Hunt for Lobo Part II

Wolf skulls, Canadian Museum of Nature
Wolf skulls, Canadian Museum of Nature

Untangling the Past

When Seton arrived in New Mexico in 1893, decades of hunting had decimated the previously abundant wildlife. Wolves had hunted animals from bison to pronghorn antelope. But by then predators preyed upon cattle, the only large animals remaining. Lobo and company prowled the ranch country along the Corrumpa watershed.

This intermittent creek (“Currumpaw” in Seton’s spelling), arises from the east slopes of two prominent peaks, Sierra Grande and Capulin Volcano. It runs north of  Clayton, New Mexico and on towards the Oklahoma border. The resident wolves declined by six due to Seton’s efforts, all taken in inhumane leg traps. Two of their skulls ended up in the Vertebrate Collection of the specimen storage facility at the Canadian Museum of Nature (Collections des Vertébrés, Musée canadien de la nature) in Ottawa.

I saw them in a high ceiling, dimly lit, quiet hall. Few visitors make it into this secure facility. And almost none visit the New Mexico wolves. I stopped by on my way to Baffin Island in 2009, assisting a plant ecology expedition.  Dr. Kamal Khidas, Chief Collections Manager, kindly brought out the two skulls, long ago informally named “Lobo” and “Blanca” by someone familiar with the story.

Laid out on a heavy wood table, they gleamed startling white against a black cloth background. They retained Seton’s original specimen tags on which was written a catalog number, date of kill, and other notes. I compared these tags to Seton’s original field notes. Sometimes Seton specified the manner of death, i.e., by gun or by strangulation. I show them below in numerical order.

#653 December 13, 1893, male, 100 lbs. (maybe shot in trap)

#655 December 25, 1893, male, 87 lbs. (shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature; pelt at Philmont or Canadian Museum of Nature)

#662 December 29, 1893, female, 75 lbs. (shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature)

#672 January 25, 1894, female, 80 lbs. (shot in trap? strangled?) “Blanca”

#675 January 29, 1894, female, 60 lbs. (maybe shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature)

#677 January 31, 1894, male, 78 lbs. (died of injuries after release from trap) “Lobo” (skull gifted to Caroline Fitz Randolph in 1894 or 1895, not located)

Meanwhile, in New Mexico

I assumed the correct tags were still connected to the current specimens. I’ll return to the Canadian skulls in a moment, but first to the collection of the National Scouting Museum—Seton Memorial Library at Philmont Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico.

In 1965, Julia Seton, Ernest’s widow, promised a donation of Seton-related material to the Boy Scouts of America. This collection was eventually housed at Philmont. Included was a wolf pelt identified as “Lobo” when it was displayed in the Castle at Seton Village. But a few years ago, when Philmont museum staff opened the case, and invited me to take a look, we noticed two things. First, the tag on this pelt was for specimen # 655. Lobo’s number was #677. Second, the appearance in the famous photograph of the wolf identified by Seton as being Lobo, is not the same as the pelt in the Philmont collection.

That is, if the photograph taken by Seton really shows Lobo, then the Philmont pelt is that of a different wolf, maybe #655 as it is marked. Or, the photograph, identified by Seton as Lobo, is actually of a different wolf. But since Julie (and presumably Seton) passed off #655 as being #677…well, we can’t know anything for certain.

Back to the Canadian specimens

Seton specimen #662, Canadian Museum of Nature #3726

Written on tag #662:

Species: Texas Gray Wolf
Locality: New Mexico, Union County, Currumpaw River, about 35 mi. N.W.  of Clayton, N.M.
December 29, (1887: Crossed out) 1893
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton

“Blanca. Canis lupus monstrabilis. Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton in Union Co. New Mexico on December 29, 1887”

(I didn’t get the information copied from this one, but the number 662 was attached. Skull showed no bullet hole. Blanca’s specimen number was #672, so presumably this one is not Blanca.)

