April 10, 2007 — -- Shaun Ellis gave up comfort, a family and the civilization that surrounded him, to live with wolves. He is the founder of a wolf sanctuary at the Combe Martin Wildlife Park on England's southwest coast.
"I was always drawn towards the animals more than I was a human society," Ellis said.
At 42 years old, Ellis is 6 feet tall and powerfully built, with a weather-beaten face, piercing blue eyes and shoulder-length brown hair that he lets fall, loose and shaggy, when he is with the wolves. A thin scar from a wolf bite extends beneath his right eye and along his cheekbone. For someone whose life has been devoted to wolves, he looks the part.
In 2004, when the lives of three pups at the sanctuary were at risk because their mother had stopped nursing them, Ellis decided to use years of knowledge he had accumulated to raise the captive pups himself by teaching them how to behave like wolves. He moved in with the young pack and assumed the role of tutor and leader -- the alpha wolf.
The experiment was documented by a British television producer, Bernard Walton, whose footage will be broadcast next week on the National Geographic Channel. "What was extraordinary was the relationships that developed between the different wolves and Shaun," Walton said. "He had refined everything down to a fine art -- to be a wolf."
The fascination that led to Ellis' experiment was born years ago, when Ellis, then an only child living on the east coast of England, awakened on a moonlit night to discover foxes playing among the horses in a field near his home.
"You could hear their giant hooves thundering across the ground," Ellis said. "So I ventured down to the wood line to find out exactly what was happening. And the cause of their anxiety was this family of fox kits and their mother playing amongst the giant hooves of the horses. And I guess that for me was the draw, the connection with nature."
Ellis followed that connection single-mindedly. He never finished high school. In his teens he took a gamekeeping job. After a stint in the army, he went to North America to spend time with the Nez Perce Indians, observing wild wolves and other animals.
While trained scientists study animals from a distance, through observation, so they don't influence how the animals behave, Ellis was different. He wanted to live among the wolves. By working in animal parks when he returned to England, Ellis was able to learn through direct contact with wolf packs, albeit captive ones.
"What's interesting is, I think that Shaun is like a nineteenth century naturalist of olden times, when you interact with your subject," Walton said. "In the twentieth century, that all changed."
Ellis did have an end game in mind. Because many cultures have demonized wolves through film characters and fairy tales such as the "Wolf Man" and "Little Red Riding Hood," Ellis wants to find ways in which wolves can more peacefully coexist with humans, especially in areas where they prey on livestock and create an economic burden for farmers and ranchers.
Ellis believes that by using information and techniques he has gathered through the time he spends with wolf packs, wolves can be influenced not to invade past certain human boundaries.
He chose to forego normal human contact, sometimes for days at a time, as a tutor to the three wolf pups at Combe Martin. Thanks to his previous work, Ellis said he had learned to distinguish elements of wolf language. Some of the first lessons the three pups got were in howling.
"The first call I usually give them is what we call a locating howl -- very high in pitch -- and it tells the young pups that no matter where they are, if they hear that, they come to me very quickly."
Every pack member develops a signature howl that is unique to that animal, Ellis said. "If the position that it holds in the pack changes, then its howl will change. Everything depends up on the social positioning…that these guys hold, and the howling is no different."
One of the pups, named Tamaska, was particularly vocal. "His reaction to being in trouble or getting hurt was to scream like a big child. And he'd come running over to me very quickly and I'd have to pick him up, put him under my neck and give him warmth. Warmth is one of the ways that we use to say to the wolf that everything's okay, you can calm down."
Conservation biologist Dr. Chris Darimont of Canada's Raincoast Conservation Society and the University of Victoria said that although the pups would have learned to howl on their own, "Shaun could have taught them certain howls, absolutely."
Darimont has mixed feelings about the nature of Ellis' work. "I'm of the opinion that the best teachers of wolves are their parents and their older siblings in a traditional wild setting…What Shaun is doing is not traditional Western science, but it doesn't detract as much as one would think it does from what he's been able draw from his very intimate associations with wolves that has rarely been done before."
Darimont said he was impressed by scenes of Ellis eating at a deer carcass with the wolves, and growling to guard his portion of the kill and enforce the hierarchy of the pack.
"To be side by side, next to these carnivores with 1,500 pounds per square inch of biting pressure in a highly competitive environment -- this is a feast or famine lifestyle," Darimont said. "I've seen his expressions, modifying his facial features, and it's the same thing that the wolves are doing. It mimics wolf behavior close enough that it's very, very effective."
Ellis wasn't eating raw meat from the animal carcasses, which were purchased and brought into the sanctuary for the wolves. He had the organs he ate precooked, wrapped in plastic and placed back into the carcasses. He then claimed and defended his food.
"I was never healthier," Ellis said. "Colds, flus, upset stomachs, internal problems never really became an issue. I did pick up two bouts of worms, I have to admit that one."
He also suffered what he said were accidental facial bites that resulted when two wolves on either side of him snapped at each other. On such occasions, he left the compound briefly to see a doctor and receive stitches for the wound.
"In the early stages I would get stitched up, come back down again, and come in with the guys," Ellis said. "But very quickly they could smell something in the wound, so…the wolves would just pluck out the stitches, very gently with their front incisors. And [I] just sat there and let them do it because it's their world. They would…open up the wound and thoroughly lick inside. Every few hours they would come over and inspect the wound and clean it thoroughly, so much so that it would heal in a fraction of the time."
Montana wolf biologist Dr. Kyran Kunkel said those healing powers wouldn't be unusual. "They would have, within themselves, opportunities to heal in a way that's evolved over time and that works for them. So it would make sense, too, that it might also work for humans."
Dr. Kunkel said that Ellis was not taking the type of risk involved in a famous incident in 2003, when a naturalist and his girlfriend were killed by a grizzly bear.
"In terms of inflicting real harm," Kunkel said, "I don't think that was as big a concern with captive animals, and certainly not the concern you would have with a larger carnivore with claws like a grizzly bear."
Ellis has four children from a long-term relationship that failed. He said the work he does with wolves put a strain on his human family.
"You have to drive yourself away from human emotion," Ellis said. "When you leave here and try and join your family's society, your emotion doesn't come out with you. You're into a role that you provide with the wolves, and it takes a long time in the early stages to get out of that character and go into another one."
Ellis said that in his dreams, he is sometimes a wolf instead of a human being. "It's almost like the wolf brings out the subconscious in you, a way of dealing with the world. If I had a dream that caused me a problem or an anxiety, I would often find in that dream that I would appear as the wolf to deal with that problem. If there was no anxiety, then normally [I] would be in human form."
One way of dealing with the world and maintaining the pack structure while Ellis lived with the wolves was to keep a set of unwashed clothes that carried the odors of the pack -- the scents they knew him by. He described it as a kind of wolf newspaper. "This clothing actually contains all the information that surrounds their territory: where I've been, how have I fed, have I made a kill?"
Ellis did grow nostalgic for human contact. In a visit to a pub near the wildlife park, he met and struck up a friendship with Helen Jeffs. She said that the smell of Ellis' work didn't deter her. "When I met Shaun, that was his life, that was his world. I knew that. I could put up with that, no problem."
Ellis couldn't telephone her when he returned to the wolves, but Jeffs, who lived on the other side of a valley, was game for different types of communication.
"Shaun would howl with the pups, and then I would respond and howl back to him. So we communicated by howling across the valley."
Jeffs now lives and works with Ellis at the park.
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."