Posts Tagged ‘farley mowat’

Farley Mowat served Canada in the Second World War.

Farley Mowat is routinely denounced by wolf experts for producing so many misconceptions about wolf behavior in Never Cry Wolf (1963). Like most of Mowat’s work, it is difficult to determine whether one should classify it as a novel or a memoir. Many “facts” in the novel have been called into question.

But one thing is clear, this book, perhaps more than any other, is the reason why wolves are protected in so much of their range today.

The book is the account of a zoologist who observes a wolf den in northern Canada. It also includes lore and mythology of the Ihalmiut, a group of Inuit who lived largely off of caribou. According to Mowat, these people saw the wolf as a necessity for maintaining the strength of caribou herds. They required big and fat caribou to survive, and the wolves helped to that end by culling the sick and weak animals.

Mowat heavily anthropomorphizes the wolves in the book.  The three adults are George, top male, and Angeline, his mate. To assist in the raising of the puppies, another male wolf, which Mowat calls “Uncle Albert,” acts as playful babysitter.

Mowat comes to love these wolves very much. He portrays them almost as the canine equivalents of the “noble savage.”   They only occasionally kill caribou. When denning, according to Mowat, they live almost solely on mice.

Of course, this part of the book has been the most heavily damned. Canis lupus doesn’t live on mice for any extended period of time, but its close cousin, the Ethiopian wolf, lives almost entirely on small rodents.

The final scene of the book is the one that is perhaps the most moving.

Assuming that the occupants have gone, Mowat climbs down into the wolf den to make some measurements. Once he reaches the end of the den, he comes across the glowing eyes of Angeline and her pups. He becomes frightened and quickly wriggles his way out of the den.

That’s how the book ends.  Mowat feels upset at himself for being so afraid of these wolves. After all, they have allowed him to observe the most intimate parts of his life, and they never offered to attack him.

Why should he have been afraid?

The book changed the perceptions of millions of people around the world. The Soviet Union heavily promoted Mowat’s work, and it wasn’t long before they banned wolf hunting, even if Soviet wolves did occasionally attack people.

For decades, we believed that the end of Never Cry Wolf was exactly how it happened.

It wasn’t until Mowat published Otherwise in 2008. This memoir accounts the years of his late teens through his service during the Second World War. It also covers the years after the war, when he returns to Canada deeply scarred man and goes into the arctic to find himself.

The story of the encounter with the wolves happened at this time, and when Mowat describes what happens, it is actually quite different from the ending of Never Cry Wolf.  It is not a flattering portrayal, and the possibility that this account is the true one is probably quite high.

Mowat describes what happened:

Mowat thought he had killed the wolves, and feeling so much guilt, he crawled back into the den.


This account didn’t appear in Never Cry Wolf.

But when one realizes that he was a veteran of the war, we can understand why he may have been so willing to go for the gun when he felt frightened.

Those feelings of extreme guilt after trying to kill these wolves are really what made Mowat’s career as a writer.

In his words about the natural world, there is atonement.

No, he may not have written totally truthful nonfiction.

But I suppose one can forgive him.

Here was a psychologically wounded veteran who was able to find himself again.

He was no longer the creature he was in combat.

He was human again.

I think we can forgive him of this attempted murder.

And whatever inconsistencies and exaggerations exist in his work.

He needed to make amends.

And so he has.




Read Full Post »

The image above is of Albert.

Albert was a St. John’s water dog who was actually born in Newfoundland.

He was among the last of his breed. Well, he was among the last of the lines that were free of modern Labrador retriever blood.

And he had a famous owner.

This particular dog belonged to Farley Mowat, a well-known Canadian naturalist and author.

The above photo comes from Bay of Spirits, Mowat’s memoir about his time falling in love with Newfoundland– and then having a very bad falling out with it.

Albert is described as follows:

Perhaps the most momentous event that winter was the aquisition of Albert, a young water dog from La Poille. As big as a Labrador retriever, he was a sway-backed creature, black as ebony except for his white chest, and equipped with webbed feet, the tail of an otter, and the attitude of a lord of the realm. He quickly became an integral member of our little family both ashore and afloat, where he demonstrated he was a proper seadog: sure-footed, ready for anything, and afraid of nothing (pg. 303).

“La Poille” is on Newfoundland’s Sou’west Coast. It is normally spelled “La Poile,” and it is not very far from Burgeo, where Mowat lived from 1962 until about 1968.  Albert would later be featured in an episode of the the CBC series Telescope in 1970.

By then, the Mowats had taken to summering on Quebec’s Magdalen Isands, which are located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the film, Albert and his mate– aptly named Vickie– are shown retrieving from the surf. Albert also receives a bizarre bedtime story from his master, which would give any dog nightmares!

Mowat tried to use Albert as a way of saving his breed.

Mowat believed the water dog of Newfoundland was closely related to the Portuguese water dog, a linkage that, thus far, hasn’t been revealed in any genetic studies.  Like many breed historians, Mowat tried to trace these water dogs through their poodle lineage, eventually arriving at herding dogs that were native to Central Asia. These linkages have not been confirmed in any genetic studies, but they are still pretty interesting.

In order to save the breed, Mowat tried breeding Albert to a Labrador, but because none of the puppies had the characteristic white spots, he abandoned the project.  There were only four pups in the litter, and both bitch pups died.   The two dog pups were given to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin.

These dogs were multipurpose hauling, hunting, and fishing dogs.

They are primary ancestor of all the retrievers, except the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, which may have a bit of this blood. However, it is mostly of collie extraction.  All the others, including the large Newfoundland dog and its variants, are derived from variation upon this landrace.