Seton Specimen #665  Canadian Museum of Nature #1875

Written on tag #655:

Species: Canis lupus nubilus Say, Plains Gray Wolf

Locality: United States: New Mexico
Date: 1893  Sex: Female adult
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton
Second National Museum of Canada tag on #655:
Species: Texas Gray Wolf, Canis Lupus monstrabilis Goldman
Locality: U.S.A., Clayton County
Date: 1893?
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton

“Lobo. Canis lupus nubilus. Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton in New Mexico in 1883.  Loaned by J.H. Fleming. From old mounted specimen dismounted in February 1942.)

(This skull has a bullet hole; there is a pelt associated with this number. The 1883 date above is a typo.)

But here we encounter a new problem. Both the Canadian Museum of Nature and the National Scouting Museum have pelt’s identified as #665! At least one, and perhaps both of these identifications are incorrect. Also, notice that the Canadian Museum of Nature’s “Lobo” and “Blanca” are identified as belonging to different sub-species.

DNA

In an email to me dated September 3, 2009, Dr. Khidas shared with me the “Genetic Analysis of Canadian Museum of Nature Samples.” This was conducted by Professor Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, dated October 8, 2007, on the two New Mexico wolf specimens.

For specimen #662 the researchers took their DNA sample from a tooth. For #665 they used foot skin from the pelt. Both specimens had the same “mitochondrial control region haplotype” or DNA sequence. This is “a unique sequence not previously detected in extant or historic Canis lupus. This “haplotype is in the same clade as historic Canis lupus nubilus haplotypes” observed also from Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska, the “interior continental U.S. gray wolves.”

Neither of these specimens, if they are indeed from different animals, conform to the genetic profile of monstrabilis. The ranges of both intersected in northeast New Mexico.

Don’t confuse either of them with the Mexican Gray Wolf Canis lupus baileyi, the still extant subspecies living in southwest New Mexico.

We are unlikely to untangle all these mysteries, historical puzzles mainly of interest to a few experts. Further DNA analysis and a closer look at textual evidence could help.

Of greater concern is preserving the wolves still living. Or will Canis lupus baileyi follow nubilus and monstrabilis into the forever oblivion of extinction?

(An exhibition, Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, accompanied by a graphic novel of the same name, is currently showing at the Seton Gallery of the Academy for the Love of Learning.)

Lobo Graphic Novel Premiers

Academy founder Aaron Stern and Ernest’s granddaughter Julie Seton at the opening reception
Academy founder Aaron Stern and Ernest’s granddaughter Julie Seton at the opening reception

The passage of time brings change to the details of life. But overarching themes may change very little. One-hundred and twenty-four years ago Ernest Thompson Seton attended the last hours in the life of a wolf. Referred to in his journal as specimen #677, the wolf returned to literary life as “Lobo” ten months later. The wolf’s biography, “The King of Currumpaw” become “Lobo, The King of Currumpaw” in 1898, four years after his first appearance. The story anchored a short story collection in Wild Animals I Have Known. It was, in its way, the first Lobo graphic novel.

Seton illustrated the Lobo story (depending upon the edition) with more than twenty drawings. He referred to Lobo several times in later books and often in his lectures. Lobo has now appeared yet again in a newly illustrated version the story. The Academy for the Love of Learning has just released a graphic novel, Lobo, The King of Currumpaw, The World’s Greatest Wolf Story. Forty-eight artists created fifty-five illustrations for the latest re-telling of the story.

A new art exhibition

The original art premiered on Sunday, August 12 at the Academy’s Seton Gallery. The opening reception attracted an attendance of over 150 (including more than twenty of the artists). This also marked the debut of the graphic novel.

Each artist was given one section of text from the story to illustrate on a 20 x 15” board. Their only instruction was to create an original work of art in reaction to the text. They used whatever medium they wished—painting, drawing, prints, and collage. The artists worked independently from one another.

The visual result is remarkably evocative of the landscape and challenges faced by Lobo, of the violence and loyalty of wolf life, and of the role Seton himself played in this drama. There were as many different artistic approaches as there were artists. Lobo and his story continue to inspire us in the Twenty-first Century, much as he did in the Nineteenth.

Wolves still in trouble

And yet, the tragic theme of wolf killing in that earlier century continues to repeat itself in our own time. The two wolf subspecies living in northeastern New Mexico where the Lobo story was set are long extinct. Today, the remaining subspecies, the Mexican Gray Wolf, is similarly beleaguered.

The names change. The stories remain much the same.

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.