The retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, part III
As part of Vera’s Little Red Riding Hood film project, we are going to Golden, BC for the weekend to film wolves at night, skiing around Wheeler Hut at Rogers Pass, at night, and mountains scenery, at night.
A key element of our film is that the wolf, instead of being “big and bad” as in the old-school fairy tale, is portrayed as a helpful, wild, kindred spirit to Little Red, an adventurous soul who just wants to do some night skiing…
The project has been super fun and challenging, involving tramping around the winter backcountry at night hauling tons of expensive, fragile camera and lighting gear through snowstorms, evening naps so that you can film until the wee hours of the night, and late mornings the day after, but we’ve managed to get some great footage. And today we need to film the key wolf sequences.
Meeting the Pack
Vera and Ben and I meet at the Northern Lights Wildlife Centre on Friday afternoon to meet the Casey and Shelly and the wolf pack. And the gang is stunning, lounging about in the afternoon light!
The Northern Lights Wildlife Centre’s mission is to promote wolf and bear conservation and educate people as to the critical role these top carnivores play in the environment. The wolves in their pack have all been raised by humans since they were new born (only a few days old), have been around people all their lives, and are quite comfortable around strangers. But these are not domestic dogs, and after meeting them there is absolutely no doubt that you need to give these beautiful, powerful creatures a very healthy dose of respect!
Chatting with Casey and Shelly and watching the pack snooze in the afternoon light is very peaceful. The wolves are completely relaxed until there’s a need to be quick, at which point they spring suddenly and precisely, up on a log, jumping to catch a treat, or reprimanding each other. They are very curious, lifting their noses up and sniffing the air to identify the new person as we approach their enclosure. Shy and cautious when investigating new things, they will turn on their focus 100% when warranted, and their reactions are lightening quick. They exist in a pure, beautiful state, and I resolve to be more like a wolf and less like a squirrel in my daily life.
Meeting Scrappy Dave
Around 9:00 we go back to the centre, load all the camera gear on a wagon to tow it into the enclosure. Quite a pile of gear we have, including a big tripod and video head, very heavy and awkward to move round but with a very smooth movement, two SLRs, one with a 24mm lens and one with a 70-200 zoom, a Sony 700 slow motion video camera, plus two LED light panels. We will be working with Dave, and have been warned not to leave any bags lying on the ground or Dave will carry them off as a prize. We have a long list of shots to get and two hours to do it, with a wolf running around who’s going to do whatever he decides to do.
Well, “Scrappy Dave” turns out to be the friendliest, most cooperative guy, a great actor, and behaves way beyond our highest expectations! After we have our gear setup, Dave is let into the big enclosure and starts running back and forth between Casey and Shelly, his two handlers, as they call him for treats.
Moving between Casey and Shelly, Dave either runs or lopes, walking quickly and smoothly, but always moving with a beautiful grace and efficiency, focused on his handlers but occasionally pausing and turning a curious gaze at Vera or me as we film him going back and forth. After we have gotten lots of footage of Dave running and walking, Casey and Shelly stop calling him, and he walks around to check all of us new people out, coming up to sniff, and if we are crouched down then we get a quick wolf kiss, which, like every thing else he does, is intense and deliberate.
We then work on getting close-up shots of Dave, which is technically challenging because of the darkness and difficulty of focusing on his eyes as he moves around in the forest. The two big LED light panels we have are excellent and very portable, but they light up a relatively small area which Dave is constantly moving in and out of. Fun and challenging!
Casey is excellent at getting Dave to cooperate, and we are all amazed at how expressive and emotional Dave is as he focuses on Casey while moving through the trees. At one point he springs lightly up onto a fallen log and balances there for a minute as Casey keeps his attention, and the rest of us are in awe of the beauty of the scene and Dave’s grace and power. Vera and I are focused on capturing this beautiful moment while Ben and Leif work to light up the dark forest and illuminate the scene properly.
By the time Sheena, our Little Red Riding Hood, arrives, Dave is fully comfortable with us, and we with him. We are all looking forward to capturing the meeting of Dave and Sheena, a key element in the story, and have high hopes for some great acting by both of them.
