Following the winter of 2001 both females of the captive Wildwood pack gave birth to young. This was a rare occasion for the European wolves for it has often been presumed only the alpha female bares the right to further the family line. The events that followed were my fortune to observe and inspiration has created.
Spring. The calm arrival of night is silent of wolf howls. The pack have other things on their mind. Cubs have been born and they need attention. Deep in their earthen den they lay hidden, protected by the concerns of a vigilant mother.
Tawny owls bounce comments from bough to bough, a rhythm of hoots, a short whistle, a single flap of the wing. Beneath the shelter of trees that sway in the shadowy breeze a tale is being told; a story of wolves in a Kent woodland.
I suppose to keep to the necessary formats a story must have an introduction. But how does one introduce a pack of wolves? Wolves in stories I have read tend not to feature too quickly in any introduction. The wolf of literature's past preferred to creep up through the pages and pounce out from the shadows when the story expects it. This story does not denote the wolf of myth from our history. This story is more specific, about a specific pack of wolves. This pack lives as a family today.
This story is about a family of wolves.
Every family I have ever been acquainted with is renowned for their individual characters within. A wolf family, I find, is no different.
In the family of wolves at Wildwood it is easy to recognise the mother of the pack, the alpha female. Luna is a wolf that promotes the confidence needed for the role that she takes. The pride of motherhood shines when she patrols the realms of her territory, venturing forward on occasions as I photograph her in her many postures and natural poses; my attempt to capture her character, her emotion, and, do it justice. I relate to a softer side.
In reality she cannot be tamed and for reasons known only to this closed society she often taunts and bullies the smaller female in this pack.
Athena could be determined as the runt of the pack, the omega or 'Cinderella; the subordinate female'. She is submissive to the alpha. Last to feed, there are moments when she scrapes together enough to forge a meagre existence. She eats what others ignore; taking items from the bottom shelf and the section that is reduced.
She dodges in the shadows, flitting between trees. She shuns the stare of the camera.
Curled in a scant hollow, she evades the continuous, vicious attacks of the alpha female. Athena is the forgotten parent, demoted to a babysitting role once the milk of her teats had dried and she holds no physical purpose. Though she may show her concern and her ideals for the pups' upbringing, she is ignored and overruled.
Underneath a toughened hide I feel she is smiling. She is impervious to the pain and like her alpha she too lives for the birthing. She is undoubtedly proud of the part she has played in continuing the pack's existence and though her activity may be stifled now it has not always been this way.
In another place or another time it may have been different. Athena bears close resemblance to Luna. There are quiet moments that I have mistaken one for the other and had to correct my observations when the truth is known. It has been suggested they were born of the same litter, siblings, one growing larger, with all the pressures to perform. But who has blossomed now. Who has proved their capability?
Athena faced a moment of sanity and took it. Like her sister she knows what it is like to be a mother.
The bullying will subside like the seasons and her summer will come. In the meantime she plays the cat and mouse game, doing what is necessary to make ends meet and her cycle be complete.
With perseverance she will succeed.
The alpha male, Apollo, father of two generations, reacts differently to my appearance and is reluctant to come forward. Wisdom is on his side. He stands back guarding the outpost and looks on with his solemn stare. He is a good looking wolf, as wolves go, almost regal and well groomed. He appears to have his standards and he holds to them, never revealing his inner self, or resorting to childish attitudes. He is composed. He is secure.
His offspring from the previous season, Akela, stands in his shadow, yet is already larger in stature. An inquisitive wolf, who bounds endlessly about the woodland floor with excessive energy. A large wolf rests in the afternoon sun curling his frame into a ball of fur, his head and tailed tucked, his long legs trailing like an off-cut of string. He has a lot to learn and when he achieves he will climb out of the shadow and succeed the image he emulates.
I observe the wolves through a theatre of sweet chestnut trees, accepting their attentive gaze over me as they pace amongst the wings, shunning the triumphant spotlight. The two males remain particularly wary, perusing the rear half of the enclosure, peering through the curtains.
The alpha female, Luna, is more relaxed with my regular presence and is a little more forthcoming. There are times, when I sit beside the fence surround, that only the drift of our scant aromas linger between us. A nervous Athena skips between the cover of the spring blossom. Her tail is lowered, her tail tucked. She is cautious of me, and Luna, and prefers to keep a medium reach from us both.
Searching the enclosure for any indication of puppy activity I can see close up the trampled clay soil, scrapings at earthen roots and fresh hollows - potential dens perhaps. Dried grasses and the remnants of a meal: white scarred bones, parched during the late spring drought. Signs of life, but no signs of puppies.
It is early in morning into the fourth week of observation. The sun is still low in the dawn sky. Light filters through the trees and scantily flickers across the woodland floor casting shadows toward the cave entrance of a den. A furry face appears; the small, brown, rotund features of a new-born pup. Inquisitive! Haloed in sunlight, it peers around for a few seconds then disappears.
Moments later the face shows itself again. I dared not to breathe. A second face appears behind the first, smaller, narrower, darker.
