As the wolves grew more independent, Ellis left the compound for an extended period of time that included a visit to Poland. A farmer had complained about wild wolves preying on his livestock. Ellis wanted to test some of his theories about using the wolves' own techniques -- including howls that establish boundaries between rival packs -- to discourage them from entering human territories. He asked a farmer to play recordings of territorial howls, the type that tell other wolves to stay away.
"They're highly intelligent animals that will breach most problems," Ellis said. "But the one thing they will adhere to is the fact that where there is another wolf pack's territory, you can't cross it."
Ellis said that for six weeks after he began the experiment, the farmer reported no additional predation by wolves. However, the experiment remains unproven and needs rigorous testing.
Biologists are of the same mind in wanting to minimize wolf-human conflicts.
"In many areas of the planet where wolves and humans still coexist, this is a dominant issue," Darimont said. "Whether it be wolves killing livestock or, conversely, humans killing wolves. If there's any way we can contribute to modification of behavior of the wolves, or the humans themselves, then this would be a valuable contribution. And I think Shaun's working towards that goal."
Inevitably, Ellis' relationship with the wolves at Combe Martin changed dramatically. After his extended absence in Poland, Ellis returned to discover that the pack had chosen a new leader. A wolf named Yana had become the alpha wolf. Tamaska, the pup who had howled so desperately for Ellis' comfort, assumed the role of a beta wolf, a kind of lieutenant whose strength may also make him a pack defender and enforcer.
Documentarian Bernard Walton watched with his cameras as Shaun returned and, for his own safety, approached the wolves he had mentored by assuming a submissive position.
"That was quite frightening," Walton said. "But he was able to get through it, and we all kind of sighed with relief."
Ellis said he always had wanted the pack to supply its own leader, and he expected the takeover. "This often happens within a fraternity of wolves. There's no malice and no remorse for any animal. One of the hardest things I had to do was leave human emotions at that gate. We just simply step down, and let a better, superior animal take our place."
Now that he has gone full circle with the captive wolves, one of Ellis' future ambitions is to somehow join a pack of wolves in the wild.
Darimont said he wouldn't recommend trying to cross that line. "It wouldn't be something I'd support. My feeling, and it's a strong feeling, is that wild wolves should remain wild, and I don't think we can justify joining a wild pack for the information it may offer."
Kunkel agreed. "I can't even think of a situation where it would be workable. Because you're in habitats and terrain [where] these animals don't let humans, for the most part, get close to them."
"I think I need them more than they need me," Ellis said. "I've come to like them. I wonder if they miss me when I leave. I think the harsh reality for me is going to come when it's time not to do this anymore, because what many people have come to class as savage, ruthless killer [I've] come to know and love as family."