There still are black retriever-type dogs in Newfoundland, but these dogs heavily outcrossed to modern Labrador retriever lines, which were introduced from North America and the United Kingdom as “improved” hunting dogs.

When people say that Labrador retrievers come from Newfoundland, they aren’t exactly wrong. However, all the larger retrievers descend from this stock, and the modern Labrador retriever was developed in the United Kingdom in the 1880’s.

The dogs are derived from animals from Newfoundland, but the “improvement” happened in the United Kingdom and on Chesapeake Bay.

Albert is an idea of what a dog from this landrace looked like– at least what the last of his kind looked like.

One can create a dog that looks very much like him if one crosses a Labrador retriever with a border collie.

But the cross is  an imposter.

Albert’s kind was developed on the land and on the sea.

Natural and artificial selection honed his kind.

A dog derived from the cross of a border collie and a Labrador retriever never experienced those generations of selection.

It would just look the same.

Nothing more.




Read Full Post »

I came across lines from Farley Mowat’s Whale for the Killing (1972), which I think truly reflects the fundamental problem of our species. We think we’re not part of it all. We think we’re separate and above all the rest of the living things. And in creating this delusion, we have sequestered ourselves from the reality that is existence on this planet.

In 1967, an 80-ton fin whale became stranded in a saltwater lagoon near Burgeo, Newfoundland. She had come in on an unusually high tide.  She had been following an unusually productive herring run, and when the tide went out, she was stuck. The local people, mostly young men who had been working in Ontario during the summer and making quite a bit of money, went out on small motor boats and started shooting the whale with their rifles. Then, they ran over her back with the propeller of a boat.

Mowat did all he could to try to stop the torture, even appealing to the Canadian national media for support.  When he appealed to the national media, the locals were portrayed as barbarians, which certainly didn’t help Mowat’s standing in the community.

Because whales have not been widely exposed to terrestrial bacteria, their immune systems have not evolved to fight them. When the bacteria on the bullets hit the whale, she became infected with bacteria that her immune system simply couldn’t handle. There also wasn’t a lot of food in the lagoon, and she began to weaken.

And then she died.

Mowat was so upset with all of this. He had failed to save the life of the whale, but in his attempt to do so, he had alienated himself from Newfoundland, a place he loved deeply. He knew that he was no longer welcome.

But in his alienation, he recognized something deeper and more profound, for just as he was alienated from Newfoundland, he began to realize that this was symbolic of man’s estrangement from the planet in which he evolved.

Read Full Post »

I know that I have posted a link to this video before, but there is a CBC interview with Farley Mowat in which Albert, his St. John’s water dog, is featured. There is another similar dog in the film named Vickie.  (Get it? Victoria and Albert?) I think she may have been nothing more than a Labrador mix that happened to look like a St. John’s water dog.


This is what the ancestral retriever looked like.

Beware of alligators in the Limpopo River!


Read Full Post »

By short, I mean 25 minutes.

I’m sure the stats have changed, but this is called Ten Million Books.

It is sorrowfully moving to listen that passage about Mutt’s death read aloud. (The dog who portrays him is a springer/BC cross.)

Those black dogs with short hair are St. John’s water dogs– among the last of their breed.

I don’t know what the long-haired black dogs are.

This documentary is well worth watching.  In it, you learn many things– what subjective nonfiction is, why Mowat started writing about his childhood dog, and Mowat’s enchantment and later disenchantment with Newfoundland.

It’s worth your 25 minutes.

Trust me.

Read Full Post »

This is part where the Inuit tell their story about the origins of the wolf. This is not how it happens in the book, but the contours of the story are the same.


The film takes place in Alaska. The novel takes place in Keewatin, which is a place you probably never heard of.

The book is also much funnier than the film. The part where one of the wolves hooks up with a husky bitch is the most vivid and hilarious description of canine courtship I’ve ever read.

And yes, I’m aware of all the controversies about Mowat’s account, especially the theory that wolves live on mice when they den. Yes, this is at best creative nonfiction.

But there’s nothing wrong with creative nonfiction, provided one understands what part is creative.

The writing is good. It makes the reader appreciate wolves, the arctic, and the native peoples who live there.

If I want biology, I’ll read Mech. If I want to have a reason to admire this animal, I’ll read Mowat.

Read Full Post »

Today is Farley Mowat’s birthday. If my math is any good, he is 89 years old.

So I think I’ll post this video where he discusses many things:



Oh and I just realized it is one week from my birthday.

Damn, I’m getting old.

Read Full Post »

This is from the film adaptation of Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf:


Somehow, I don’t think that this will work, simply because wolves are unlikely to view human urine in the same way that they view the urine of other wolves.

Read Full Post »


The Bark interviews Karsten Heuer in the April/May 2010 issue. Heuer and his wife, Leanne Allison, made a documentary about their journey from Alberta to visit the renowned Canadian author and environmental activist Farley Mowat.  Accompanying Heuer and Allison on this journey were their two-year-old son, Zev (Hebrew for wolf) and their young border collie named Willow.

The family travel through the wilderness places that are featured so prominently in Mowat’s writings, including some epic wilderness canoeing.

When they arrived at Mowat’s home in Cape Breton, they meet Mowat’s Labrador cross named Chester. Because no more water dogs exist, it looks like Mowat has gone for the reasonable facsimile– the Labrador cross.

I am definitely going to have to see Finding Farley.


The most interesting part of the interview (for me, at least) was that Mowat has a manuscript of a book about Albert.

Not the wolf.

Albert the St. John’s water dog.

Read Full Post »


And no, the dog is not a St. John’s water dog. It’s a Labrador cross.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: