The lives of animal groups can be as full of intrigue, drama, and machinations as any novel or movie starring humans. But revealing this requires extraordinary perseverance. Following their reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park, no other wolves in the world have been more closely monitored. And of all the people involved, nobody has spent more time in the field watching them than biological technician and park ranger Rick McIntyre. Amongst wolf aficionados, wolf 21—for the wolves are identified by a number—was one the most famous. But before 21, there was wolf 8, and this is his story.
McIntyre has been involved with the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project from the beginning in 1995. He has worked as wolf interpreter, initially part of the year and later year-round, giving talks to visitors and helping them spot wolves in the field. The Rise of Wolf 8 is the first in a trilogy* to tell the life stories of some of the park’s notable alpha** wolves. Now, before we turn to the wolves, a word about “perseverance”, for revealing their stories in this level of detail would not have been possible without it. In the afterword, project leader Douglas W. Smith puts some numbers on it: 25 years, including 6,175 consecutive (!) days in the field from 2000 to 2015; over 100,000 wolf sightings when this book went to print; 12,000 pages of notebooks filled with observations. McIntyre has dedicated himself to this project with a passion that borders on the obsessive.
The result is an unprecedented chronicle of several generations of wolves. The first pack to arrive from Canada became known as the Crystal Creek Pack, encompassing an alpha male and female with their four male pups, one of which was 8. Initially the runt of the litter being picked on by his brothers, he soon reveals himself to be fearless when McIntyre witnesses him single-handedly facing off against a grizzly bear when the pups steal its catch. From here on outwards it becomes clear he has the makings of a very successful wolf.
“Before we turn to the wolves, a word about “perseverance” […] McIntyre has dedicated himself to this project with a passion that borders on the obsessive.”
When the alpha male of the second introduced pack, the Rose Creek Pack, is illegally killed, wolf 8 is accepted by the alpha female as the new alpha male and adopts her children, which includes wolf 21. A third pack, the Druid Peak Pack, is introduced in 1996 and from here on the web of players around 8 increases sharply. When both Druid males are illegally shot, 21 leaves his pack and joins the Druids as their new alpha male. Though 21 seems smitten with one of the three Druid females, 42, the pack’s alpha female, 40, is a tyrannical ruler who is no stranger to killing rival wolves or preventing her sisters from breeding. 21’s story is told in the second book of the trilogy, The Reign of Wolf 21, but the relationship between 8 and 21, and what the adopted son seems to have learned from his stepfather, is notable. The inevitable showdown between the two packs at the end of the book is nothing short of hair-raising.
These three packs go on to have several generations of pups, and other packs also come into existence as some yearlings set out on their own. The tangle of place names and numbered wolves, combined with McIntyre’s numerous descriptions of episodes of wolves interacting, meant that the book did start to wear on me a bit midway through as I tried to keep track of who was doing what, where, and with whom or to whom. The book opens with a map and three partial family trees, and I found myself referring to these frequently. Still, I feel this book could have benefited from some more infographics, drawings, or photos with each chapter (McIntyre’s colleagues have collected family tree data and made it publicly available). The plate section only shows wolf 8 in two group photos taken from some distance, one in which he is partially behind a tree. I am not even sure that the jacket, credited as “photograph of a gray wolf by Jim Cumming”, shows wolf 8. Early on, McIntyre mentions having stopped taking cameras into the field to focus solely on observations with a spotting scope.
“Fact is, I will likely never visit Yellowstone National Park […] But this book […] allows me to vicariously experience observing them through a spotting scope with an experienced interpreter by my side.”
Despite the somewhat repetitive writing, what McIntyre reveals here, both from the viewpoint of intergenerational dynasties and of individual wolf personalities, is remarkable. His behavioural descriptions are mostly factual, describing sequences as he observed them, but he does not shy away from interpreting them and clearly indicates where he does so. This involves both attributing emotional states to behaviours and showing that wolves have awareness of certain situations, states of mind, and foresight. Personally, I do not think this crosses over into anthropomorphising wolves. Biologists such as Frans de Waal and Carl Safina, whose book Beyond Words first put me on the track of McIntyre’s work, have hardened my conviction that animals have both intelligence and personalities. McIntyre is the living embodiment of Safina’s admonishment that students of behaviour should get out more and observe animals in the field, and I doubt that there is anyone better positioned to make these interpretations. Many of the unique observations recorded here are invaluable to ethologists, and McIntyre has been a source of unpublished data and personal communications to other wolf researchers (e.g. for Mech et al.‘s books Wolves and Wolves on the Hunt). That said, McIntyre mostly provides anecdotes here and only occasionally links it to some of the other wolf research done in the park.
Fact is, I will likely never visit Yellowstone National Park to see the wolves there for myself. But this book, and the many intimate moments McIntyre describes, allow me to vicariously experience observing them through a spotting scope with an experienced interpreter by my side. The Rise of Wolf 8 is a unique and epic chronicle by the world’s most dedicated wolf-watcher and comes highly recommend if you have any interest in wolves and their behaviour. I am very much looking forward to finding out how the story continues.
* About six months after this review was published, Greystone Books revealed the final instalment in this trilogy: The Redemption of Wolf 302
** (26/01/2023) Several readers on Reddit pointed out that the term “alpha wolf” has fallen out of favour. Wolf biologist Dave Mech, who initially helped spread the term, has publicly disavowed it and expressed frustration with how it continues to linger. Despite McIntyre having met Mech on several occasions, he continues to liberally use this term.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: