Hunt for Lobo Continues Today

Lobo wolf at night by Ernest Thompson Seton
Lobo wolf at night by Ernest Thompson Seton

Part I

Seton had planned to spend the winter of 1893-1894 at his home in Toronto, and with luck, in New York as well. His professional future as an illustrator (and later, as a writer) resided in the American city. His manic work schedule, however, resulted in severe eye strain. A doctor advised him to take a break from the drawing board and try something else. I have not found the name of that medico, but his advice for a change of venue set Seton on a new track. This included coming up with ideas resulting in worldwide Scouting and mass marketing of wildlife conservation.

The Intervening Step

That step was traveling to far-away New Mexico to hunt wolves in October 1893. Over a year earlier Seton had met a young New Jersey woman, Virginia Fitz Randolph. Renewing their acquaintance back in the States (he was by then spending time with her younger sister Caroline), he met their father Louis. An absentee ranch owner, Louis V. Fitz Randolph was losing money on his cattle operation due to wolf predation. Seton, described by Fitz Randolph as “my wolf killing friend” wrote up a business agreement on October 6 outlining two month’s work. Within days Seton was on his way to Clayton to begin the extermination process.

I have already given the story so will skip to the post-script issue: What happened to Lobo and Blanca after their deaths? And for that matter, what about the other four wolves Seton killed that winter? I’ll get to the other five in another posting and here will start with Lobo.

Seton kept Lobo’s skull, or at least a wolf skull he claimed to be that of Lobo. Contained in Seton’s files (and now at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa) is a letter from Caroline. Dated March 13, 1895, she acknowledged a special gift:

 

My dear Mr. Thompson

At last the head of your victim has come, am very proud of it and delighted am I. It is the very best thing of the kind that I have ever seen, and I am already attached to it as the glory of my modest possessions….

Mother[?] says that she can’t bear to meet Lobo’s eye – she fancies that he has a “Mr. Hyde” sort of sneer, a look as though he might be the evil side of a human [ ? ], but for me, I love Lobo. He fascinates and attracts me, and his quaint [ ? ] and [ ? ] charms and satisfy me afresh every time I glance at him. I shall consult Julie [ ? ] before having his mounted and protected. But have a notion of my own that I should like him in a [ ? ] band of plain ebony with a tiny sample rim of gold inside – to signify le rir est mort. Does that sound right and fitting, oh mighty conquerer?

I have said a great deal, but somehow seem to have fallen short of telling you how good you are to me to send me Lobo, and how warmly I appreciate your kindness. I’ve not written

[The letter ends at this point, although it must have continued on another, now lost page.]

Caroline wrote on letterhead showing their address as Front Street & Farragut Road, Plainfield, New Jersey. Some years ago, a correspondent at the Historical Society of Plainfield, New Jersey confirmed for me that Lewis Fitz Randolph and his wife Emily Caroline had a daughter named Caroline. Lewis apparently was prosperous, purchasing “a lot of property” following the Civil War. Caroline eventually married, but we did not find her married name. Did the “Lobo” skull survive?

The Iliad of Lobo and Seton

Illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Matthew Chase-Daniel
Illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Matthew Chase-Daniel

Seton wrote Lobo story in slightly fictionalized form. At its conclusion we know the fate of Lobo and Blanca, but not that of Seton. His attitudes about hunting and trapping unfolded through lectures and additional books in the early 20th century.

The meaning of the story became clear only after a decade passed from its original 1894 publication. He became increasingly adamant about the need to protect wild nature. In 1901 he wrote,

“I have been bitterly denounced, first, for killing Lobo; second, and chiefly, for telling of it, to the distress of many tender hearts. To this I reply: In what frame of mind are my hearers left with regard to the animal? Are their sympathies quickened toward the man who killed him, or toward the noble creature who, superior to every trial, died as he had lived, dignified, fearless, and steadfast?”

The story ended without our knowing that on the day of Lobo’s death Seton unexpectedly decided to leave New Mexico. Having touched Lobo and looked into his eyes, the wolf hunter could not bring himself to hunt another wolf. Ever. Nor could he remain in the place where Lobo’s death occurred.

I explained Seton’s personal transformation from wildlife killer to wildlife protector in Ernest Thompson Seton, The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist. The three-months covered in the Lobo story may be the most important period of Seton’s life. It was part of a longer nature journey beginning on the Canadian frontier and ending decades later in Santa Fe. The man who hunted Lobo and Blanca later came to bitterly denounce the wanton and senseless destructions of our wild relatives.

Ancient History

The importance of this relatively short period to the longer struggle has a literary antecedent, another, much earlier tragedy.

The Iliad of Homer describes just two weeks of the ten-year Achaean siege of Ilium.  Or two weeks of twenty years if one includes the subsequent travels of Odysseus. The Achaeans were Hellenistic peoples of the heroic Mycenaean period when the gods of Olympus were believed to have taken an active role in the lives of men at the siege of Troy and elsewhere. (Subsequently, following the mysterious fall of Mycenae, the gods retreated, and these peoples became recognizable in history as Greeks.)

Two warriors, Achilles and Hector, representing their respective armies, are pitted against one another. They have (at the start at least) no special antipathy for one another. They have no reason to be at each other’s throats except that terrible circumstances have brought them together. Achilles is fated to win their deadly competition because of his special advantages. This increases the pathos of the humiliating and ultimately pointless death of Hector. There is no honor in the way Achilles kills Hector, although Achilles is otherwise an honorable man by the standards of his time.

