The Atlantic

The Most Political Animal

Even in one of the world’s richest countries, humans have a hard time coexisting with wolves.
Source: Lidia Tomashevskaya

The day was cold, gray, and rainy, and the wolf smelled exactly like a wet dog. I sat on my heels, my shoulders just a few inches higher than hers, and hesitantly scratched her belly, her thick, black-tipped gray fur soft and greasy between my fingers. She nosed at my face, bumping my chin and lapping my cheeks. She tried to slide her long, flexible tongue into my mouth, and when that failed, an unguarded nostril.

This wolf lives with four of her siblings on five acres of remote spruce forest in northern Norway, well above the Arctic Circle. Though she hunts the small animals that find their way through the high steel fence that encloses her world, she mainly eats carcasses supplied by her human keepers. Through the long winter twilights and summer days, she fights with her pack mates; she stretches, yawns, and rolls on her belly; she sits on her haunches and stares across the valley. But unlike free-roaming wolves, she has no reflexive fear of humans. When she was born in captivity five years ago, her keepers named her Frigg, after the Norse goddess, and in their care she has learned that most humans are simply objects of curiosity, sporadically available for inspection.

Which is not to say that Frigg is tame. Wolves long accustomed to humans can still be frightened by unfamiliar behaviors—and in a confined space, they may feel cornered and attack. Even when at ease, wolves can be dangerous at close range, and what starts as a playful lick can end in a painful nip. Before entering the wolves’ enclosure, I was told not to make sudden movements or actively approach the animals. I was told to allow them to advance and retreat as they pleased; to speak quietly, if at all; and to kneel, not sit, so that if necessary I could make a hasty escape through the nearby gate. I was instructed to take off my earrings, my hair clip, and any wool clothing, lest I smell like a sheep. I was warned not to wear heavy scents, and told that synthetic polar fleece is, for reasons not entirely understood, perilously exciting to wolves. Only with hesitation were my leather boots permitted.

This place is called Polar Park, and though visitors can see many species here—lynx, moose, bears, reindeer—what draws them from all over Europe and beyond are the wolves. Wolves were trapped, shot, and chased out of much of Europe long ago, and a lot of people, it seems, are willing to pay a lot of money to watch wolves at play in a European forest.

I had, and still have, mixed feelings about these wolves’ captivity, their training, and the resources required to get near them. I’d heard and seen free-roaming wolves in the past—closer to home, in Yellowstone National Park—and I had wondered whether an encounter with captive wolves, even a hands-on one, could compare. Yet once inside the enclosure, I was overwhelmed by the immediacy of the animals. I don’t cry easily, but when Frigg butted her heavy body against my chest, vying for attention as her pack mate made her own attempt to spiral her tongue into my nasal cavity, I choked up.

Though Polar Park might be one of the few places in the

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