The day was cold, gray, and rainy, and the wolf smelled exactly like a wet dog. I sat on my heels, my shoulders just a few inches higher than hers, and hesitantly scratched her belly, her thick, black-tipped gray fur soft and greasy between my fingers. She nosed at my face, bumping my chin and lapping my cheeks. She tried to slide her long, flexible tongue into my mouth, and when that failed, an unguarded nostril.
This wolf lives with four of her siblings on five acres of remote spruce forest in northern Norway, well above the Arctic Circle. Though she hunts the small animals that find their way through the high steel fence that encloses her world, she mainly eats carcasses supplied by her human keepers. Through the long winter twilights and summer days, she fights with her pack mates; she stretches, yawns, and rolls on her belly; she sits on her haunches and stares across the valley. But unlike free-roaming wolves, she has no reflexive fear of humans. When she was born in captivity five years ago, her keepers named her Frigg, after the Norse goddess, and in their care she has learned that most humans are simply objects of curiosity, sporadically available for inspection.
Which is not to say that Frigg is tame. Wolves long accustomed to humans can still be frightened by unfamiliar behaviors—and in a confined space, they may feel cornered and attack. Even when at ease, wolves can be dangerous at close range, and what starts as a playful lick can end in a painful nip. Before entering the wolves’ enclosure, I was told not to make sudden movements or actively approach the animals. I was told to allow them to advance and retreat as they pleased; to speak quietly, if at all; and to kneel, not sit, so that if necessary I could make a hasty escape through the nearby gate. I was instructed to take off my earrings, my hair clip, and any wool clothing, lest I smell like a sheep. I was warned not to wear heavy scents, and told that synthetic polar fleece is, for reasons not entirely understood, perilously exciting to wolves. Only with hesitation were my leather boots permitted.
This place is called Polar Park, and though visitors can see many species here—lynx, moose, bears, reindeer—what draws them from all over Europe and beyond are the wolves. Wolves were trapped, shot, and chased out of much of Europe long ago, and a lot of people, it seems, are willing to pay a lot of money to watch wolves at play in a European forest.
I had, and still have, mixed feelings about these wolves’ captivity, their training, and the resources required to get near them. I’d heard and seen free-roaming wolves in the past—closer to home, in Yellowstone National Park—and I had wondered whether an encounter with captive wolves, even a hands-on one, could compare. Yet once inside the enclosure, I was overwhelmed by the immediacy of the animals. I don’t cry easily, but when Frigg butted her heavy body against my chest, vying for attention as her pack mate made her own attempt to spiral her tongue into my nasal cavity, I choked up.
Though Polar Park might be one of the few places in the world where it’s possible to pet a wolf in relative safety, it’s no longer one of the only places in Europe where it’s possible to see a wolf. As organized persecution of wolves has eased, and as people continue to leave the European countryside for cities, wolves and other predators are wandering back to the countries that once exterminated them. Wolves from surviving populations in Italy crossed the Alps into southern France in the 1990s, and wolves from Poland took up residence in eastern Germany a few years later. In 2011, a Dutch mortician photographed a wolf crossing a road in the eastern Netherlands—the first verified sighting in the country in well over a century. In 2012, Danish officials confirmed their country’s first wolf sighting in 200 years, and last spring, researchers filmed a litter of wolf pups at play on the Danish mainland. Wolves have returned to the Scandinavian peninsula, too, and today, more than 400 wolves live in the unfenced forests of Sweden and Norway.
Europe is now home to an estimated 12,000 wolves, 17,000 bears, and 9,000 lynx, and wolf sightings have been documented in every country on the European mainland. Large predators provoke powerful emotions, and in Norway, where captive wolves are a beloved and lucrative tourist attraction, humans have greeted the returning wolves with both great joy and exceptionally furious resistance. The resulting conflict is testing humans’ ability to coexist with our fellow predators—and, along the way, our ability to coexist with one another.
