University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

Just a Carnivore Being a Carnivore


Author’s note: In 2017, during my second summer of graduate school at the U of M, I participated in a research stint at the U.K. Wolf Conservation Trust, a not-for-profit organization that housed seven wolves that had been born in captivity and were not able to live in the wild. This research was funded by a College of Liberal Arts Summer Research Fellowship and a Walter H. Judd International Graduate and Professional Fellowship.

ne morning I heard a growling, then watched as one Arctic wolf put its head on the rump of another, stretching its neck like a saddle blanket across its sibling’s body. I couldn’t yet tell the difference between the wolves, all scraggly without their winter coats, so I struggled to suss out their social dynamics. I wrote in my notebook that I had seen a snarl evolve into a tender moment. Later I realized that what I witnessed was not an affectionate lupine hug but a show of reasserted power: A dominant wolf will rest its head on the back of a submissive one as a reminder of hierarchy. A volunteer who had been at this a while shared that offhandedly, and when I heard it, I blushed. I felt like a foreign tourist in the land of wolves, only capable of mumbling “Bathroom?” in their language.

Aware that I had much to learn, I steeped myself in the Trust’s library, in the collection of wolf books and the archive of the Trust’s quarterly Wolf Print magazines. I learned that like penguins, the Arctics have “countercurrent” heat exchanges in their paws, which circulate blood and keep their feet from sticking to the frozen tundra. Everything I read was a reminder of how unnatural their current situation was: These wolves—whose nails grow faster than any other subspecies of gray wolf because they evolved to grow dull on permafrost—were now penned “ambassadors” in the dewy pastureland of southern England, scratching their paws against a food-filled chrome tube in a concrete base.

My instinct was to look to the wolves for my mirror. When two siblings circled one another, I longed to call my sister. When two mates nuzzled, I longed to call my boyfriend.

I didn’t want to anthropomorphize this creature that had so long dragged the baggage of human fantasy and fears, but I also didn’t want to assume animals were incapable of feeling the things I felt. I was not a biologist nor a real academic; I had no real lens. I was just one animal watching another in the heat.

I propped my gaze on simile. Sometimes the Arctics walked with tails raised like scorpions; other times they dragged them like old rope. After the rain, their fur lay matted in creamy spikes like fresh meringue. When they rolled into the grass, their bodies fell like Slinkies, first front, then back—half lolling into the sun. 

In these moments they reminded me of my family’s old Australian shepherd, but later, when I stepped through the outer fence to join the other interns and researchers for the afternoon feeding, lifting a bleeding hunk of cow from a plastic bucket, and holding it against the fence for one to grab, I could feel a quick bump of tooth against the blue plastic of my glove and hear the clamp of jaw through another creature’s bone. These weren’t your average house Fido. The noise of a crunched femur sounds like rock-fall, and always sent a zing of awe shooting up my spine. What big teeth you have, I would think, instinctively running my tongue over the smooth row of my own.

The wolf, of course, would not respond. He was just a carnivore being a carnivore. Those teeth were not for eating me.