A Researcher Chokes On Her Popcorn: Wolf Myths Live On in 2012

Digging up the real biology and behavior of wolves and then getting the true story out there for the general public is pretty tough. There is so much misinformation about these animals in popular media, ranging from the ridiculous: Wolves will steal your children off the backyard swing-set, to near hero-worship: the Wolf is a spirit guide for the lost human soul. Both are myths. Wolves are canine predators with their own agenda, which for more than a century in this country has been simple survival. Take the most recent killing of 832F, the breeding female of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley pack. She left the safety of the park and met hunters with itchy fingers and wolf tags still wet with ink.

Wolf researchers dedicate years, sometimes their whole lives, to debunking misinformation and mythologies about wolves. So it’s incredible that a Hollywood film can come and go from theaters and undo all that painstaking work in two hours. Truth has a hard time competing with the flash and drama of the big screen.

The best part of The Grey is the plane crash.  I like it when Liam Neeson turns upside down.  The plane has been ripped open and Neeson’s character John Ottway is suspended over the Alaskan tundra, two seatbelts holding him in his chair. Hey, it could happen.

It’s also believable when the pipeline workers, “men unfit for mankind,” (chunky, beer-guzzling alcoholics–the kind of men that played football back in high school and put their best days long behind them)  call the wolves “motherfuckers” for noshing the corpse of a stewardess still strapped to her seat.  Freaky scene, but yeah, wolves will scavenge. They only make a successful kill about one out of every ten tries, so these guys often go hungry. When they do get food, they seriously pack it away. In one sitting, a wolf can eat the equivalent of 133 McDonald’s Happy Meals.

When Ottway gives the crash survivors mini lessons in wolf biology and behavior–most of his information is wrong, by the way–Neeson delivers these particular lines stiffly, as if he’s not sure he really believes what he’s saying. And he shouldn’t.

The movie really jumps the shark when computer-generated (CGI) wolves, their eyes glowing green in the firelight, circle the plane wreckage and growl at the men. Wolves just wouldn’t do that.  They might sniff around (maybe) then vanish.  And by the way, the growls and snarls sound like hyenas fighting over a kudu carcass, not wolves.  (The DTS Dolby Surround Sound gave the theater subwoofers a serious work-out!)

One of the truest lines Neeson delivers about human beings in the film is this:  “We’re a threat.  We don’t belong here.”  When the men manage to kill a wolf, repeatedly stabbing it—partly out of drunken rage and mostly from sheer terror—they cook the wolf over the fire and eat it. With a belly full of liquor and wolf gristle, one of the men slices off the wolf’s head and puts it on a stake to show the other wolves that the “man pack” means business.  But the other wolves don’t seem to “get the point” and stay in hot pursuit of the straggling humans.  Can I get a witness?

Frankly, I think director Joe Carnahan would have done well to hire veteran wolf biologist David Mech to consult during scriptwriting. As a result of my dismay at the film’s portray of wolves, I contacted Carnahan and we engaged in a little twitter spat. I asked him to tell me the truth about the source of those dead wolves I’d seen in the film. His answer came with a breathless defensiveness and sounded like a well-rehearsed line from his publicist: “No wolves were killed in the making of The Grey.” Hmm…perhaps the wolves weren’t killed specifically to feed the large appetite of the film industry for animal actors. Maybe Carnahan simply found a trapper to pull some wolves off his line or out of his freezer and paid handsomely for the carcasses.

I don’t mean to suggest that a wild wolf would never attack a human. It has happened, but fatalities are rare–only two cases in North America in the last one hundred years. In 2010, Candice Berner, a 32-year-old special education teacher, was killed by wolves while jogging outside a rural Alaskan village. Before that, in 2005, twenty-two-year-old geological engineering student Kenton Joel Carnegie was killed at Points North Landing, a remote mining camp in Saskatchewan, Canada. After hearing expert testimony, a six-person jury ruled that Carnegie had been killed by a pack of four wolves habituated to humans as a result of an illegal garbage dump located at the mining camp. However, behind the scenes, those who examined the forensic evidence still debate whether wolves or an American black bear killed Carnegie.

But let’s face it, in 2011 alone domestic dogs killed 31 people. Wolves attack and/or kill so few people that the issue barely warrants mention. And how many wolves have humans killed? That’s right…no contest. And yet Roger Ebert had this to say after screening The Grey:  “When I learned of Sarah Palin hunting wolves from a helicopter, my sensibilities were tested, but after this film, I was prepared to call in more helicopters.”

In the face of films like The Grey, with its freakish wolf fantasies that darkened the year 2012, researchers have to quadruple their efforts to communicate real information about wolves. It’s going to be a long road, but I’m hopeful for the year ahead.

Toward the end of the film, John Ottway yells at God, “Show me something real!” God doesn’t answer—surprise! And I find myself wanting to shout in the sparsely-populated theater: “Neeson, Carnahan–seriously guys, show me something real!”

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