods to see them? Would we thrill at a glimpse?
We are separate from other creatures, for the same reason we are divided against one another and within ourselves. McIntyre has to scare off wolves who get too comfortable around humans. Adam named the animals, but if they get used to us, they’ll die at our hands. And so we long for them, as we long for all that we’re estranged from.
Eve Tushnet is the author, most recently, of Tenderness: A Gay Christian's Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God's Extravagant Love.
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