More than 500 miles south of Polar Park, well beyond the easternmost fingertips of the coastal fjords, the broad glacial valleys of inland Norway are thinly populated and thickly forested. Along the Norway-Sweden border, the high plateaus are speckled with lichen, and in the fall, yellowing birch leaves glow in the low-angle light, buttery flames against the gray clouds.
Petter Wabakken has lived in this area for 40 years, ever since he moved here with his young family in the fall of 1978. Tall, thin, and scruffy-haired, he is now, somewhat to his chagrin, the public face of wolf recovery in Norway. Back in 1978, though, he was a student at the University of Oslo, hired by the Norwegian government to look into a spate of reported wolf sightings along the border. The last wolf bounty in Norway had been paid more than a decade earlier, and for nearly a century there had been no more than a handful of wolves in southern Norway. Most experts dismissed the reports from southeastern Norway and southwestern Sweden as sightings of “unidentified pet animals,” and Wabakken was not expected to find much of interest.
Wabakken, however, was not intimidated by scientific authority: While still in high school, he’d published a paper questioning the official counts of threatened bird species in Norway. “When things are described in black-and-white terms, then I get very curious,” he told me when I met with him at the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, the small technical college where he teaches.
Wabakken had heard and read enough about the local sightings to suspect that at least some were accurate, but there was no obvious way to confirm them. DNA testing of hair and scat was not yet possible; motion-sensitive camera “traps” were not yet widely available; individual tracks in the snow could not be confidently distinguished from the tracks of dogs or wolf-dog hybrids. But Wabakken had time, and he had patience. Whenever he found a set of canine tracks in the snow, he followed it on skis—sometimes for hundreds of miles and weeks at a time. He hypothesized that wolves, which, unlike domestic dogs, had no reliable source of food or shelter, would behave in ways that allowed them to save energy. He noticed that some of the animals he was tracking sought out shallower or more compacted snow, sticking closely to riverbanks, forest roads, and tire tracks. Some even used old moose prints to hopscotch over the landscape, stretching from one track to the next without dropping into the snow. “I’d like to see a dog move its paws so efficiently and elegantly,” he said.
After four winters of work, Wabakken concluded that between three and five wolves had taken up residence in Norway, but he didn’t have definitive proof. And because he had purposely kept his distance from the animals he tracked—he didn’t want to influence their behavior—he had not yet laid eyes on a Norwegian wolf.
In 1982, Wabakken was invited to present his findings at an international mammal conference in Helsinki. As a young, unproven researcher, he expected that only a handful of people would listen to his report. Due to a scheduling mix-up, however, his talk was squeezed between presentations by two eminent scientists, and he spoke to a captive audience of hundreds. Wabakken won over the experts who heard him, and their endorsement convinced Scandinavian managers that wolves were back in Norway. The following year, a litter of wolf pups was spotted on the Norway-Sweden border, and for the first time in nearly a century, the peninsula had a documented breeding population of wolves.
For a while, the public reaction was muted. Few managers believed that the fledgling binational population would survive, and with good reason; to get to Sweden and Norway from Finland or Russia, which have substantial wolf populations, a wolf must either survive a long and dangerous journey through the Sámi reindeer-herding districts of northern Scandinavia, where legal protection for wolves is relatively weak, or cross at least 90 miles of unpredictable Baltic sea ice. But by 1990, at least one more wolf had managed the trip, and the small band founded a thriving population. By 2002, as many as a hundred wolves in eight family packs were in southern Sweden and Norway. Last winter, researchers counted 305 wolves in Sweden and 94 in Norway, living in a total of 41 packs. Lynx, bears, and wolverines have rebounded, too.
