Seton Animal Stories

Seton Stories
Seton Stories

In this, my fourth Lifecraft essay, I will discuss present several Seton animal stories. He vividly illustrates the lessons of Lifecraft through the biographies of his animal heroes. The stories are filled with action (chases and escapes) and emotion (triumph and pathos). Based on Seton’s observations and imaginings, we see nature described in a highly descriptive manner. He can veer into the fantastic (do animals really commit suicide?) but also stick to the highly realistic—wild nature, overall, while it may often emphasize cooperation over survival of the fittest, generates stories of kindness less often than others of unconscious cruelty. A hard lesson for the children the stories were aimed at, but that is life.

The violence in “Lobo” (wolf) is unapologetic. The life of Krag (bighorn sheep) is tragic. Even the triumph of Billy (another wolf) comes at a price—his life will never be one of security. Nature must be taken on its own terms, and not portrayed as less brutal or less magnificent than it is. Seton presents two radical lessons. One is that wild animals are not fundamentally different from us, only different by degree. The other is that we humans are a part of nature, and that by causing environmental destruction, it is ourselves that we attack.

Many of these stories are available as free on-line books or through Project Gutenberg. The stories are taken from Wild Animals I Have Known (1898), Lives of the Hunted (1901) and Animal Heroes (1905). Seton aimed his stories towards young adult readers (defined by the publishing industry as being between 12 and 17), but younger children as well as adults also have a lot to learn here. I have included story descriptions and discussion guides.

“Lobo, The King of Currumpaw” is Seton’s signature tale of the wolf hunt that transformed him from predator killer to predator protector. This is the lead story in Seton’s first best-seller, Wild Animals I Have Known, a first-person narrative about his efforts to trap wolves in Union County, N.M., during the winter of 1893-94. Based on real events, the story focuses on a remarkable wolf who could not be caught until Seton uses the most extraordinary treachery against him. The wolf is the hero of the story, while Seton casts himself as the villain. It is one of the most unusual hunting stories ever written. It is also a story that captures the larger American experience of man and nature.

Seton referenced it in one of his next books (Lives of the Hunted): “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?”

Use these questions to generate conversation in a discussion group:

  1. People have to make a living through honorable undertakings such as cattle ranching. Wolves have to make a living as well, by killing their prey. Land owners have the right to protect their livestock. What rights do wolves have, or what rights should they have?
  2. Lobo proves to be an animal of exceptional cunning. What do you think of him?
  3. Seton uses a trick to trap Blanca. Was he unfair, or was he justified in the measures taken to trap her?
  4. Seton describes Lobo’s last hours in considerable detail, what do you think he might have learned from this experience?
  5. How does the death of the wolf make you feel?
“Krag, the Kootenay Ram” is an in-depth conscientious exploration of animal behavior set in the Canadian Rockies. In this story, Seton set out his ideas on environmental consciousness and the complexity of animal behavior. The magnificent bighorn sheep, Krag, finds himself in a lifelong battle against the degenerate hunter Scotty MacDougall. In their final encounter, Scotty’s pursuit is such that he gives Krag no time to graze, and the great animal begins to starve. The journey is equally harsh for Scotty, whose physical deterioration soon matches his mental collapse. The story is an allegory about Western civilization’s self-destructive treatment of nature.

Quote from Seton at the beginning of Lives of the Hunted: “My chief motive, my most earnest underlying wish, has been to stop the extermination of harmless wild animals; not for their sakes, but for ours, firmly believing that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children.”

Use these questions to generate conversation in a discussion group:

  1. What do bighorn sheep have to learn in order to survive in their mountain environment?
  2. What are some of the rule of bighorn sheep life?
  3. Krinklehorn nearly kills Krag by unfair fighting, but pays a terrible price. Do animals have a sense of morality?
  4. Krag must battle against both dogs and wolves. Krag prevails in these encounters, but sometimes the predators must prevail because they too must feed their families. What is the relationship of predator and prey in the wild?
  5. Scotty relentlessly pursues the ram. Do you think Scotty represents something more than himself in this story? What lesson is Seton teaching us?
Badlands Billy: the Wolf that Won. Long before scientists understood animal intelligence, Seton identified it in this story. Badlands Billy is Seton’s remembrance of a wolf hunt he observed in 1897. Seton uses the story to explain the natural history of wolves. He invents a life history for this hero wolf who survives the greatest hardships. When the normal prey of wolves (such as bison and antelope) are killed off by human hunters, the wolves of North Dakota, like those of New Mexico, are forced to kill cattle, putting them into conflict with humans. Unlike Lobo, Billy outwits all the hunters. In addition to instincts, animals learn behavior by watching others of their own kind and through personal experience. Although these ideas are now accepted among animal behaviorists, when Seton first suggested them, they were highly controversial.

