Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Custer Wolf, by Roger Caras

My volume is a Puffin edition, costing 4 Shillings and Sixpence, with a faded spine and browning pages. I read it recently for nostalgic reasons, but also partly to carry out a thought experiment of re-reading everything on my shelves. I need never buy another book!

Caras is a fine and prolific writer about the natural world. In this book he tells the story of a wolf that wantonly killed and injured cattle around the town of Custer in North Dakota, in the 1920s. The first half of the book is imaginary and based on his deep knowledge of nature and the behaviour of wolves. He invents a traumatic event, where the white wolf’s mother is killed by a stampede of cattle and his father killed in a trap. This explains his hatred of man and his beasts, providing an explanation of his renegade behaviour.

Caras is very much on the side of the wolves, and the story of how he is eventually hunted down exemplifies the prejudice and destructive power of the (white) men who colonised the USA. Any wolf was a target for traps, poison or shooting, and the species was almost eliminated. Ironically, that led to an explosion of animals, naturally controlled by wolves, who did far more economic damage to the environment. In recognition of this, wolves have been re-introduced to the Yellowstone Park, for instance.

This is an educational and fine book, though the second half loses its lyrical freedom, as the author is tied down by relating the facts of the Custer Wolf case.

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