Learning to Speak Wolf

Two humans work for acceptance into a pack of wild wolves.

Oct. 8, 2008 — -- There is hunger in the forest at night.

A wild cry is heard beyond the trees as darkness falls. It is the witching hour of stealth and surprise, when wolf packs hunt their prey. Fear grows in the wind as the moon reaches its full ascent.

Using a natural calculus of speed and distance, wolves drive their quarry deep into the snow. Livestock are vulnerable in the trappings of ice, where the wolves show their famed killing prowess. The chases end with an assault of teeth and snarls.

Learning what's beyond the menace is not for the faint of heart. But Shaun Ellis and his girlfriend Helen Jeffs are willing to risk their lives and leave behind the last remnants of a human existence to survive in the world of the wolf.

'Think Wolf'

"It's almost like the wolf brings out a subconscious in you, a way of dealing with the world," Ellis said.

But to do so, Ellis and Jeffs have to become wolves themselves.

"Lose your human, think wolf," Ellis said to Jeffs.

It is a skill he has honed in the last few decades. He has done what many scientists thought impossible and has become an accepted member of a captive wolf pack.

"This is the way that you need to study these animals. Get close to their world. And then they will share their secrets," he said.

Ellis is a careful listener, both to their secrets and their warnings.

"In the beginning, the warnings were very, very scary. It was the animal trying to teach me about its world," Ellis said.

As a man living among wolves, Ellis bade farewell to the comforts of human society and took his place on the ground to learn the ways of a canine hierarchy.

"When nature turns off her lights, we don't have any luxury, and that's when you have to really start to come into your own and understand the wolf," Ellis said.

Becoming Fluent in Wolf

He created his own sanctuary to study captive wolf behavior at the Coombe Martin Wildlife Park, on England's southwest coast. His goal is to find ways for wolves to peacefully co-exist with ranchers whose cattle are susceptible to attack.

"I've seen wolves able to short out an electric fence by laying objects between the two wires. They're entirely highly intelligent animals that will breach most problems," Ellis said.

To know the wolves' minds, he first had to learn their sounds. He became fluent in a complex language of snarls, whimpers and howls, one where the subtleties of translation could get Ellis seriously injured simply by missing a cue.

"In my time I've picked up a few accidental bites where two wolves -- wolves either side of me -- have snapped," he said.

But even with the threat of violence, there are surprises. Ellis is the first to say he has fallen for the dark magic of wolves.

"Very quickly they could smell something in the wound that maybe doctors or we as people couldn't clinically clean. So all that would happen is that the wolves would just pluck out the stitches, very gently with their front incisors, and just thoroughly lick inside. And clean it thoroughly, so much so that it would heal in a fraction of the time," he said.

As the secrets of the natural world began to reveal themselves, Ellis learned that it would not be an easy transition from his wolf identity back into human society.

"When you leave here and you go back and try and join society your emotion doesn't come out with you," he said.

But love has its own compass. As strong as any instinct, Ellis' need to connect with the outside world guided his way forward. At a nearby pub one night, he met a woman who discovered she was fascinated both by the wolves and the man living among them.

Jeffs became Ellis' assistant. And later on, something more.

"When I met Shaun, that was his life. That was his world. I knew that," Jeffs said.

Jeffs also knew that Ellis would wildly redefine her notion of romance. Lacking a telephone while he was with the wolves, Ellis communicated with Jeffs in the one language they all share.

"Shaun would howl with the pups in the enclosure and then I would respond and howl back to him. So we communicated with howling across the valley," Jeffs said.

A New Family Member

As the couple's relationship deepened, Jeffs wanted to understand the wolves' power over Ellis. She was no longer content watching from a safe distance. But to join the pack, she had to prove to Ellis, and to the wolves, that she could handle her terror.

"It was terrifying. I can still feel his teeth and the pressure on my face. And the canine up my nose," she said.

The wolves' loyalty to each other is unquestioned, but there are no guarantees for Ellis and Jeffs' safety in their midst.

"There's always that fear that they are going to bite that little bit too hard or catch you in an area where you'll just simply bleed to death," Ellis said.

Having cared for Ellis' injuries, Jeffs is intimately aware of all the ways she can now get hurt.

"I've seen the flesh wounds. I've had many times when his eyes are sort of glazed and he's lost consciousness. I've also heard the groans when he goes to the toilet where he is literally peeing blood," Jeffs said.

Wolf packs have a hierarchy of dominance and every member knows its role. In Ellis' pack, there is only one female, Cheyenne. And because the wolf was pregnant, it was a unique opportunity for Jeffs, a former nursery nurse, to take the nanny position and help raise the pups -- if Cheyenne and the male wolves accepted her.

A wolf's gestational period is nine weeks. It wasn't much time for Ellis to condense 20 years of wolf knowledge into a crash course and Jeffs was feeling the pressure.

"As a female you don't particularly want lots scars or injuries particularly on your face or anywhere on your body for that matter. You don't really want to have to go through pain," Jeffs said.

She had to trust Ellis and the wolves with her life. How she reacted to Cheyenne during their introduction was the key to this pioneering experiment.

"All you're simply doing is exposing that vulnerable underside, from the throat area to the genital area. She'll probably come above you. Now it's very important at this point that you keep nice and calm," Ellis said.

But was Jeffs wolf enough to leave behind her human fear?

"There was an immense amount of tenacity, lots of growling, snarling, literally inches from my face," she said.

It is anyone's guess what the future holds. But for Ellis and Jeffs, for now, their love is brave enough for each other -- and the wolves.

"I never really imagined that somebody would come along. She proved to me that there's a world for both. What many people have come to class as [a] savage, ruthless killer we've come to know and love as family," Ellis said.

It's a sentiment Jeffs shares as she risks everything to help Cheyenne welcome her new family into the world.

"Oh, bless her, she is making quite straining noises. It sounds pretty imminent to us that pups are on their way," Jeffs said.

But nothing in Jeffs' training has prepared her for what happens next.

Watch more of their life among wolves on Animal Planet's series "Living With the Wolf Man" premiering Oct. 21, 2008.