As the wolf population expanded, resistance to it grew. During the decades in which wolves and other predators had been scarce or absent, Norwegian farmers had begun allowing their sheep to scatter in the mountains each summer, believing that dispersed animals could make the most of the sparse vegetation; they even developed breeds known for their disinterest in herding. Norwegian moose hunters, who traditionally work with elkhounds on leashes, had begun to train their dogs to run loose in the forest after quarries. “The return of the wolves represented a change in a system that had taken many, many years to build up,” says John Linnell of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. Polls consistently showed that the majority of Norwegians supported wolf recovery, but as the sheep and dog casualties mounted, the pitch and volume of the complaints increased.
Wabakken recognized that the wolves’ survival depended on their human neighbors’ ability to cooperate across borders: Sweden and Norway, despite their proximity and linguistic similarities, are divided by history, culture, and, most recently, the boundary of the European Union (Norwegian voters, famously, rejected EU membership twice, first in 1972 and again in 1994). While Sweden is bound by the environmental regulations of the EU, Norway answers primarily to its own national laws and to the Bern Convention, a wildlife-protection treaty signed by all European countries; the practical result is that Sweden is required to accommodate many more wolves than its neighbor.
To ensure that scientists, at least, treated the countries’ shared wolf population as a single unit, Wabakken co-founded SKANDULV, a Swedish-Norwegian wolf-research project, in 1998. Over the past two decades, Wabakken, his colleague Barbara Zimmerman, and their collaborators in Sweden and Norway have monitored the growth of the population, tracked the movements of radio-collared wolves, and conducted genetic studies so extensive that they can describe the family tree of every wolf on the peninsula.
Yet this heavy investment of time and money—by both countries—has done little to reduce public opposition to wolf recovery in rural Norway. Though the Scandinavian wolf population remains among the smallest in Europe, the political divide over the animals is at least as deep and stubborn as anywhere on the continent.
To anyone familiar with the rural United States, rural Norway is almost disconcertingly prosperous. On an early evening in mid-September of last year, in the eastern Norwegian town of Elverum—a winding half-hour drive south of Wabakken’s college campus—teenagers chased soccer balls across vivid green fields, and Teslas purred past the neat storefronts that line the wide main street. On the outskirts of town, in the lingering autumn sunlight, nearly 300 people stood outside the Norwegian Forest Museum, waiting to be let through the front doors. They filed into the museum’s spacious atrium, helped themselves to black coffee and sweet bread, and settled into chairs arranged in careful rows. The only suggestion that this gathering was anything other than a well-attended community meeting were the two uniformed police officers stationed discreetly in the atrium’s balcony.
Though wolves were the ostensible subject of the meeting, they were present only in effigy, and only on the distant edges of the crowd. In the museum foyer, a taxidermied wolf eyed arriving visitors. Upstairs, in a darkened gallery, another stood in a too-small glass case, head thrown high and teeth bared as if about to howl.
The September meeting’s organizer was Gunnar Gundersen, a former member of Parliament who swam the 400-meter medley in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and still cuts a powerful figure at the podium. A wealthy private-forest owner, he works for a national timber cooperative and heads a regional alliance of forestry and farming organizations. The meeting, he told me later, was intended to “put a bit of pressure” on the national environment ministry. For most of three hours, as the deputy environment minister hunched uncomfortably at a long table in the front of the room, a succession of invited speakers endeavored to do exactly that.
While the translator I was working with whispered subtitles into my ear, a local hunter reported that his beloved elkhound had been killed by a wolf—then got some laughs by poking fun at the absent environment minister Ola Elvestuen, known for both his sympathy for wolves and his dandified good looks. Diminutive, white-haired Gunnar Glöersen, a representative from the Swedish Hunters Association, warned that if the government didn’t permit more wolf hunting in Norway, hunters would take matters into their own hands and start poaching the animals.
Several area farmers said that the continued killing of livestock by wolves threatened their livelihood. More than 2,600 sheep and lambs were documented by government officials as having been killed by wolves in 2018—Norway’s agricultural daily often led with bloody photos of disemboweled lambs—and while those casualties represent a small fraction of the roughly 2 million sheep and lambs that graze freely in the forest each summer, some farmers were hit disproportionately hard. (The government compensates farmers for documented losses of sheep to wolves, but as many farmers point out, the payments don’t cover the costs of extra shepherds and other indirect impacts to their businesses.)
