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James Dickey may be responsible for my love of wolverines. I heard him read his poem "For the Last Wolverine" at the University of North Dakota, probably in 1971, and it was one of those moments, like hearing Michael McClure read Love Lion Poems, that change your ideas about language and vision. I can't quote the poem here, but I can send you to an online version at The Atlantic Monthly web site which may even have a working link to a recording of Dickey reading it.
It is a poem about nature, focused on extinctions, an uncompromising poem as violent as the creature that inspired it. Dickey's wolverine is the real thing, a tearing, rending, gluttonous carnivore with desires so savage that we shudder even as we admire. From the first, almost comic, image of a beast so tough he can "stop the flakes in the air with a look," we go immediately to "tearing the guts from an elk" and into Dickey's dream about Nature's final defiance of our bean-counting human emotional machinery.
An image from the world of Ahab and Moby Dick ends the poem, this vivid memorial to the beast who would strike the sun if it offended him. He clings to the tip of the last pine, fused with the spirit of the last eagle, engulfed in the flames of his own hunger for more life, snarling his angry shower of spit into the face of Death itself.
The last wolverine, sentient enough to think he has nothing to lose, stepping into a clearing in defiance of all the forces that would tidy up life with bullets, condos, and law, is an image I have carried with me like a talisman all my adult life.
If a wolverine were Dylan Thomas, this is how it would not go gentle into that good night.
My own wolverines are not as operatic as Dickey's but just as grand in their way. Some twenty years ago, I took my son to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo above Colorado Springs (and NORAD headquarters). It had been a favorite zoo of my own childhood, so I wanted to share it with him. It was smaller and meaner than I remembered (no doubt it would say the same of me), but a good excursion nevertheless, and memorable for our encounter with the mated pair of wolverines.
We came around a corner to a series of cages like kennel runs but narrower. In the first were two wolverines. They too were smaller than I would have expected; and having seen many hides since, I have to assume that they were young adults not quite full grown. It was feeding time, by a miraculous accident, and the keeper was making her way, from the last run forward, along the back of the kennels. My son and I stood at the front, admiring the great brown skunk bears. They ran to the front together and snarled up at us, so angry that their teeth actually clicked, a metal staccato under the organic sound of their threats.
While the keeper fed the skunks, a raccoon, then a fox, and then whoever was next before the wolverines, they ran back to check her progress, were disappointed, and ran forward again to make sure we understood how unwise it would be to make any dinner plans. What was coming was their food, by God, and we should stay clear about that, unless we were prepared to fight. Five or six times they ran the length of the run, and finally the keeper, in her huge rubber boots, arrived at their cage. Once more they came back to warn us, while she opened the mechanism that allowed her to put a metal dish, full of something red and bloody, in the cage. Then they ate.
Years later, I was in Fort Worth and standing outside the polecat warren, watching a mother ferret grab one escaped baby and drag it back to the den, then another, then another, then the first one again, then another, then the third again, and another. On a rock nearby lay a dead mouse, looking fresh, on its back, apparently uninjured but inexplicably dead. I inquired, and I was told (maybe I was having my leg pulled) that the mice have to be fresh, but if they aren't dead, then they escape into the zoo and become pests. So the keepers whack their brains out before serving them up for dinner. It was such a genteel scene — the mother sorting out her extroverted brats, the politely displayed little dead mouse. I thought immediately of my wolverines, their scorn of me, of keepers, of polite mice, and I smiled.
The story of the Cheyenne Mountain wolverines has a wonderful afterword. In 1998 I connected with The Wolverine Foundation, and I told Jeff Copeland, my contact there, this story by way of introduction. He reported back that the Cheyenne Mountain wolverines had escaped in the late seventies (which is roughly when we saw them) and that they were generally regarded by Colorado authorities as the progenitors of the small new population of native wolverines in the Colorado Rockies.
About the same time as my correspondence with Jeff Copeland, in 1997-98, Colorado began re-introduction programs for wolverine and lynx. The lynx program has had great publicity, mainly because the lynxes have suffered some spectacular casualties. About the wolverines, not a word. Which is just fine with them, I expect.