Redemption, 2011 First Place Adult Division (tie)
By Wesley Engel
Central Idaho – Circa 1995
It was early. Virgil smoothed his official government shirt, drab brown in color, the one with the breast patch proudly proclaiming the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He flung his coat over his shoulders. Believing to be sufficiently girded against the Northern Rockies winter he stepped out of the Challis District Ranger’s cabin. “Burrr, sure is cold this morning,” Virgil muttered to himself. “More so than usual.” Confronted by the stiff breeze striking his bare skinned face took his breath away. He shuddered. He paused on the porch to take in the view as well as some deep breaths of clean Rocky Mountain air. Then resolute, he strode down the steps toward his four by four. Snow crunched underfoot; the thuds of his footfalls accentuated by the crisp air. Today, Virgil Manley had a date with destiny, the culmination of a life’s worth of work.
The drive ate up an hour and a half of his time. It wasn’t an easy drive; mostly slipping and sliding, also some sloshing over and through snow and mud. Up ahead in the forest clearing Virgil saw the two trucks parked, a gooseneck trailer hitched to each. These were the transport vehicles for the last leg of what was a very long trip for Canis Lupus. The trucks signaled he had arrived. At the release site everything was already arranged, the boxes lined up in a straight row, placed on the snowpack. To Virgil the live animal containers, lined up so neatly looked like dominoes waiting to tumble in a chain reaction. He smiled at the metaphor. Events here today certainly have the potential to cause a domino effect. A gathering of people mulled about. Too many, thought Virgil. This isn’t supposed to be a circus. Most were his staff. Virgil was project lead for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Program.
However, there were others. The unwelcomed, but necessary ones, included a TV crew, print media types, an Idaho state Fish and Game observer, several state representatives – – bureaucrats, a Nez Perce tribal representative and federal officials from the U.S. Department of Interior – – his bosses. Virgil approached the men. His walk today was light and brisk. His chest, puffed out with pride completed the look. The breeze had died down. Miniscule crystals of moisture suspended in the air glistened like chips of diamonds.
Virgil acknowledged his staff with a nod of head and slight wave of hand. They were mostly biologists, the real kind, the field kind, not the academicians in those colleges. Some acknowledged him through simple eye contact. Some muttered the words, “good morn’in.” Others just nodded in turn.
This morning was long awaited, long planned for. After so many words, so many meetings, so many discussions, arguments and proposals and studies few more words were needed now. What else could possibly be said? Virgil figured a quiet moment of solemnity was called for. One accompanied by a sense of fulfillment, mixed in with trepidation, confidence and mostly hope. Some wanted to celebrate, not Virgil, too premature. In many ways their work was just beginning today. Theirs was the grandest experiment to be tried in like . . . well forever; the ultimate end game still very much in doubt. Virgil knew it.
Today’s scheduled release involved eight Canadian Gray Wolves. Virgil and his team of biologists hoped the release would be as smooth as the one last week in Yellowstone. But they were on edge. Today’s release would be a ‘hard release’ unlike the ‘soft releases’ conducted in Yellowstone. The Yellowstone wolves had ten weeks to acclimate in the safety of their one acre catch pens prior to release into the wild. Today’s hard release, on the other hand, consisting of opening the containers and kicking the wolves out into their new world, would be more stressful to the animals. There was a chance these wolves might panic; they might try and run home in fear of their lives that they had interloped on an existing pack’s territory. There was a possibility to not pack up, and eventually without any pack structure to exhaust themselves in flight thereby signing their own death warrant.
The metal containers, three feet wide, by five feet long by three feet high and their captives which sat on the snow this March morning had traveled far. The stars of today’s show originated in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. Their capture involved a combination of trapping and or darting with tranquilizers. They were put in containers, trucked, then flown, then trucked again to this place.
Virgil sensing, knowing, all was set clapped his hands together and barked. “Let’s do it.”
He walked to the end of the line of imagined dominoes. He squatted down settling onto one knee. He peered in the darkened chamber of the kennel last in line. Eyes found his own. They glowed yellow, like Satan’s. The captive was jacked- up, a caged cornered animal. He quivered, his nerves waiting to explode. The animal hyperventilated with excitement and fear. Short puffs of steamy breath burst from Satan’s muzzle. The ivory teeth revealed as fleshy lips parted. The wolf growled a warning.
“Easy boy,” Virgil felt sorry for the beast. He wanted a last private moment with his new friend. Virgil named this one, Blackie. B-11, the wolf’s official government name, was too sterile a moniker for the big black male. He was a magnificent alpha specimen, weighing one hundred and thirty five pounds, jet black in color with a massive broad head. Virgil reckoned, What else could his name possibly be, but Blackie?
“This is it buddy. Do your job,” he spoke his final words of goodbye to Blackie.
“And his job is exactly what?” The comment came from behind Virgil.