The evening’s argument revolved around the number of wolf packs permitted to live in Norway. In late 2016, a resolution by the Norwegian Parliament set a target of “four to six” litters in the binational population each year, with at least three born to packs living entirely within Norwegian borders. Regional authorities were allowed to permit hunters to “cull” or shoot additional animals, and a total of 30 wolves were legally shot by private or state-employed hunters between June of 2017 and March of 2018. Another 20 have been shot since June of 2018. Wolf numbers still exceed the target set by Parliament, however, and most of those who spoke at the meeting—including several irate members of Parliament—wanted the national environment ministry to allow more hunting and fewer wolves.
Elvestuen, however, has been reluctant to expand the wolf hunt. In contrast to the parliamentary agreement, both Norway’s national environmental law and the international Bern Convention state that no species can be hunted until its populations are self-sustaining within national borders—which some legal scholars interpret to mean that more wolf packs should be allowed to survive and reproduce in Norway. The matter is currently in court, with conservation groups and agricultural and hunting organizations lining up on opposing sides.
The disagreement runs far deeper than numbers. For Norway, which declared its independence from Sweden just over a century ago and was occupied and nearly starved out by German forces during World War II, domestic food production is a matter of both national security and national pride. In recent decades, the government has gone to great lengths to keep farmers and rural communities solvent. (Norwegian voters opposed EU membership partly because they feared it would lead to cuts in state agricultural subsidies, which currently make up about 60 percent of farmers’ gross income.) But farming is and always has been a marginal enterprise in cold, soil-poor Norway, and despite the generous government support, more than half of the country’s farmers work second jobs.
When sheep farmers say that wolves are threatening their livelihood, or hunters say their traditions are endangered, they’re rarely talking about their individual survival: Norway’s extensive, tax-supported welfare state guarantees every Norwegian a basic level of economic and social security. What most mean, fundamentally, is that wolves look like yet another threat to Norway’s hard-won independence.
Such fears surfaced throughout the meeting, and toward the end of the evening, when the floor was opened to public comment, they were echoed by many in the mostly older, predominantly male, and almost entirely white audience. But the room held other fears, too. “My family is going to tell me to shut up,” said a young, dark-haired woman who declined to identify herself. “But not everyone in Elverum is against wolves.” The crowd muttered, and there was scattered applause.
The next speaker, Kari Wenche Fossum, wore her long gray hair in a loose twist, and surveyed the audience through round glasses. “I’m going to say something you don’t want to hear about being outside, about feeling safe,” she said calmly. Because of her support for wolves and other predators, she continued, “I’ve been physically threatened, I’ve been injured twice. I want to encourage everyone to think about this. It’s not just you guys who are suffering.”
The relationship between Norwegian humans and Norwegian wolves is, in some ways, distinctive. Because of Norway’s investment in rural life, its countryside is more populated than Sweden’s, and Norwegian sheep farmers have hung on while most of their Swedish counterparts have simply moved out of wolf habitat. And some Norwegian politicians have found that it is both possible and politically convenient to keep compensating farmers and hunters for wolf damage, all the while promising a radical reduction in wolf numbers—a strategy that gives their constituents little incentive to adapt.
Public attitudes toward wolves in Norway, and in northern Europe as a whole, also seem to be less tolerant than attitudes in southern and eastern Europe, where some farmers have never known a world without wolves. There, defensive practices such as keeping sheep in tighter, more closely supervised herds are considered routine. “Wolves might be a pain, you might not like them, but eventually, there is not much sense in protesting against them,” says the researcher Nathan Ranc, who studies carnivores in Italy, France, and elsewhere. “They’re like a storm or an avalanche. They’re there, and it’s part of the job to deal with them.”