It turns out that Dave is mostly uninterested in Sheena until Casey gives her a treat to give him. Now she has his attention, we get some great interaction between the two of them, and Sheena is rewarded with two quick wolf kisses.
After the filming is over, we talk with Casey about wolf behaviours, and he explains how they can be trained, but with great difficulty. These wolves are accustomed to humans only because they were raised by hand from the age of a few days, spending their first few months in 24 hour contact with humans. They live outdoors, and to make a point about how they could never live inside a house, Casey shows us the back of his SUV, used to drive the wolves around. The interior is completely trashed, with the seat covers and door panels ripped off and all the padding shredded. Apparently somebody thought there was food hidden in the truck…
Wolves and Humans
Wolves and Humans are, biologically, both top predators, and as such have been in competition for all of human history, and for most of that history we have waged an all-out war on them, resulting in their natural range being much reduced and their being driven to extinction throughout most of Europe, the United States and much of southern Asia. There are eight species of wolf still surviving in the world, with the ninth species, the only land mammal native to the Falkland islands, hunted to extinction in the late 19th century. The wolves at Northern Lights are all Gray Wolves, which despite being hunted out of much of their territory, are not considered to be a threatened species.
Sadly, this centuries-old war against wolves is still happening here in British Columbia and Alberta, where wolves are being shot from the air, poisoned and trapped as a way of helping the Woodland Caribou population recover, when the actual cause of the caribou decline is habitat loss and damage due to industrial logging and oil and gas development. Our never-ending population growth and gluttonous consumption of the entire world is the cause, but as usual, somebody else takes the blame, in this case the “big, bad” wolf.
The good news is that in select few areas, this extinction from their natural range has been reversed with fantastic results, most recently in Yellowstone National Park, U.S.A, where Canadian wolves were reintroduced in 1995 after being absent for nearly 70 years. The resulting changes in the ecosystem were remarkable, including changing the geography of rivers in the area. There are also plans to reintroduce wolves in Scotland, after they were hunted to extinction in the 1700s. Of course, the reintroduction of wolves is always controversial.
Lessons learned from Dave
Be curious about everything, but check new things out carefully and cautiously.
When something deserves your attention, focus completely and intensely, otherwise just quietly observe.
When it’s time for action, move quickly, decisively, and efficiently, otherwise relax and don’t waste your energy.
When you want something, go get it, but don’t waste your time and energy chasing frivolous things.
And whenever you can, steal a kiss.
Update, June 2014
Wolf Walk with Dave and Flora
After the amazing experience with Dave in April, I promised my Mom that I would take her for a walk with the wolves, and that happened this June. Casey and Shelly from Northern Lights Wildlife took six folks and two of their wolves out for a 1.5 hour walk and photo session in the woods up the Blaeberry River.
After getting to know Dave in April, I was thrilled to learn that we would be going out with Dave and his sister Flora on the walk! Dave is more blond and slightly taller than Flora, and both of them are mostly aloof and independent, but very friendly when they decide to be.
The wolf-walk experience was actually very relaxed.
We strolled around a clearing in the forest while Dave and Flora explored the brush around us. When we wanted some action, Casey would call the wolves and rattle a bucket of raw-meat snacks, which instantly brought Flora and Dave to full attention and they would come running.
Their behavioral differences from dogs was fascinating. First, wolves don’t bark. They are usually quiet, but when a group of them is together they sing, whimper, growl and of course howl with each other, but never bark.
Second, they don’t madly chase every bird and squirrel they see. While exploring the forest they are relaxed and curious, and spend a lot of time standing very still, watching and waiting. While very attentive to the “pack leaders”, Casey and Shelley, they would mostly ignore the other six of us humans.
Finally, we had a little posing session, where Flora really showed how affectionate she is by giving Mom a thorough face-washing kiss.
The photography session / wolf walk was a magical experience, which really helps to support the education and conservation mission of Northern Lights Wildlife and is highly recommended! But a note of caution: only go if you are extremely comfortable around big, fast, intense canines.
©Darren Foltinek, 2014