Jodi Picoult goes in search of wolves
Hodder's Kerry Hood reports
'I have 56 questions for him,' Jodi said. 'Can we get more time on Thursday evening?'
So, in a car rustling with sandwiches, crisps, biscuits, chocolate and jet lag, Jodi, her son Jake and I were off to Devon to meet Shawn Ellis, who has brought up a pack of wolves down there and is acknowledged to be our expert on these amazing animals and their behaviour.
We arrived at his office at 4.00pm and over a cup of tea, goggle-eyed and as if bolted to our chairs, we listened to him talk about living with wolves in the wild in America and what he learned from them. At 7.00 Jodi turned off the tape recorder and sat back.
This is research that she is doing for her 2012 novel Lone Wolf. We had arranged in May of 2010 to meet up with Shaun and the excitement had been building over the summer.
He has a cast on his right hand and forearm – no, not bitten, as everyone immediately thinks! He had pushed it between a young wolf, playing, and a glass door. The pane broke behind his hand, severing a tendon ... the wolf wasn't scratched. The arm, however, had been in a cast for 5 weeks and it was driving him crazy. Not only that but it had thrown the natural balance of Shaun's pack out of kilter. Because he can't interact with them, he is facing the possibility that another wolf will be auditioning for his role within their ranks. He can't go into the enclosure with them because they would strip the cast off and try to lick the wound clean.
'A&E wouldn't approve,' he remarked casually.
This injury had another impact, because without him in with them, Jodi can't mingle with the wolves. This is a big disappointment and it will have to wait for another time - but 'it will be what it will be' says Jodi (a rather wolf-like philosophy, if you ask me). But Shaun and his partner, Dr Isla Fishburn, make up for it by getting us as close to the big animals as possible – eye to eye through chain link fence on several occasions.
We said goodbye for the evening, reluctantly peeling ourselves away and headed off for the hotel in Saunton Sands, a bit further round the lovely north Devon coast, but we are back at his office at 10am the next morning. From there, off to the wildlife park where the wolves are. They have two wolf-cross puppies, 8 weeks old, and soft, fuzzy packages they are too. A little alpha girl and a big-boned, uncoordinated, solid dog-pup who will grow to be huge and is already a 'numbers' boy ... one of the pack, but not a key player. They are adorable but we all fell in love with this clumsy, innocent little boy. We suggested he be called Seattle, because he badly needs to believe he can be a great Chief one day - although everyone knows he won't be.
Towards the middle of the day an air raid siren goes off; then another, ending finally with a series of echoing whoops. The park is in a narrow, wooded valley and we are looking down at it from one side - above two wolf enclosures. The siren and whoops die away, but almost immediately, the wolves themselves set up a howl. It is suddenly a glorious cacophony of sounds that must be carried on the otherwise calm Devon morning all the way to the sea, which we can see between the shoulder blades of the valley.
'It's the gibbons,' Isla explains. 'The lemurs get out of their enclosures and climb on their fence. The gibbons pull their tails and a general ruckus starts up.' Gibbons sound like air raid sirens ... who knew?
At lunchtime, Shaun gave an assembled crowd a short talk while the wolves snacked. The people were pretty unresponsive, but maybe that was because there were times when Shaun was drowned out by the crescendo of yelps, snarls, snapping teeth, crunches and ripping sounds going on behind him. This was not a moment for vegetarians.
Shaun, Isla and Jude (in whose home Jodi was doing the interview) were patience personified. The remainder of the 56 questions were asked and answered throughout the day – by which time we had watched the wolves fed, howled (more on that below), met other wolves and the sun was on the way down.
There were two memorable snatches of conversation during this day that might not be commonplace elsewhere ... 'shall I help with the carcass?' (me, talking about the wolves' lunch) and 'step back, Jake, I might whack you with my rabbit' (Jodi, as she prepared to lob a bunny - dead - over the fence to another pack). Worth reporting, perhaps!
They are big, these wolves, spindly-legged, slightly scrawny behind, but with the most beautiful wide faces and golden eyes. Jumping up at the fence between us, their paws are high over our heads, and their faces are startlingly eye-level. And they float.
We walked past another pen - on the way to get the rabbits from the meat-safe - and there were quite suddenly three large wolves standing 5 feet away. They appeared, silently, like long-legged ghosts.
Once the Park had cleared of visitors, we got to howl ... we chose our roles (or were given them!). Jodi, the alpha, has a simple, but leading howl that rises and falls a couple of times before Jake (the beta) comes in with a longer, stronger voice and finally, there was me (the numbers wolf on this occasion), who has the complicated, schizophrenic, multiple-personality song that should sound as though I am legion. Obviously we sounded like a top class wolf choir, because as we stopped, our counterparts, from four different directions are singing a delicious medley back at us. How satisfying was that? Jodi says we must howl at every given moment thereafter ... and indeed we do - at the hotel, at dinner, in the car, back in London ...
Returned to the hotel at the end of the day a spirited discussion was re-ignited over a meal. The cleaning staff had efficiently strapped paper signs around the loos, announcing they have been sanified for our safety. 'No such word,' says Jodi. 'That's a rubbish word,' says I. Jake looks it up on the internet and finds a vague reference to cleanliness ... but it is not in Websters Dictionary. The mood around the dinner table rises to the occasion and friendly competitiveness breaks out, Jodi and Jake vying for the alpha position. Sniggers turn to chuckles, then snorts and then it is full blown laughter with tears and sudden eruptions. Jet lag, a most wonderful day and exhuberance muddle together ... I make a comment, tripping up on Dr Heckle and Mr Jyde and we are off again in weeping mirth. At that moment, a girl crosses the dining room and asks for Jodi's autograph.
There was no saving us - we were weak, dewey-eyed and helpless. Not at all wolf-like ... at least the other two could blame jet lag.
-Kerry Hood, August 2010
Trade paperback edition of Jodi Picoult's LONE WOLF
Our visit to Shawn Ellis' wolf pack