“One time, I came across one grizzly female with two cubs down by the river. When she saw me, she got spooked but then I started talking with her and begged her not to leave … After a few moments of listening to me, she stopped and brought the cubs out back across the creek. Bit by bit the grizzly came closer while I talked to her. She really looked like she was relaxing. Then, she decided to figure out who this guy really was, and walked at right angles to smell me … Suddenly, she hit my scent and a ripple flashed through her muscles … She was instantly afraid. The mother bear tore back, picked up the cubs and ran away across the river. She was in absolute terror. I felt like weeping. What was it in her memory that made her so scared by human scent? Was it something that she experienced? Did she witness her mother killed in front of her and smell the men who had killed her?”
Charlie Russell, Canadian naturalist, quoted in Jeffrey M. Masson, Beasts: What Animals can Teach us About the Origins or Good and Evil, Bloomsbury, New York, 2014.
We have a widespread misconception that many wild animals are rabid human-killers, which is why we have a sort of love-hate relationship with animals like bears or wolves. On the one hand, we hold such animals in awe because of their majesty and strength, yet view them with fear and distrust, assuming that we are part of their menu. In reality humans have not been seen as a prey species by bears, wolves or whales because we came on the scene far too recently to have figured in their dietary habits. Education has not changed this misconception. But the film I’m about to recommend might.
Return to the Wolves (2017) is a Chinese movie that tells the story of a wolf named ‘Green’ which was rescued an orphaned cub by a Li Weiyi, an artist, while she was roaming the beautiful Ruoergai grassland of north-western Sichuan in China. Li recounts:
“One day a big he-wolf sneaked into a sheepfold and stole a sheep for its cubs. Over the next few days, huntsmen put down traps to catch the wolf. Eventually one of the traps turned up a bloody paw. Following the smell of blood, hounds guided their owners to the injured wolf, which they soon killed. From that day on, the mother wolf howled every night near the village and went to kill the sheep in revenge, which left the villagers feeling very scared. Therefore, they decide to kill the mother wolf as well (by poisoning her).”
Li went looking for the wolf cubs and after three days of searching, she found them, though only one was still alive. She brought the cub back to the city, and named him Green, after the color of his eyes.
After raising Green for about a year, Li decided that the city was no place for a wolf, and that he must return to the wild. For the next seven years, she and her friend Yifeng, an amateur film director, brought Green back to the grassland in repeated visits so he could learn to hunt, but more importantly, find a wolf pack that would accept him as a member.
By fits and starts and trial and error (including a failed attempt that led to Green being rejected and injured by another wolf), a wolf pack was found in the thick of winter which accepted Green.
A year later, Li returned to the grassland to see how Green was coping. He was doing fine. He also lost none of his affections for his adopted ‘mother’ (Li actually calls Green her ‘son’). Li went away tearful, yet happy that Green was thriving in the wild and was in fact, the leader of the pack.
Return to the Wolves was produced by Yifeng on a low budget, but with copious amount of patience as he had to put together the 1,000-plus hours of videos shot using various devices including hand-phone into a 1 hour 38 minute film that tells the story of Green from a cub to becoming a hunter. Some critics derided the movie as being amateurish, something I won’t argue with. Be that as it may, their ‘amateurish’ efforts paid off. The film became the highest grossing Chinese film over a debut weekend, earning US$1.7 million at the box office, a surprising outcome considering that the Chinese have long viewed wolves with fear and disdain.
I watched the movie and was totally engrossed for the full hour and a half by this simple story of compassion told straight from the heart. Wolves are innately wild and do kill sheep and cattle reared by humans. But human killers they are not, a misconception the film indirectly addresses. In one touching scene, Li had her foot injured while trudging through the grassland in winter. Sensing her predicament, Green literally roped a horse nearby so his ‘mother’ could ride safely home. There are other moments of tenderness when Green shows aspects of ‘humanness’ that we don’t expect in a wolf, but I will not divulge too much in order not to spoil your fun from watching it. Ultimately, I think the film succeeds in a way formal education does not in dispelling our stubborn misconceptions about wolves as beasts to be feared and exterminated. In the end, we are confronted with the question as to whether wolves are more prey than predators (see notes below).
Watch the movie:
The following are edited excerpts from the book, Beasts: What Animals can Teach us about the Origin of Good and Evil, by Jeffrey Masson:
“When Europeans arrived in the New World, roughly 250,000 wolves flourished in what are now the lower forty-eight states … By the 1970s, only five hundred to a thousand wolves remained in the lower forty-eight states. Wolves have also been completely exterminated in many other places around the world. Sir Ewan Cameron killed the last Scottish wolf in 1680. In Ireland, the last wolf died in 1786. In France from 1818 to 1829, fourteen thousand wolves were killed each year. At the end of the First World War, the population was estimated to be between 150 and 200 animals. The last confirmed French wolf kill occurred in 1937. In the 17th century, the Swedish king Magnus Eriksson declared wolf hunting a civic duty with only priests and landless women exempted. Somebody killed Sweden’s last wolf in 1966. In Norway, the last wolf was killed in 1976.”