Wolves On Film 

The tale of the Sawtooth Pack takes center stage

Living with Wolves
Feb. 13, 11 a.m., 3 p.m.
Gaillard Auditorium
77 Calhoun St.

Wolf Empire: An Intimate Portrait of a Species
Feb. 13, 1:30 p.m.
Feb. 15, 1 p.m.
Riviera Theatre
227 King St.

Wolves are a touchy subject. Just ask Sarah Palin. When we recently spoke to the nonprofit Living with Wolves corporation, its director voiced concerns about at least one previous newspaper report. And with good reason.

"One story on us was headlined 'Wolves in the Neighborhood,'" Director Clare Swanger says. "It was meant as a joke, but it sent out the wrong message."

click to enlarge Jim gets a shot of a big yawn
  • Jim gets a shot of a big yawn

So to be clear: there will be no wolves roaming your neighborhood during SEWE. Instead we'll get Jim and Jamie Dutcher, two filmmakers who spent six years living with the misunderstood creatures.

Their presentation will include a 40-minute version of their Living with Wolves documentary, a talk, projected images, and a Q&A. They'll tell the tale of the Sawtooth Pack, a family of wolves that they observed in a vast enclosure in the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho.

When the project commenced in 1990, wolves were severely endangered and elusive. So Jim Dutcher got a permit from the Forest Service, brought rescue center wolves to the area, and set up a tented camp/production office within the enclosure. From there, he was able to observe them without interfering with their natural activities; when the wolves felt like it, they visited Jim. They never answered to the "human" names he gave them. Jim created a clever compromise between monitoring the pack and letting them do their own thing.

Jim learned that the wolves were nothing like the Little Red Riding Hood predator of lore. They were intelligent, possessed distinct personalities, and adhered to a strict hierarchy. This structure is headed by an alpha male; a submissive omega is at the bottom of the heap. A number of bold, shy, or playful wolves completed the pack, many of whom didn't care to be the boss but refused to be subjugated to the bottom.

"The alpha gave the pack confidence," says Jim's son Garrick, "asserting himself and maintaining peace by keeping the others in check. Another volunteered for the role of puppy sitting. Litter rearing was exciting, and the emotion was palpable when a female was giving birth."

Filming the pack was no picnic. The Idaho winters were particularly harsh, and Jim's camp was often swallowed by the snow. As he and the wolves grew to trust each other, the filmmaker grew increasingly concerned about the downtrodden members of the group. But Jim and the pack were both surprisingly resilient, surviving the wilderness with an important story to tell: wolves aren't the Big Bads they're believed to be.

click to enlarge Jim and Jamie Dutcher followed a wolf pack for six years
  • Jim and Jamie Dutcher followed a wolf pack for six years

Jim had a confidante to tell his story to. He consistently wrote letters to Jamie — then employed in the animal hospital of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Jamie eventually joined him in Idaho, assisted him, and married him. Jamie gained the wolves' trust as well; she was allowed to crawl into a den to get a close-up look at the first Sawtooth cubs born on the territory.

Soon after, Jim's lease at Sawtooth Wilderness ran out, and the entire pack had to be relocated to the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. But the filmmakers and their son have visited the pack since, seeing the cubs reach old age. "It's always quite a celebration on their behalf," Garrick says. "They recognize us and they're excited to see us."

The Dutchers have continued to spread the good word about their favorite animals, educating people through their films and live presentations. They've given talks at dozens of locations, including Harvard University, the Explorers Club, and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Wolves are also the animal of choice for photographer Scott Barry of Woodstock, N.Y. He has a table at SEWE, and he'll be giving lectures and showing slides at the Riviera Theatre. "I teach the audience secrets of how real wolves howl," Barry says. While taking a shot with a telephoto lens, he was able to look down a wolf's throat and noticed that his subject curled back the tip of its tongue to project the sound. "When the public try to howl, they sound like a coyote with a stomach condition. But a true howl is melodious and guttural."

To Barry, wolves are the opera singers of the wilderness, contracting their diaphragms to throw the sound further. "It's a function for survival, but it's also eerily beautiful."

Barry incorporates a lot of humor into his lectures. "It's my chance to be a stand-up comedian. I happen to love using humor to grease the talk. And wolves can be very silly creatures."

Recently, the Living with Wolves corporation had to shift its educational mission into high gear. Last month the decision was finalized to remove wolves from the endangered species list. However, shortly after his inauguration President Barack Obama announced that he will review the decision.

Living with Wolves is determined to let as many people as possible know that wolves are too precious to be hunted. And with the Sawtooth Pack as their good-natured ambassadors, the wolf-friendly nonprofit might be able to do just that.

2009 Southeastern Wildlife Exposition


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