Virgil turned his head to realize the bureaucrat representing the state of Idaho had eaves dropped. He took a moment to study the man, head to toe. The guy was dressed in a ridiculous top coat and fedora as if he was at a fancy reception in downtown Boise.
Virgil remained squatted. “Didn’t know anyone was listening,” his tone almost accusatory. His private moment with B-11 was violated.
“Just over heard you, is all. No big deal.”
“His job? His job is to establish a pack; to be alpha, to copulate, to produce pups.” Virgil shrugged his shoulders. “That’s all.”
“And to kill.”
“That too. He has to eat. His pack will need to eat. More importantly his presence will make the Idaho wilderness whole again. His presence completes the Northern Rockies eco-system. Wyoming, Idaho and Montana are healed by his presence. A wrong brought about by a planned extermination is righted this day.”
“Not everyone will see it that way. Canis lupus is the most despised creature there is.”
“You guys,” Virgil pointed to the man, “are the ones who politicized him. “He,” Virgil now pointed to the wolf in the container, “didn’t ask for any of this. He is just who he is, no more, no less. He just wants to be left alone. He doesn’t feel hate, like man.”
“His presence will cause many to lose their livelihood,” the bureaucrat argued.
“Hunting is his nature. Same as a scorpion’s sting is his nature. Do you begrudge the scorpion his sting?”
The bureaucrat stared at Virgil. He stared back. Within each’s gaze hostility passed back and forth between them.
The official removed his hat and pulled back the flaps of his topcoat. Hands now on hips he broke the silence. “The blood spilled by this one and his kind will stain the land; the blood of cattle and sheep, also elk, and deer. Everything which is good.”
“Living and killing go hand-in-hand; happens every time you eat a steak.”
“Not the same thing.”
“It’s exactly the same thing,” Virgil spat the words out.
Virgil stood, turning his back to the interloper. “We’re done here.” He stepped away from the live animal container box. His thumbs up signal told his men to start. They surrounded Blackie’s cage. One man checked to ensure the radio collar worked.
“We have a strong signal,” the biologist sporting the ear phones and hand held antennae reported.
All stood back. The door was lifted up. The excitement of the moment, of everyone’s expectation . . . fizzled. The container rattled and shook from movement inside. The metal box shuddered on the snow floor. Still no flesh sprang forth, only hot breaths of vapor melting in the cold air.
The freedom now in plain sight wasn’t as eagerly grasped as all present had expected. The canine hostage hesitated. Maybe there was solace in the darkened womb which was the metal container.
The next few moments seemed like an eternity to the men. They exchanged bewildered looks. They waited.
B-11 exploded from his confines. He bounded through belly deep snow, with lowered tail, a sign of fear. At the tree line twenty yards away he stopped. He was unsure which way to run. He turned his head to glimpse his captors a last time.
Is he saying goodbye, Virgil wondered. No he doesn’t care. Remember, he has no feelings. “Go, just go,” he yelled waving his arms.
B-11, Blackie, did go. He sprung into the forest away from the clearing. The men gathered clapped hands in celebration. All clapped except Virgil who remained quiet. He sensed Blackie was not far in the shadows of the pines. The canine awaited something. Virgil knew what. He nodded to the men to release the alpha female, B-12. She was a dirty brown – gray in color. Virgil called her lady. Everyone hoped she would become B-11’s alpha female, part of the breeding pair, the heart of the pack structure. Lady’s cage gate was raised. She sprung from the doorway before it was all the way opened. Unlike Blackie, she knew another of her kind awaited her, just beyond the clearing. She covered the distance in six leaping gallops.
Virgil slogged through thigh deep snow to the slight rise. There, he hoped to see them together. At the highest point of the knoll his heart was lifted up, his spirits soared. He saw Blackie and Lady, together high tailing it through the snow toward the valley floor below. Virgil didn’t celebrate long. He waived to the main gathering of his staff assembled around the six remaining animal containers. Cage doors were raised. Wolves emerged, some immediately, others more reluctantly. In each case however, once outside the cages they ran. They ran to the edge of the trees.
Then, as if the hand of God came down upon the gathering everything stopped, time stood still, the clamor of celebration interrupted. All heard it, man and beast. Even the six wolves now at the edge of the forest stopped in their tracks. The lonesome howl commanded every creature’s attention. It spread across the stillness of the winter’s air. It was Blackie, calling in the distance, laying claim to territory; calling to form a pack. The other wolves pricked up their ears. They oriented their heads to the sound of his call. They took off in the direction of Blackie and Lady.
The grand experiment had begun. Canis Lupus, the gray wolf, was once again part of the eco-system. The eco-system once again complete . . . predator and prey coexisted naturally, except for the radio-collars, directional antennas, beeping boxes and earphones. The modern technological accoutrements were a necessary fact of the biological experiment.
A thin line of white teeth appeared as Virgil’s lips parted forming a smile. Redemption, he thought.
The bureaucrat bit down on his lower lip. What have we done? he wondered.