Quote from Seton in Animal Heroes: “A Hero is an individual of unusual gifts and achievements. Whether it be man or animal, this definition applies; and it is the histories of such that appeal to the imagination and to the hearts of those who hear them.”

Use these questions to generate conversation in a discussion group. Special note: the hunt for Billy took place in 1897, three years after the death of Lobo.

  1. Long ago, antelope and buffalo roamed the grasslands of America. Eventually, many of these animals were hunted to near extinction and replaced by cattle. The remaining wolves had nothing left to eat but cattle. Does this change your perception of wolves?
  2. What do mother wolves need to teach their pups?
  3. Why does Billy survive when Lobo did not?
  4. When Billy escapes the dogs, Seton cheers him on. Seton seems very different than three years earlier during his encounter with Lobo. Why do you think he has changed?
  5. What are the attributes of an animal hero? Which of these traits are demonstrated by Billy?
Silverspot, The Story of a Crow is Seton’s classic look into the secret lives of birds., the subject that began his interest in natural history. Birds, especially large ones such as crows are relatively easy to see. Birds of the Corvidae family (crows, jays and ravens) are known as animals of exceptional intelligence. Silverspot is a natural leader and teacher, wise in the ways of his own kind, and the object of Seton’s attention over several years when he lived in Toronto.

Quote from Seton in Wild Animals I Have Known: “How many of us ever got to know a wild animal? I do not mean merely to meet with one once or twice, or to have one in a cage, but to really know it for a long time in the wild, and to get an insight into its life and history.”

Use these questions in discussion of the story.

  1. Seton interprets the calls of crows as a kind of language. Are the crows really speaking to each other?
  2. Crows can reason, plan, and learn. When Silverspot drops bread into a stream entering a tunnel, he knows to wait for its reappearance at the tunnel’s other end. How much are we like them or they like us?
  3. Are there absolute differences between the behavior of crows and of humans?
Raggylug, The Story of a Cottontail Rabbit. Seton shows how animals, like people, do learn by watching their elders. He was one of the first naturalists to develop a scientific-based understanding of animal behavior. He wrote that animals (including rabbits) learn through instinct, but also by watching adults of the same species, and through personal experience. As we watch them go through their daily routines, we find out just how dangerous the world can be.

Quote from Wild Animals I Have Known: “Those who do not know animals well may think I have humanized them, but those who have lived so near them as to know somewhat of their ways and theirs minds will not think so.”

Consider these questions.

  1. Which of Rag’s learning moments falls into which of the three categories (instinct, watching and imitating others, personal experience)?
  2. Time after time, Rag’s mother shows a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice (that is, giving up her own life) to save him. How do you feel about her?
Bingo, The Story of My Dog is a tribute to man’s best friend. Most of us have owned or been around dogs. The human-dog bond is unique. Bingo saved Seton’s life at least once, perhaps twice.

Quote from Wild Animals I Have Known: “It is wonderful and beautiful how a man and his dog will stick to one another, through thick and thin.”

Here are some things we might ask about these relationships.

  1. What remarkable experiences have you had with dogs?
  2. What have you learned from dogs?
  3. Do you think they really know what we think and feel?
  4. Is there such a thing as a “bad dog” or are do dogs react to us in developing their own behavior?
The Springfield Fox. At least until the advent of televised nature programs, few were privileged to observe the secretive fox as closely as Seton. This fox made an appearance in Raggylug’s story as a predator passing through. But here we see that the foxes have families of their own to care for. They react to changing situations with both emotion and intelligence. A fox can consciously choose to resemble a rock in order to escape attention. This suggests they are, at least in some ways, much like us.

Quote from Wild Animals I Have Known: “For each kind of prey they [the fox pups] were taught a way to hunt, for every animal has some great strength or it could not live, and some great weakness or the others could not live.”

Discuss the following ideas.

  1. When people and animals (such as foxes) encounter one another, the result is often tragic for the animal. What steps might we take to avoid or non-violently resolve conflicts with wild animals?
  2. Have you ever seen a fox or other secretive wild animals?
The Pacing Mustang dramatizes the plight of wild animals by having a mustang choose between captivity and death.  Seton set this story concurrently with his hunt for Lobo. In order to create a sense of drama, he has the Mustang, in its final moment, chose death by suicide over captivity. Most scientists have doubted this could really have happened, but it is clear that animals have an emotional life.