At the same time, what’s happened to the public discussion about wolves in Norway in recent years is exactly what’s happened to discussions of all kinds, all over the world: It has become more and more polarized, sometimes violently so. In 2009, an Elverum-area resident named Tore Hauge was so outraged by the illegal killing of a local wolf that he personally offered a reward of 50,000 Norwegian kroner—about $8,000 at the time—for information leading to the culprit. After his offer appeared in the newspaper, garbage was dumped in his driveway, and his outbuildings and fences were vandalized. One night, when he was out of town, his wife awoke to a loud buzzing noise and realized that a group of people had encircled the house and were marching around it, waving chain saws. Wenche Fossum, who spoke at the Elverum meeting, told me that she has been the target of threats for more than a decade.
Critics of the government’s wolf policy have fewer and less extreme stories of harassment, but they feel the sharp edges of polarization, too. Three herding-cooperative leaders told me that every time they appear on television to talk about their problems with wolves, they are blasted with vicious texts and calls from wolf supporters.
The Norwegian sociologist Ketil Skogen, who has studied the wolf controversy for two decades, says that its deepest divisions are between rural and urban Norwegians. Since World War II, in Norway and the rest of the developed world, the growth of the urban middle class—both in numbers and political and cultural influence—has fostered a sense of inferiority in rural communities. Many rural people feel, not without reason, that their practical knowledge and experience are dismissed by more formally trained urban “experts,” and some have responded to perceived and real disrespect with a deep skepticism of science and scientific authority. These urban-rural resentments, Skogen has found, can obscure even vast class differences, creating political alliances between large rural landowners such as Gundersen and working-class hunters and farmers.
Gundersen has worked with farmers’ and landowners’ groups to mobilize this alliance, and this past January, they drew an estimated 7,000 protesters to a torchlight parade in Oslo. Supporters of wolf recovery have also organized large protests, with several thousand people turning out for demonstrations across the country this winter. Vi er vikinger, ikke veikinger, (We are Vikings, not weaklings), read one pro-wolf demonstrator’s sign.
In Norway, like everywhere else, these divides are deepened by social media. During my week of conversations in rural Norway—in farmyards, in offices, and over teatime waffles in cozy kitchens—I heard repeatedly that the nastiest arguments about wolves take place on Facebook. Social media have bred conspiracy theories, too, with many wolf opponents insisting, for instance, that the wolves were secretly trucked into Scandinavia and released. (There are many variations on this rumor, all fanciful extrapolations of a real but stillborn Swedish proposal to reintroduce wolves in the 1970s.) The theory is so persistent that a group of landowners in eastern Norway commissioned a second set of wolf DNA analyses, separate from those already conducted by SKANDULV, in hopes that the results would suggest that the animals were descended from captives or came from far outside the region. Wolf opponents have also convinced the Norwegian government to sponsor two additional studies. But none has found any evidence of deliberate reintroduction.
Even for a visitor, the polarization can be exhausting—and frustrating, for the stereotypes that help maintain it usually collapse in conversation. One of the most passionate wolf opponents I spoke with, a sheep farmer and the leader of a local herding cooperative, grew up outside Oslo and took up farming only after pursuing a career in the city. Marte Conradi of the World Wildlife Fund, whom I met with in a swank coffee bar at the Oslo airport as she was returning from a conference on European predators, grew up in a tiny town in eastern Norway and worked for several years as a county-level wildlife manager. Tore Hauge, who put up the reward for the wolf poacher, grew up in Rena, near Elverum, and before his recent retirement made a living mining coal and building highway tunnels. And not many wolf opponents are more skeptical of scientific authority than their sworn enemy Petter Wabakken.
