The Beast Of Waste And Desolation

The new wolf, Kera, at Colchester Zoo, on the day she arrived, May 16, 2016 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)
The new wolf, Kera, at Colchester Zoo, on the day she arrived, March 16, 2016 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Five years ago to the day, I sent the final proofs of my manuscript on my time with the fighting bulls of Spain to Profile Books.

Into The Arena did okay, and became something of a set text on that arcane and archaic, bloody and beautiful world in the English language. However, I came to it as a lover of animals, as I wrote in an essay on the subject in Prospect magazine in 2008:

I have always been an animal lover. I grew up with cats, dogs and horses reading the novels of Gerald Durrell, Richard Adams and Gavin Maxwell, joined the WWF before I was ten and began as an undergraduate at Oxford as a biologist…

The author and his first cat
The author and his first pet, ‘Puddy’

My researches in this area, when I was working on philosophy of biology and consciousness at the University of London, even included spending time with Great Apes at Georgia State University and writing arguing for improved captive welfare in a cover essay for the Financial Times in 2001 (reprinted on my blog here.)

However, where I really wanted to go in terms of research was wolves and the domestic subspecie(s) of them, dogs.

I had begun corresponding with L. David Mech, the father of wolf biology – who brought the phrase ‘alpha male’ into common usage – in early 2009 when I had been asked by Prospect to review Mark Rowlands’ book The Philosopher And The Wolf.

Rowlands and I would fail to see eye-to-eye when he misleadingly reviewed Into The Arena for The Times Literary Supplement. Our exchange in the letters pages of The TLS, reprinted here, spilled over into the mainstream press.

Click on image for full article
Click on image for full article

I got back in touch with Professor Mech in 2012, whose book Wolves: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation is the bible on the subject, about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park in the United States. As I did with Paul Lister, who spoke about his hopes of reintroducing wolves in Scotland and the realities of having done so in Romania.

Wolves bookI then got diverted by working on my novel The Devil’s Voice, but have always said in interviews, right up to my most recent, in Spain, for ¡Hola! magazine, that,

My next book will be non-fiction about wolves. I am planning to go and study them in America. I have a great love of wildlife.

Recently, this has become a reality. This month I have spent my weekdays at Colchester Zoo, a few miles from my family home, as they begin to form a new pack of wolves and my weekends with family friends who are forming a very different, and yet very similar, pack of their own.


Lottie, the Daschund puppy of Andrew Bancroft Cooke, and Pepper, the Labrador of his father Anthony
Lottie, the Daschund puppy of Andrew Bancroft Cooke, and Pepper, the Labrador puppy of his father Anthony

I’ve been rereading Mech and Konrad Lorenz on the ethology, and the stories of Ernest Seton Thompson’s ‘Lobo’ and Jack London’s ‘White Fang’. I went further back to the symbolic man who ‘catches the wolf in the corn’ in Silesia in Frazer’s Golden Bough and Fenrir, the wolf at the end of the world in the Norse myths of the Elder Edda.

I came to realise that my book should include everything, from our co-evolution – and the creation of the dog and its creation of modern man – to our mythology and our projection onto them of our deepest and darkest desires, hopes and hatreds. (What I once termed in Frieze magazine, “anthropopsychism”.)

How else has man taken a mid-size social predatory carnivorous mammal, which does exactly what you’d expect from such an animal, and gone from calling it “the beast of waste and desolation” – in Teddy Roosevelt’s memorable phrase – to perceiving it as some kind of spirit-animal cum cuddly toy?

Totemic madnesses both.

I could see the end of such a book: I would have to buy a dog of my own (what else are publisher’s advances for?) How to begin though?

And then the Daily Mail asked me to go to Transylvania, to the Carpathian mountains, with the largest virgin forests left in Europe and the greatest population of wolves. So the land of Dracula I fly, to see “the children of the night”.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Twitter: @fiskeharrison

(P.S. For anyone interested, the title of this blog and working title of my book, comes from this scene here in the excellent film Sicario.)