Quote from Wild Animals I Have Known: “Up, up and on, above the sheerest cliff he dashed away into the vacant air, down—down—two hundred downward feet to fall, and land upon the rocks below, a lifeless wreck—but free.”

A group could discuss these questions.

  1. If we could tune into the feelings of wild horses (or wolves or rabbits), what might we learn?
  2. In the late 1800s, the western United States was lightly populated and thinly fenced. Have you visited areas that were vast and open? What did you experience and how did you feel about that place?
Redruff, The Story of the Don Valley Partridge is a poignant look at the extreme impact humans can have on wild nature. This is a particularly sad story where harmless animals are relentlessly pursued until they are exterminated. We will let Seton write the first discussion question from Wild Animals I have Known:

  1. “Have the wild things no moral or legal rights? What right has man to inflict such long and fearful agony on a fellow creature, simply because that creature does not speak his language?”
  2. Seton does not apply these questions to the way people treat one another. But do you believe these questions are valid in questioning how all the peoples of the world either do or do not get along?
  3. The back-page art in the original edition (and in many editions of the book) shows a man, a wolf, and a bird together. A rising sun comes up behind them (shining its light on all equally). A river or lake flows in front on them (from which all must drink). Swirling lines of energy connect all of them together. Was Seton correct in his vision, is it possible that all peoples, animals, and plants can someday achieve some level of harmony?

Through his stories Seton examined the relation of humankind to nature and its wildlife. Should we preserve wildlife for our sake? For the sake of the animals themselves? Or in our more ecologically minded time, can we make the case to do both? Lifecraft gives guidance for how to live, but also for how to question. We become fully alive when we take on the arduous responsibility of thinking for ourselves.

Ernest Thompson Seton Lifecraft Philosophy #3

Observation and the Learning Model
Observation and the Learning Model

In this essay, I am taking a somewhat different tact, using by permission, the Learning Model of the Academy for the Love of Learning. This has been developed over many years and is explored through the Academy’s programs. I believe Seton would have understood this approach since observation and experience were key to his view of learning.

We can enter the Learning Model by referring to events from Seton’s life, and then follow up with questions that we can ask about our own. Learning Model components create the basis of all programs offered through the Academy. Even in its simplest form, it brings personal engagement to the learning process, invites creativity and insight, and the establishes the potential for deep learning. Four key elements of the model (below) are also inherent to the meaning of Seton’s Lifecraft.

The Academy’s founder, Aaron Stern, while he was developing the fundamentals of his organization’s approach to education, had no knowledge of Seton or his ideas on Lifecraft. It may be too much to claim convergence of the two sets of ideas, but there are parallels which I mentioned in the previous essay (Lifecraft #2).

When Aaron made an agreement with Dee Seton Barber (Seton’s daughter) to provide the Seton Legacy with an institutional home at the Academy, he saw that Seton’s life illustrated one of the Academy’s core principles: one can become the change that one wants to see in the world. To learn more, we invite you to visit the Academy’s web site (the link is above) as well as the campus at Seton Village to take part in its programs. (In the meantime, we are happy to hear your thoughts on all of this.)

While there is no direct connection between Seton’s Fourfold Path and the four aspects of the Academy’s Learning Model (the number of four being coincidence), you may wish to join me in consideration of the parallels. The Fourfold Path (or Lifecraft Way) summarized:

  1. Service of Love (a waking up of consciousness about oneself, and one’s place in a larger context.
  2. Spirit of Fortitude (courage arising from self-reflection and empathy)
  3. Body of Beauty (recognition of the sanctity of life and standing for the well-being of all life)
  4. Mind of Truth (accepting honesty, reverence, and reasonableness as core guiding values)

As an adjunct to this, I can add, that although Seton was a romantic (in reaction to the mass-war, mass-industrial age), at the same time he specifically rejected the irrational as a legitimate means of interpreting meaning in the world.

The Learning Model of the Academy for the Love of Learning summarized:

EXPERIENCE
Seton hunted wolves, and eventually trapped Lobo. He came to see the nobility and intelligence of the wolf and, as he watched Lobo’s dignity in dying, was profoundly touched.  His understanding of animals was forever changed.

Begin with the experience—either an experience in the moment, or one that can be remembered…

  • Experience could come in many forms: drawing or painting, storytelling, movement, group activity, time in nature, going for an outing
  • Pretty much anything you give full attention to could be called an experience

Can you recall an experience that was transformative for you?

REFLECTION
Seton spent much of his time alone while he was in New Mexico trapping wolves. He kept a journal of his experience, and thought deeply about what he was seeing and feeling. Writing Lobo’s story was a powerful form of reflection.