Similarly, the great warrior wolf Lobo wants nothing of this war with the invincible Seton, who for his part, holds no antipathy for Lobo. Their conflict is for Seton just a job he has traveled to from a faraway land. Seton gives us a hint that his attitude towards Lobo and consciousness about animals in general is beginning to change. The rest of his story, like that of Odysseus, comes later.

By 1901 in Lives of the Hunted, Seton seems to recognize the shallowness of his victory. (See quote above.) In 1905, he tells of witnessing another wolf hunt, but one in which he refuses to participate. He wrote “Badlands Billy: The Wolf that Won,” in Animal Heroes. Billy survived his encounter with human enemies, much to Seton’s approval.

It is only by knowing this sequel that we can understand the meaning of Seton’s life. The death of Lobo changed first Seton and then the world. I am tempted to write that maybe, knowing the outcome of Seton’s journey, we can begin to forgive him for his murder of Lobo. Or maybe not. Seton did not ask our forgiveness for his heinous act against the wolf. But without Lobo, there would have been no Seton Legacy. Seton learned important lessons about himself and about wildlife from his three months in New Mexico. One could read the balance of his life as a kind of atonement.

In another 3000 years our civilization may be as mysterious to the people of that time as that of the Achaeans is to us. The story of Lobo and Blanca will have become mythical, its author a shadowy legend. They will marvel at our pointless cruelty and mourn for that earlier time when the howl of the wolf could be heard in the West and was its most beautiful sound.

{The graphic novel based on Lobo, The King of Currumpaw, will be released on August 12. Original art work illustrations from the novel will be featured on the walls of the Seton Gallery. For more information, contact the Academy for the Love of Learning.}

Lobo, Life and Death of a Gray Wolf

Lobo and Blanca, Courtesy National Scouting Museum-Seton Memorial Library
Lobo and Blanca, Courtesy National Scouting Museum-Seton Memorial Library

The “Lobo” story (as it is often called) is a quintessential American tale. It captures the grandeur and tragedy of the American West. Ernest Thompson Seton’s account of hunting and environmental ethics was first published in the November 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine. On August 12, 2018, the Academy for the Love of Learning will premier our publication Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, Seton’s story re-imagined as a graphic novel, illustrated by artists commissioned by the Academy.

“Lobo,” the hero of this story, died at the end of January in the same year as the publication of his biography. The story mattered (and still matters) because the protagonist lived and died much as chronicled by Seton. Ultimately, the rest of his subspecies, either Canis lupus nubilus, the Plains Gray Wolf, or Canis lupus monstrabilis, the Texas Gray Wolf (both lived in northern New Mexico) became extinct a few decades later.

In this year, the 158thafter Seton’s birth, and the 124thafter Lobo’s death, two more wolf subspecies, baileyi (named for biologist and wolf killer Vernon Bailey) and rufus, may soon move from Wikipedia’s still-here list to its now-gone (extinction list). As I will explain in the following series of essays, Seton—Lobo’s killer—came to understand the immorality of his own actions, and in a larger sense, the insanity of our civilization’s war on nature. Seton came to believe that our entire society was headed for the now-gone list. Heady stuff to come from the death of a particular wolf.

(The artists’ reception for “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” an exhibition with graphic novel, will take place at the Academy’s Seton Gallery on Sunday August 12 from 2:00 to 4:00pm. Free admission. Everyone is invited. Up to date schedule found at www.aloveoflearning.org)

Ernest Thompson Seton Legacy Project

Seton Castle
Seton Castle

The essays to be presented on this site are about the life and legacy of the writer, artist, educator, and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton. Sponsored by the Academy for the Love of Learning, the Seton Legacy Project came about due to a fortuitous meeting between Aaron Stern, founder and president of the Academy, and Dee Seton Barber, Ernest’s daughter. Dee, inheritor of her father’s property not far out of Santa Fe, found in the Academy an institution to care for that property (including an art collection). The Academy found at Seton Village a physical location on which to build its educational programs.

“In our work, we open to the heart of learning itself and rest upon a deep trust that the seeds of basic goodness, love and learning live within all of us.”
Aaron Stern, Founder and President, Academy for the Love of Learning

Seton, as we will come to see through exploring his creative and scientific writings, his art, and the accomplishments of his life generally, would have been in complete agreement with Aaron’s statement about learning. Having myself lived with (and often by) Seton philosophy for several decades now, I feel that he would have been mighty pleased that his home had become a center for learning as a goal in and of itself during these challenging times.

Seton’s interests were dizzyingly broad. He wrote about subjects from the coloration of birds to American Indian sign language, and from the education of youth to stories about wolves.

It is to that latter subject which we will turn in coming weeks. Seton gained notoriety and set the foundations for later critical success with a story about wolf hunting in New Mexico. Published in the November 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine, readers were confronted with a hero (the wolf) who exhibited moral dimensions, particularly a capacity for love-loyalty then believed mostly (or entirely) absent from wild animals. For the next half century Seton would expand the notion of what is encompassed by wild nature, and how that informs (or at least should inform) the way we humans live in this world.

In my view, the world shifted a bit with the publication of “Lobo, The King of Currumpaw,” for thereafter, making the argument that animals are senseless things or objects, became much more difficult. That particular fight is not over, given the destructiveness with which our civilization treats its physical environment.

All the more reason, then, that we should review the pro-nature message in “Lobo.” The Academy for the Love of Learning is publishing a graphic novel of the story (August 2018)—Seton’s words with commissioned artwork.

More than a century after the death of the great wolf, his spirit lives on.