Even those who think wolves have no place in Norway insisted to me that they have no problem with wolves in general, and many spoke of them with admiration. This might have been what they thought I wanted to hear, but I heard it expressed so many times, and in such detail, that I came to believe it was at least partly sincere. Jørn Stener, a hunting guide and a fierce critic of the government’s handling of the wolf recovery, sounded almost reverent when he recalled the first of his many encounters with wolves in the woods. “They’re smart, they’re adaptable—they’re amazing animals,” he said.
Though politics may or may not allow the Scandinavian wolf population to expand in eastern Norway, Norwegian wolves are almost certainly here to stay. “You can sit and dream about the time when we didn’t have large carnivores,” Wabakken said. “But that dream is over.” Even if resident wolves were to be killed or driven out, as they were in previous centuries, young wolves born to Swedish packs would soon wander over the border to take their place. Eventually, farmers in wolf habitat will have to adjust: They will have to switch from raising sheep to raising cows, which are less vulnerable to wolf predation, or follow the lead of farmers such as Morten and Linda Ulvedalen, who recently bought a farmstead inside the wolf-management zone.
Morten Ulvedalen is the CEO of a specialty construction-supply company in Oslo, and the couple was able to afford enough land to both keep their sheep enclosed in the summer and grow grass for winter feed (many sheep farmers point out that they need to graze their animals in the mountains in the summer in order to use their pasture to grow feed). With the help of a government grant, they were also able to afford a burly electric fence from New Zealand, and their sheep now graze placidly within it. Linda Ulvedalen, who breeds sheep, is especially interested in reviving older breeds that are less likely to scatter in the woods. Though their surname translates to “Wolf Valley,” neither of the Ulvedalens is particularly happy about the expansion of the wolf population, and when I visited their farm, Morten Ulvedalen was quick to point out that government grants don’t cover the full cost of their adaptations. Such practical measures, however, give livestock the best chance at coexisting with wolves.
Larger pastures and stronger fences don’t heal the deeper divide over wolf recovery, though. The first step toward doing that, says John Odden, a predator researcher with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, is for opposing groups to agree on a shared set of facts. Odden uses camera traps to gather data on predator populations, and about five years ago he began to set up cameras around a community where government estimates of lynx numbers, and the consequent limits on lynx hunting, had been met with great skepticism. Odden, who grew up in the countryside not far from Elverum, decided to involve the community in his project, convincing local hunters to advise him on the placement of the cameras and help him collect the camera data cards. Some hunters got involved because they hoped to prove the government wrong; others just wanted to geek out about the fancy cameras. But one participant, Jan Erik Olbergsveen, says that those who took part in the data collection gained more confidence in its accuracy, and skepticism faded.
Odden has since organized a similar project to track wolf movements near communities in eastern Norway, and while wolves are much more controversial and politically complex than lynx, he has once again enlisted locals to help place and check the cameras. Some of the angriest anti-wolf voices at the Elverum meeting, in fact, belonged to his volunteer data collectors.
The reasons for opposing wolf recovery in Norway, as in most of the rest of the world, are pretty straightforward: inconvenience, cost, fear of change, fear of fangs. The reasons for championing wolves—for going to court on their behalf, for inviting anger and worse by speaking up for their protection, for spending excruciating amounts of money visiting the captive pack at Polar Park—are harder to pin down.
In the United States, supporters of wolf reintroduction and recovery often point to the importance of large predators in ecosystems, especially to the measurable changes in the flora and fauna of Yellowstone National Park since the return of wolves. But in Europe, where most ecosystems are highly human-dominated, few wolf supporters expect wolf restoration to lead to a broader recovery of ecological processes. Some value wolves as symbols of wildness, or nature, or the limits of human influence, but most make another argument for wolf recovery: They say that wolves have a right (up to a point) to survive and repopulate the places where their kind once lived, and that humans have a duty (up to a point) to accommodate them.