Take some time to think and feel into the experience…

  • Reflection can be alone, or with another – can include journaling, drawing, going for a walk
  • Tell the story of the experience to a partner
  • Include feelings, emotions, memories that were evoked

When you reflect back on your transformative experience, what do you remember most clearly? What were the details, including feelings and emotions, that seem particularly meaningful to you now?

MAKING MEANING
To find meaning from his experiences in New Mexico, Seton made an extensive study of its birds and animals as an artist and naturalist, and also learned from Native American friends and mentors. Over time, Seton formulated an understanding of the interconnectedness of the natural world, including the role and impact of humanity.

Explore learning from the experience and what meaning can be made from it…

  • What personal or shared learning came from the experience?
  • What other sources of information can add insight?
  • How can this learning be applied in life? How can it be explored further?

What meaning does your experience hold for you? What did you learn from it about yourself, and about the world?

ACTION
Seton’s life of activism as a conservationist, naturalist, and educator, grew out of his experience with Lobo, and the resulting transformation of his understanding of the natural world.

Try out the learning…

  • Follow curiosity, see where this learning leads
  • See if it invites another cycle of learning…

How were you changed by that moment in your life? What actions, or new ways of being in the world, resulted from your experience?

Four Ways to Support the Learning Process

  1. This way of learning involves the whole person:
    Thinking is only a small part of the picture. Invite the whole of each person into the inquiry.
  • Physical movement – can you dance your experience, or explore it with your body?
  • Sensations – what textures, tastes, tones are in your experience?
  • Emotions – how do you feel? What do your feelings want to tell you about your experience?
  • Imagination – what colors are in your experience – what could you name your experience
  1. Slowing down helps bring awareness to reflection:
    Often our need to reach completion overwhelms the richness that comes with savoring the journey.
  • Invite participants to stop for a moment and listen, or feel, what is happening inside themselves, and in the group.
  • Encourage participants to relish their stories, take time to speak, and really get into the telling.
  • Listen slowly, too. As a facilitator, listen with depth, and experiment with reflecting back what you hear when a participant says something that touches you. Let him or her know how you were affected.
  • If things are going too fast, suggest everyone takes a breath, feels their weight on the chair, looks around the room.
  1. Follow your curiosity:
    What catches your attention can bring guidance as you work with the group.
  • Ask questions that deepen and invite feeling: “Can you say more…?”
  • Invite the unexpected: “What might happen if…?”
  • Allow yourself to be transparent at times: “When you said that, I felt very moved. Thank you for being so open.”
  • When strong feelings come up for you, as facilitator, can you follow the thread internally – what is being evoked in your own story? Be curious about that, too.
  1. Attend to what goes on in the ‘field’:
    When the unexpected happens, it may bring a key insight to the group.
  • Notice the tone of the group – is it alive, sleepy, all over the place.  Can you play with that, and make it part of the experience? “Let’s get up and run around the room.” “How about a five-minute nap?” or, “What do you think our sleepiness is trying to say to us?”
  • Are there themes coming into the group through reflections? Stories?
  • What’s happening outside the group? Are there interruptions? What’s the weather doing? Was there a powerful headline on the news?

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’s Story of wolf hunting in New Mexico

Detail of illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Jamison Chās Banks
Detail of illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Jamison Chās Banks

First introduced as a long form story in 1894, “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” became a star because of Seton’s 1898 book, Wild Animals I Have Known. Lobo’s story has resonated ever since, re-issued many times. It has also been re-imagined. British illustrator William Grill published his own graphic novel, The Wolves of Currumpaw in 2016.

A satirical version (which appeared to have been influenced by my book on Seton) appeared on an American television network a few years ago. Even earlier, BBC and PBS ran slightly different versions of a Lobo documentary. Occasionally I hear a rumor that another literary or cinematic version may be in the works.

This August, the Academy for the Love of Learning releases its own graphic novel of Lobo’s story. That is a lot of attention for a wolf who died over a century ago. Seton wrote:

“Lobo lived his wild romantic life from 1889 to 1894 in the Currumpaw region, as the ranchmen know too well, and died, precisely as related, on January 31, 1894. The fact that these stories are true is the reason why all are tragic. The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end.”

This December marks the 120th anniversary of Wild Animals I Have Known. Lobo’s story is the most popular in a collection that includes many fine works. Seton gives a first-person account of pursuing the brave and noble Lobo.

Spoiler alert: Synopsis of the story follows, including its ending.

