Friday, 1 January 2010

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat


This was a great find, tucked away on the top shelf in our local secondhand bookshop, alongside a tempting selection of Gerald Durrell. I’d enjoyed The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be (reviewed earlier) so much and knew that anything else by the same author was going to be a quick and entertaining read. I’d commented in my review, though, that I knew there was some controversy over Mowat’s writing, and this was one of the books that caused it. This leaves me in something of a quandary about what to make of it – it is ostensibly an account of an expedition into the Canadian Arctic to study wolves, who were suffering something of a bad press at the time. Mowat’s remit, as described by him, was not to redress the balance but to provide a justification for continued slaughter, on the grounds that wolves were decimating the caribou population.

Never Cry Wolf is an entertaining story about a naturalist studying a family of wolves in the wild. As such, it romps along at a pretty rollicking pace, full of amusing anecdotes, both human and animal. It’s also an impassioned plea for a re-evaluation of the wolf’s role as a top predator, suggesting that, rather than being a wasteful and profligate killer of healthy caribou, wolves serve a purpose in keeping herds healthy by picking off sickly and failing animals, and that for most of the year, they exist largely on a diet of smaller animals, including mice. This has been strongly denied by other wolf experts, and I suspect that the truth is somewhere in the middle. It would surprise me if small animals didn’t make up quite a large component on a wolf’s diet, particularly when I watch the ease with which my dogs catch and eat quite large numbers of small creatures, expending far less energy for a decent meal of mice than if they chase a hare. Mowat’s writing persuades me that there is some good observation of wolves here, whether it is his own or that of First Nations hunters that he consulted. The book played a significant part in creating public sympathy for wolves, and in that I can’t fault it – they certainly needed someone on their side in 1963, when the book was published and even now can ill afford to lose an advocate (see the current, often highly emotional debate on the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland and over their re-establishment in France).

My worry with Never Cry Wolf is that Mowat risked causing considerable harm by presenting his observation as scientific research. If he and the wolves got away with it, it was more by luck than judgement, and a fictionalised account should always be clearly indicated as such. The risk of Mowat’s avowed policy of never letting the truth get in the way of a story is that, every once in a while, the truth may just turn round and bite you. As fiction, though, it’s a fun read and Mowat is good company.

3 comments:

  1. Not a book I know at all, but your comment about finding it next to Gerald Durrell reminded me of how much I used to enjoy his writing and raised the thought of going back to it. I could do with a good laugh in this appalling weather and he has me rocking from side to side.

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  2. Oh heavens, yes, I used to cry with laughter - do you remember the ship's captain who didn't like animals, so everything escaped during the voyage, or the tree-porcupine who had three bananas but only two paws, or...

    The last chapter of Never Cry Wolf is really very depressing, since he rails against the wanton slaughter of wolves. Honestly, I'd go for Durrell right now.

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  3. I'm not too fond of Mowat myself, for many of the things you point out - his focus on presenting an issue at the expense of being strictly truthful, for one.
    It kind of reminds me of the old Canadian joke about Ernest Thompson Seton's wildlife classic, Animals I Have Known. Another naturalist writer commented that it should have been entitled AnimalsonlyI have Known.

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