The Old West was an era obsessed with “the annihilation of space and time.” In a world where nature’s most fundamental dimensions were the target of a manic quest for mechanical domination, no aspect of nature was safe from such forcible subversion. The wilderness and its creatures became symbolic of what needed to be conquered to prove man’s power and progress, and no wild creature represented the whole of nature more thoroughly than the wolf.
In The Wolves of Currumpaw (public library), London-based illustrator William Grill — who has previously brought to visual life the adventures of pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton — tells the most famous and fabled wolf-hunting story of the Old West, a story both disquieting and redemptive, emblematic of the era’s problematic relationship with the natural world and central to the evolution of the wildlife conservation movement over the century that followed it.
Half a million wolves roamed freely across North America, but with the arrival of European settlers the habits of the animals began to change.
These were the dying days of the old west and the fate of wolves was sealed in it.
A few, however, still roamed the vast and changing landscape.
Dominating this vanishing world was Old Lobo, the enormous leader of a pack of grey wolves, reverently referred to by the natives of Currumpaw valley as the King.
Old Lobo was a giant among wolves who commanded a sleek and well-conditioned pack: each of them was a wolf of renown. Lobo’s band was a small one, but fiercely loyal to their leader. At night his deep howl struck fear through the hearts of the ranchmen and farmers, as they knew it meant yet another raid on their cattle.
So formidable was Old Lobo that local legend soon cast him as a magical and uncatchable creature. Eventually, the terrorized cattle barons and cowboys assembled a bounty of $1,000 for Lobo’s head — an unprecedented amount for any wanted person, much less beast. A roster of renowned wolf-hunters come from near and far to try their hand at capturing and killing Old Lobo, but each failed and went home in shame.
Grill tells the story without a sentimental gloss over the jarring cruelty that was a matter of course in the Old West. But what emerges is an essential reminder that we can’t reasonably judge one era by the moral standards of another; that, above all, so many of our ethical principles have emerged from the disquietude of their opposite — a sentiment echoed in the contrast between Grill’s soft, sensitive illustrations and the brutality of the killings, both by the wolves and of the wolves.
At last, in 1893, a man by the name of Ernest Thompson Seton — a British naturalist living in New York — hears of the hunt for Old Lobo. This was an era when being a naturalist and being a hunter weren’t oxymoronic, and by the age of thirty-three, Seton had established a reputation of being excellent at both. Like Leonardo’s anatomical drawing, Seton used the cadavers of the animals he killed to produce more accurate and detailed illustrations. He had a particular expertise in wolves and even bragged to come from the lineage of Scotsmen who had exterminated Britain’s last wolves.
Seton set out for the Old West and spent days studiously acquainting himself with Old Lobo’s territory and habits. After a series of increasingly inventive and elaborate attempts at a capture, each of which Old Lobo outsmarted with his extraordinary intelligence and shrewdness, Seton noticed something seemingly small, yet enormous — one January morning in 1894, he saw smaller tracks in the dirt ahead of Old Lobo’s.
Seton realized that Old Lobo was letting a female wolf run ahead of him — he was in love. A local cowboy who had been observing the pack named Lobo’s beloved Blanca, for she was an exceptional all-white creature.
And so Seton devised the cruelest plan of all — he would capture Blanca in order to lure her notorious mate.
Blanca was the most beautiful wolf Seton had ever seen. She turned to face him and let out a rallying cry, her howl reverberating across the canyon. From all over the mesa replied the deep call of Lobo, but he was too far away.
She made her last cry as they closed in. With a heavy heart, Seton loaded her carefully onto his horse.
Lobo’s howl echoed throughout the distant land as he desperately searched for Blanca. He hadn’t really deserted her, but seeing the men’s guns he knew he could not save her.
All day long Seton and the ranchmen heard him calling… Finding the spot where Blanca had taken her last breath, his wailing rolled far over the canyon. Even the ever stoic cowboys turned their heads.
Knowing how vulnerable the great wolf was in grieving his beloved, Seton doubled his efforts, hoping to derail Old Lobo’s usual cunning. On the fateful last day of January of 1894, he succeeded — each of Old Lobo’s four paws was caught in one of Seton’s 130 traps.
But as Seton approached the King of Currumpaw, something kept him from the kill. He commanded his men to capture Old Lobo alive.
They brought him back to the ranch-house and fit him with a chained collar. Alive though he may be, Old Lobo was a broken being. He refused water and food, silently staring at the plains that had been his dominion and the landscape of his love. Seton would later reflect on his captive’s fate:
A lion shorn of his strength, an eagle robbed of his freedom, or a dove bereft of his mate, all die, it is said, of a broken heart; and who will avert that this grim bandit could bear the three-fold brunt, heart-whole?
Old Lobo did not bear it. By the time the sun rose the following morning, his spirit had succumbed to the triple heartbreak. Old Lobo was dead. But as Seton lifted the lifeless body of his nemesis, he was overcome by pain and shame so profound that his entire character was reoriented in an instant.
Seton was a deeply conflicted man, torn between his love of nature and his cunning ability as a hunter. However, after the death of Lobo, something in him changed.
“This proved to be one of the turning points of my life…” he reflected, and immediately wrote Lobo: The King of Currumpaw, where he cast himself as the villain and Lobo as the hero. Seton devoted the rest of his life to protecting the wolf species, and to the conservation of American wildlife that was so heavily under threat.
He never killed a wolf again.
In 1902 Seton founded the Woodcraft Indians. He believed that “through the promotion of interest in outdoor life and woodcraft lies the preservation of wildlife and landscape.”
Seton himself would later write:
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.
We are left to wonder whether human nature is such that we are incapable of rising from our darkest primal impulses until they have plummeted us to rock bottom. Perhaps we only grow and better ourselves after we’ve been thoroughly heartbroken by our own foibles. Still, the question remains: Does one being’s moral reformation justify another’s death? Perhaps the tale of Old Lobo, rendered in Grill’s sensitive illustrations, stands as the eternally wistful sigh of “no,” steering us toward a more bloodless path to betterment.
The Wolves of Currumpaw comes from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, makers of such imaginative and sensitive treasures as The Little Gardener, Wild, Hug Me, and Monsters & Legends. Complement it with this heartening children’s book about the conservation of Puerto Rico’s parrots.
Illustrations courtesy of William Grill / Flying Eye Books; photographs by Maria Popova