A Man Among Wolves
Shaun Ellis lived with wolves and became leader of the pack.
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.