Back in 1893, there roamed a famous outlaw of New Mexico. He was none other than a wolf. Ranchers hated and feared the male gray that they had dubbed Lobo, or “King of the Currumpaw.” It was understandable why people back then didn’t take a liking to the wild wolves: Lobo led his own pack of “vicious” canines who were fond of devouring domesticated cattle.
To solve New Mexico’s wolf problem, British-born bounty hunter, Ernest Thompson Seton, was hired to kill the pack with his trusty rifle. He more than suited the position; though he was born in the UK, he had grown up in Canada around wolves. He had made it his profession as a trapper. Ironically, Seton was also said to have a deep fascination with nature. Unfortunately, it would take Lobo’s death before Seton’s love for animals ever really flourished.
The tale starts in October in the late 1800s when Seton first traveled to New Mexico to extinguish Lobo and his bloodthirsty pack. Now that the American bison-who used to roam in the millions-had practically vanished from the landscape, making way for ranchers, the only thing left to rid the terrain of then was the wolf. The locals referred to them as “outlaws.” Old Lobo, as Seton called him, was the worst of them all.
During the brink between fall and winter, Seton and Lobo would participate in various affairs with one another. Yet no matter how many traps Seton put out, no matter how brilliant any sort of device turned out to be, Lobo always found a way to elude getting caught, even by a man who had all but lived his whole life exterminating vermin. And it wasn’t just that Lobo had been able to avoid them, but he had actually gone ahead and disarmed the devices. He even left the poisonous baits uneaten. Once, Lobo had wandered to numerous traps, pulling out the poisonous food from each, and then placing them in a pile only to defecate on them.
Needless to say, Seton’s frustration began to grow when he realized that this wasn’t just any wolf. By then, after the first few weeks, he should have already killed the wild beast, but instead, months were going by and he had nothing to show for his efforts. Adding to this combination of irritation and humiliation, Seton would hear the call of Lobo at night. As if realizing he had somehow concurred the twisted intentions of man, Lobo would howl a proud song to the stars, showing his triumph.
Eventually, Seton came to recognize that one of Lobo’s pack members, was his mate: Blanca, a beautiful wolf with downy fur as white snow. She was Lobo’s love-and Seton’s last chance. After taking Blanca’s life, Seton dragged her body back to his cabin, planning to rub her scent over the traps. However, Lobo boldly came toward the cabin, sniffing around for his mate during the night.
Doug Smith, a biologist who studies wild wolves at Yellowstone Nation Park, describes emotions between these animals, recalling a time in which an alpha male had lost his mate: “There is an emotional attachment between wolves in a pack. The male wolf seemed to mourn. He howled for two days, more than anyone had heard him howl before … he wailed and he wailed and he wailed.” The same emotion could be seen from Lobo, who, the night his mate had been killed, had called to the skies in not the usual howl of pride, but in a way as if he were grieving. Even Seton had stated with sympathy, “There was an unmistakable note of sorrow in his voice. It was sadder than I could possibly have imagined.”
On the 31st of January, Seton discovered Lobo still alive, but caught in several giant steal traps. It had taken four devices-all of which had had Blanca’s scent spread over them-to bring Lobo down, and even then he wasn’t dead. With one trap on each of the outlaw’s paws, Seton lifted his gun, ready to finish the job, when something seemed to come over him.
Seton couldn’t kill Lobo. He took his camera and shot a few pictures of the wolf. Then he brought him back to his cabin, giving him food and water. But Lobo laid outside, not bothering to eat or drink, not even once looking at the man. Instead, he kept still and silent, gazing off into the far reaches of the plains, where he and Blanca had once roamed New Mexico together. Later, on the same night, he died, as if from a broken heart.
Lobo’s death was a tragedy, but in the end, it changed Seton forever. He moved to New York where he wrote Wild Animals I Have Known, a story about Old Lobo. It would be one of a kind, and the first piece of literature about wolves that was actually famous. It was also the first book ever to describe wild wolves in a more realistic manner, and with sympathy, instead of rage and fear.
Long ago, Seton was a real hunter, but after Lobo’s death, his book sold well, and he ended up becoming an advocate for animals everywhere. He helped to initiate a program to create and protect national parks around the country. He even became a strong driving force behind the creation of the Boy Scouts.
Lobo had truly changed Seton, as well as the country that, at the time, had frowned upon wolves. After reading the story, many people, who had once hated and feared wolves, had been shocked and touched by the bold and clever Lobo, and by the love and courage the wolf had showed for his beloved mate. Later, Seton writes, “Ever since Lobo, my sincerest wish has been to impress upon people that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children.”
“The Wolf that Change America” (www.pbs.org)