The setting: northeastern New Mexico, October 1893 – February 1894 in the area now known as Union County. (It separated from Colfax County in January 1894.) Broad tablelands cut deep arroyos. Rising from the flanks of two volcanoes, Sierra Grande and Capulin (now a National Monument) the intermittent flow of Corrumpa Creek crosses eastward over dozens of semi-arid miles toward the town of Clayton. Seton hunted wolves here. Although somewhat embellished, Seton presents Lobo’s story much as is actually happened.

Part 1: A large gray wolf, leader of a five-wolf pack, preyed upon Currumpaw Valley cattle in the late 19th century. Known as “Old Lobo,” he gained a reputation as the largest, smartest, and loudest of his kindred. The pack included a white-coated female, Blanca.

These animals were occasionally spotted in the distance by cowboys and shepherds. The wolf pack took a terrible toll on herds and flocks. The problem was made worse by the wolves’ habit of eating only animals they freshly killed.  All attempts to hunt or poison the wolves met with failure. A thousand-dollar reward offered for Lobo’s hide brought in bounty hunters. But the hunters wore out their horses and mourned the loss of large wolf-hounds killed by the even larger wolves. All seemed hopeless from the rancher standpoint.

Part 2: The narrator of the story (Seton), formerly a wolf hunter (in Canada) had for some time made his living at a “stool and desk” as a commercial artist specializing in wildlife illustration. An acquaintance, a ranch owner on the Currumpaw, invited Seton to New Mexico to deal with the wolf problem.

Seton’s approach was to scatter poisoned meat and lay out baited traps. He made every effort to hide any hint of human scent from the traps. But Lobo seemed to taunt him, gathering up baits and scattering “filth” over them. The wolf kicked rocks onto hidden traps, springing them. When Seton hid traps in devious patterns Lobo backed out them unharmed. Nothing worked.

Part 3: After weeks of unrewarded effort, during which Seton made acute observation of wolf habits and ecological role, he noticed something important. While the wolf pack generally stayed behind Lobo, he discovered that Blanca sometimes ran heedlessly ahead. Seton changed tactics. Rather than continue his fruitless efforts to trap Lobo, he instead turned his efforts toward Blanca.

Seton came up with a devious plan. He set out six steel leg traps near a freshly killed cow knowing that Lobo would find and disable them. He removed the head and tossed it casually aside. He buried two traps under the dirt by the head, knowing that wolves would not eat it, and knowing that Lobo would not approach, but betting that one of the others might investigate while Lobo busied himself disabling the other traps.

The following morning Seton returned to find the cow head gone along with one of the traps, dragged away by a strong wolf. He followed the trail for a mile, finding poor Blanca still in the trap and hopelessly dragging the heavy steer head behind her. Despite her terrible situation, Blanca turned to fight with the last of her strength, howling for Lobo, who howled in return. But Lobo could do nothing against men with guns. Seton killed her in a manner he came to regret.

He returned to the ranch with her body. All night the cañons reverberated with the plaintive cries of the bereft Lobo. “It was sadder than I could possibly have believed.” Lobo prowled about the ranch in the dark.

Seton came up with another trick to use against Lobo. On horseback, he dragged Blanca’s body through a field to set out a chaotic pattern that Lobo would attempt to follow. Counting on Lobo’s love and loyalty for his mate, he set out many traps.

Attracted by her scent, the heartbroken wolf did indeed come looking for Blanca.

Seton found Lobo caught in three of four traps. Like Blanca, Lobo made ready to fight upon his antagonist’s approach, even biting through and severing a lasso thrown over his neck. Seton aimed at the animal with his rifle but at the last possible instant, held back, unable to carry out the execution.

Seton and a cowboy threw a stick and heavy cord to the wolf who bit into the stick and became entangled in the cord; they drew the cord tight to close his massive jaw. Unable to bite, Lobo ceased all resistance. They threw the wolf over a saddled horse and returned with him to the ranch. Now a prisoner, Lobo silently watched his passing kingdom.

At the ranch, they secured Lobo with a collar and strong chain, removing the stick and cord from his mouth. Seton offered the wolf water and meat which Lobo ignored. Seton closely examined the wolf, looking into Lobo’s eyes, reaching out and touching him. The wolf just stared out onto the prairie where he and Blanca had roamed free.

During the night Lobo died, the spirit gone out of him. He could not tolerate the loss of strength, the loss of his freedom, and the loss of his beloved mate. Seton placed his body next to the remains of Blanca, reuniting them.

I will not be giving too much away by mentioning that Seton never killed another wolf. Lobo’s death changed Seton, directly influencing much he would accomplish in the world.

The King of Currumpaw exhibition opens at the Academy for the Love of Learning on Sunday August 12 from 2 to 4 pm.

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.