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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Debunking Misconceptions of the Wolf : THE COMPANY OF WOLVES by Peter Steinhart , Knopf, $25, 384 pages

June 14, 1995|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Native Americans, Roman legionnaires and the Mongols under Genghis Khan once regarded the wolf as a creature of profound mystical power.

But more recently we have managed to harry the wolf into near-extinction by setting out carrion laced with strychnine or shooting the creatures from low-flying aircraft.

"No two species," observes Peter Steinhart in "The Company of Wolves," "have a more tangled, more intimate and more shadowy set of relationships than Homo sapiens and Canis lupus ."

Steinhart, author of several books about wildlife and a former columnist for Audubon magazine, set out to learn about wolves from not only the biologists who study them but also the ranchers, trappers and "wildlife managers" who encounter the wolf in the wilds. As it turns out, some "wolfers" tend to see both the wolf and the biologist as adversaries.

Says one grizzled trapper who has mastered the latest scientific literature, "I'm sick and tired of these new biologists making up a biology which doesn't exist."

Much of Steinhart's book consists of profiles of men and women who, for one reason or another, spend their lives in intimate contact with wolves, and he uses these passages as a means of giving us the natural history of the wolf in all of its scientific, literary and even spiritual richness.

At times, though, "The Company of Wolves" is as much about politics as it is about science, and Steinhart touches on all of the controversies that burn so hot among people who concern themselves with the wolf: Should wolves be reintroduced to Yellowstone and other habitats where they were harried out of existence? Should hybrid wolves be bred in captivity? Are wolves the ruthless predators that we imagine them to be--or are we merely seeing our own predatory nature?

"I suspect that when we argue about wolves, we are arguing about love and hate, peace and war, killing and kindness," Steinhart insists. "We are arguing about our own hearts and souls."

Along the way, Steinhart expertly describes what the scientists have discovered about the wolf, explaining to us how wolves breed, how they hunt, how they play, how they claim and protect their territory, how--and why--they howl.

Steinhart debunks the myths and misconceptions that have attached themselves to the very notion of the wolf. Contrary to the familiar image of the "lone wolf," wolves are "no less convivial and attached to each other than humans." And yet Steinhart introduces us to the notion of the "disperser," a wolf that inexplicably leaves the pack to hunt alone or to start a pack of its own.

Steinhart teaches us how to read the intricate social interactions that characterize the wolf pack, and these bits of wolf lore are some of the most intriguing material in his book.

The dominant (or "alpha") male and female, for instance, carry their tails high, while lesser-ranking animals show deference by lowering their tails: "The lower the tail, the lower the rank."

But Steinhart is also capable of evoking the mythic qualities that we associate with the wolf, the sheer poetry of its form and function, along with the scientific details. And so, from time to time, he passes along some bit of data in phrases that amount to a celebration of the wolf itself.

"The long-legged, loose-jointed trot of a moving wolf is as much a defining quality as the creature's teeth," he writes. "When a wolf is walking, its hind feet step right into the impressions left by the forefeet; the movement is spare and economical. A wolf effortlessly travels 30 miles in a day."

Like so much of what has been written about the encounter between humankind and the natural environment, "The Company of Wolves" can be approached as a meditation on both human and planetary destiny. The wolf, in Steinhart's hand, once again becomes a totem that prompts us to consider the very meaning of life itself.

"We don't only think about animals; we think through them," writes Steinhart in a passage that nicely describes what he has accomplished in his own book.

"They become mental forms around which we wrap ideas, hopes, fears and longings."

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