The idea that humans should accommodate other large predators is nothing new, and it’s far from exclusively urban. In 1893, Swedish authorities ended a long-standing bounty on brown bears because they realized that the country’s bear population was about to go extinct. “It is a matter of honor for our country that this interesting animal be protected from complete extermination,” the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences stated in 1905. Concern about the extinction of other species—useful to humans and not—was by that time widespread throughout North America and Europe. Since then, measures to protect other species have been almost constantly challenged, but the general notion of species survival and recovery as a good thing has persisted worldwide.
Even opponents of wolf expansion in Norway indirectly acknowledge the existence of these rights and duties: One reason for the longevity of the clandestine-reintroduction conspiracy theory, for example, is that reintroduced wolves are seen as having a much lesser claim to the Norwegian countryside than animals that returned on their own, and would therefore be politically easier to drive out. Even the complaint that “wolves have more rights than we do,” often heard in eastern Norway, implies that both parties have at least some rights.
The trouble with wolves, of course, is that their pursuit of survival collides with ours. While some species demand little of people in order to survive, large, free-roaming predators can require humans to change their habits, their livelihood, and even their place in the food chain. Norwegians, who live in one of the wealthiest and best-educated countries in the world, have an opportunity to reduce these conflicts: to hack through the accumulated mistrust and resentment, identify the genuine burdens that accompany meaningful predator recovery, and figure out, as a society, how to share those burdens more equitably. If they can do that, they will have taken a step toward solving one of the wickedest problems in conservation. If they can’t, conservation will remain a job that gets done when convenient—and rarely otherwise.
“If we can conserve predators, we can conserve everything,” says Guillaume Chapron, a wildlife researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. “If we can’t conserve predators, it doesn’t look good.”
Toward the end of my visit to Polar Park, I asked Stig Sletten, who had accompanied our small group into the wolf enclosure, whether he had time to talk. Sletten, the park’s head animal keeper, was clearly reluctant to be interviewed, but after disappearing for several hours to finish what he said were some much-needed repairs to the musk-ox shelter, he consented to a conversation.
Polar Park, which was dreamed up in a bar by a group of locals hoping to bring more tourists to the area, opened in 1994 and is now supported primarily by entrance fees and corporate sponsorships. Sletten, who grew up nearby, was one of the park’s first employees, and after more than a decade in the Norwegian military, he returned to the park full-time in 2008. Soft-spoken, with white hair that contrasts with his unlined face, Sletten is as alert and wary as a wolf, noticing everything but giving little away. He’s aware of the resemblance, and said it serves him well inside the enclosure: “I do have to sniff around a bit, notice what people are feeling and thinking, whether someone’s nervous,” he said, raising his pointer fingers above his temples to resemble ears.
When I asked him what he hopes people will take from the experience, he turned serious. “I don’t want to force anyone to like it or not like it,” he said. Many visitors, like me, cry when the wolves approach them. Some cry when the keepers judge them too small or frail to enter the enclosure safely. Some brag to their friends and family that they have a special way with animals, and are embarrassed when the wolves ignore them. Some are preoccupied with their cameras. And some are scared, which doesn’t bother Sletten. “They’re going to meet a predator—they’re going to meet a wolf. It’s okay that they’re scared, maybe even a good thing,” he said. Far more dangerous, he added, would be to have no fear at all.
I wasn’t especially afraid in the enclosure, though maybe I should have been; as much as the wolves look, behave, and even smell like large dogs, they can turn on one another with shocking speed, snapping and growling with fleeting but genuine menace. With humans, however, they are simply nosy. They placidly investigated our small group, then loped off, then returned, coming and going for about an hour. Prompted by a couple of convincing howls from their keepers, they let out a piercing, unruly chorus of yips and yelps that seemed to linger in the fog.
When we finally filed through the heavy gate and departed, skirting the outside of the enclosure, Frigg and her pack mates followed us on their side of the fence, whining indignantly and gnawing at saplings. They didn’t need us, and they certainly didn’t love us, but they wanted us to stick around. The fascination, like the trepidation, is instinctive—and mutual.