Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Rick McIntyre’s The Reign of Wolf 21 purports to be a natural history of a particular wolf pack, but it is actually a love story, featuring an out-sized hero and heroine couple, set in a war zone. The war zone is Yellowstone National Park, and the protagonists are four-legged predatory canines.
McIntyre is a park ranger and naturalist who studies wolf behavior. In particular, he has followed the lives of wolves in several packs in eastern Yellowstone since their reintroduction into the park in 1995. His observations are especially enlightening to former city kids, like me, who were raised with stories about Big Bad Wolves.
True, wolves are killers. And they are very, very tough, and I daresay, brave. In fact, large males have been known to chase mountain lions up trees and even fight off bears that threaten their young. They specialize in killing prey much larger than themselves, particularly elk and even young or somewhat disabled bison. [They aren’t up to taking healthy bull bison.] They also find it easy to kill domestic animals like cattle or sheep, which contributes to their unpopularity among ranchers. Moreover, they are territorial. Although they often adopt a new wolf that ventures into their territory, they will usually fight (sometimes to the death) groups of interlopers. Indeed, the most frequent cause of death among adult wolves is killing by wolves of other packs.
However, in many ways they exhibit traits that humans consider noble. They are very intelligent, and they love to play, especially with their pups. They are extremely loyal to their immediate families and ferociously protective of their offspring. They are very generous and sharing: adults can consume up to 20 pounds of meat in a single meal, but they then regurgitate most of it for consumption by pack members too young to hunt. Unlike lions, they almost never fight with pack members over access to their kills. They are altruistic: pack leaders risk their own lives to fend off bears or other wolf packs to protect their own pack.
But among wolves, some are braver, stronger, more loyal, more altruistic, and better leaders than the others. And the bravest, strongest, most loyal, most altruistic, and best leader of them all was Wolf 21. [Unfortunately, most wolves are known only by a number given to them when they are anesthetized and given a radio collar—it’s too burdensome to give them more distinguishable names.]
The author first encountered Wolf 21 in the winter of 1999/2000. 21 had recently become the alpha male of the group known as the Druid Pack, which included two adult female sisters, 40 and 42. 40, the elder, was overly aggressive, always bullying her younger sister and other pack members. McIntyre even theorized that 40 had once killed 42’s pups. In April 2000 40 was killed by other wolves, and 42 became the alpha female of the Druids. Thus began a romance between 21 and 42 that lasted the rest of their lives.
The principle narrative of the book is the relationship between 21 and 42, emphasizing their loyalty and affection for one another. They raised many pups and had many grandchildren. They escaped several harrowing encounters with bears, mountain lions, and other wolf packs. They were doting parents who played affectionately with their many offspring. 21 was truly intrepid, sometimes leading the Druids in a charge into rival wolf packs even when they were significantly outnumbered. 21 was so fierce and intimidating that he always prevailed. And yet, he was clement: although he would dominate his opponents by pinning them to the ground, 21 usually let them off with their lives if they would submit to 21’s ascendency. In one encounter, 21 finds a grizzly feeding on a recent kill; being much faster and more agile than the bear, he bites the bear on the rear end in order to prompt the bear to chase him. Meanwhile, other members of the Druid pack are able to feed on the carcass as the bear futilely pursues 21.
Most telling though was his relationship with 42. As the author said in an interview:
“I knew 21 better than any animal ever and my impression was that he was never really impressed with himself or that he was the undefeated heavyweight champion. To him it was something he could do. He had no problem that his mate, 42, was the alpha female and the true leader of the pack.”
The book concludes with a bittersweet scene. After a very long (by wolf standards) life together with 21, 42 has been missing from the pack for several months. We learn that she was probably killed by other wolves. 21 howls for her and seems preoccupied. He leaves the pack and travels a great distance to return to the place where he and 42 first met. After searching for her scent, he lies down and peacefully dies in his sleep.
Evaluation: McIntyre clearly loves his subjects. He is greatly impressed by their dauntlessness and endurance, but he recognizes that not all wolves are as virtuous as 21. Unfortunately, the narrative sometimes becomes somewhat repetitive and difficult to follow because so many of the wolves have merely numbers instead of names or distinguishing characteristics. Nonetheless, he is quite effective in eliciting sympathy and affection for Wolves 21 and 42. I think at the conclusion of the book most readers will have achieved a more nuanced understanding of these implacable predators and will value the opportunity to have gotten to know 21 and 42.
Published by Greystone Books, 2020