Next morning, an hour after dawn, I return to watch over the den. The pack wanders a distance away. Once again, at approximately the same time as the morning before, as though to cue, the puppies appear. A ray of sunshine heralds the larger of the two as they visibly venture outward, for perhaps the first time, gathering the courage to haul their trembling bodies from the edge of their cavity and onto the woodland stage.
On tiny paw pads they cautiously explore the vicinity surrounding the den, curiosity tearing them away from the home comforts they have been so far used to. They stumble and roll revealing their delight for the occasion, bouncing off each other as they go.
As they clamber the larger pup exhibits a dominance over the smaller.
In the open space of daylight it is possible to take in the extent of their puppy features. Their short squat faces show few characteristics of wolf. With rounded ears and noses they appear more bear-like than wolf, and their plump dark bodies, ideally camouflaged against the earthen soil, would need feeding up before muscle definition gave them the strength of their kin.
The two tiny bundles of energy explore their limitations cautiously. Their alpha leader, Apollo, their father, is first to demand respect otherwise, leading by example for them both to emulate.
These pups have no dangerous roads to cross. Nor do they fear unwanted attention, rape or robbery. The wolves need only fear the persecution that is the myth of little red riding hood, yet despite this relative safety the pups are checked regularly, and never do they stray far.
Only the imagination can wander beyond the woodland. The passing down of memories can scent hedgerows and scour tracks that stretch far and wide. Flowers grow where weeds were once wild. A butterfly, reflecting blue under the midday sun flicks from bud to bramble where dragonflies dance on the trickles of a summer stream.
A mother has one opportunity to imprint her soul, her character; the essence of her life. In these offspring she has someone who will listen.
Within the week I see their features are already changing. Their nose stretches out a little further. Colours are more pronounced. Both have prominent beige rims around their ears and grey surrounds to their eyes. The smaller of the two, more nervous than its sibling, remains darker giving it the appearance of being more sullen. The larger has more ginger in its face and though often alert is more prone to laze. From my observation I am able to discern two characteristics of puppyhood. The first is the extent of their keen sense of smell compared to relatively poor eyesight. I have noticed that the pups pick up my scent when I stand near. They react sniffing at the air, alert. They look over in my direction but do not focus, often looking beyond me following my scent on the breeze.
The second is a characteristic that most parents can relate to their young with: the limits of their attention and selective memory. As I mention, the pups can be quickly alerted to my presence, but seem as quick to forget and turn to the next new thing to enter their lives.
Meanwhile, in a quiet village on the outskirts of Kent, a small boy sits alone in his bedroom. His expression is one of smiling. He has just taken what he refers to as his happy pill and he now sits alone within his memories. Earlier he visited the wolves at Wildwood with his school and would now love to have opportunity to share that experience, but there is no-one who will listen. Though it is still early, he is tired and prefers to sleep. His former energy has been suppressed. His reality proves there is rarely anything to smile about.
In the heart of the woodland the cubs bound with unlimited enthusiasm. If one pushes the boundaries too far, an adult paw will be quick to strike out and any desire to run momentarily lost.
Big brother, Akela, moves in from his place on the periphery, and joins in with the enthusiasm, grasping the elements of youth that he missed, ensuring his position within the hierarchy, and so enforce his role as babysitter.
These days of innocence slip by. Neither pup is reliant for long on the milk of its mother and are soon beginning to prospect the temptation of fresh meat.
A wolf is the most difficult of animals to capture on film. A wolf blends with the landscape, can turn full circle, rouse oneself left and right, leap high in the air, stand motionless for an eternity, or snuffle in the depths of the undergrowth. The wolf is unpredictable.
Lazy days in the evening sunshine of an early summer. The pups sleep on, oblivious. Shadows play above their dreams, reflected on the bark of the silent oak towering above them, guarding them in its shade. Further in the woodland, the badgers are at play, while the raven turns to rest. A sly fox slinks where wood ants hurry to close up their doors. The tawny owl hoots once more.
With the pups in the safe care of others, Mother wolf snoozes, laying comfortably on her side. She appreciates the warmth the day has to offer; her white underbelly exposed and closed teats revealed, her chest gently heaving, pulsating with the rhythm of her breathing. The dusty pads of her protruding paws are stretched out before her; her black nostrils; a twitch of her ears – the delicate hairs around them bristle. She awakens. Her closed eyes spring open and she looks directly at me.
I have looked into the eyes of several wolves now and no indication of thoughts that float between them are ever revealed. Is that a look of sadness? A flash of anger; a feeling of contemplation; a frightening wince or a ghostly stare? A smile? The expressions of the wolf shall remain indescribable, merely passionate.
With only two months having passed since those first adventurous steps, these pups are babies no longer. Individuality has been proven, independence sought and solitude found. They will grow to question, as is the nature of learning, and get many things wrong, but they will always be safe in the knowledge that their family will support them, keep them snug to their shoulder, and battle to ensure their survival.