"Seton Castle...on the last rampart of the Rockies where the Buffalo Wind is blowing."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lobo the King Wolf Part III

"Lobo stands for Dignity and Love-constancy."
 Ernest Thompson Seton

Wolf Skulls
The high ceilinged, dimly lit, quiet hall in Ottawa sees few visitors. Two wolf skulls gleam a startling white against a black cloth background, laid out on a heavy wood table. Howl-less they have been for the past 115 years since meeting their deaths in the traps of Ernest Thompson Seton. Their final resting place is in the Vertebrate Collection in the specimen storage facility at the Canadian Museum of Nature (Collections des Vertébrés, Musée canadien de la nature).  

Lobo was one of six wolves happily preying upon defenseless cattle in the closing decade of the 19th century in northeastern New Mexico. Seton named two of them in the original “King of Currumpaw, a Wolf Story.” At the time of their capture, Seton assigned each mammal specimen in his collection a number along with date killed and notes. (He used a separate numbering system for birds.) He began the hunt in mid-October, but did not manage to capture the first wolf until almost two months later. All six caught in leg traps. In order, they were, according to Seton’s field notes:

#653 December 13, 1893, male, 100 lbs. (maybe shot in trap)
#655 December 25, 1893, male, 87 lbs. (shot in trap)
#662 December 29, 1893, female, 75 lbs. (shot in trap)
#672 January 25, 1894, female, 80 lbs. (shot in trap? strangled?) “Blanca”
#675 January 29, 1894, female, 60 lbs. (maybe shot in trap)
#677 January 31, 1894, male, 78 lbs. (died of injuries after release from trap) “Lobo”

Two of Seton’s wolf skulls are at the Canadian Museum of Nature. By tradition, the Museum believed the skulls to be those of Lobo (#677) and Blanca (#672), but if the tags on the Canadian collection skulls are correct, then the Museum has two of the others: #655 and #662.

Seton #662  Museum #3726

National Museum of Canada tag on #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

(Seton tag: I didn’t get the information copied from this one, but the number 662 was attached.)

More Museum notes: Blanca. Canis lupus monstrabilis. Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton in Union Co. New Mexico on December 29, 1887.

(My notes: Skull, no bullet hole.)

Seton #665  Museum #1875

National Museum of Canada tag on #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

(On this one, I made a note that it was #655.)

More Museum notes: 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.

(My note: Skull (with bullet hole) and pelt.)


In an email to me dated September 3, 2009, Dr. Kamal Khidas, Chief Collections Manager at the Canadian Museum of Nature kindly shared with me the “Genetic Analysis of Canadian Museum of Nature Samples” by Professor Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, dated October 8, 2007, on the two New Mexico wolf specimens. For Seton 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.” To be clear, nubilus was a different species from the Mexican gray wolf, Canis lupus baileyi. I write was, because as far as I know, nubilus is extinct. For our time the question is, will Canis lupus baileyi follow Canis lupis nubilus into the forever oblivion of extinction?

I recently received a note from the office of New Mexico Senator Tom Udall. One of his staff wrote me that the Senator supports issuing endangered species postage stamps as a way of raising money for international wildlife conservation. Clearly, help cannot come soon enough.


If the wolf specimens in Ottawa really are #662 and #665, then what happened to Lobo (#677) and Blanca (#672)? So far, in my research at least, the record on the disposition of Blanca’s remains is silent. There is, however, a tantalizing clue about Lobo in a letter to Seton from Ms. Caroline Fitz Randolph dated March 13, 1895. Caroline was the daughter of Louis V. Fitz Randolph (who owned the ranch in New Mexico which hosted Seton during his visit) and sister of Virginia Fitz Randolph who Seton met while both were art students in Paris. Seton’s continuing friendship with Virginia led to his meeting her father who sent him to New Mexico where he brought about the death of Lobo and later popularized wildlife conservation. (Seton may have been attracted to Virginia or Caroline or both; if Lobo was the Wolf that Changed America, then an important link in the story was Seton’s relationship to these sisters.) Seton kept the letter from Caroline. It remained at the Castle after his death before being gifted to Library and Archives Canada (along with most of his personal papers) by Dee Seton Barber in 1986.

Here are relevant excerpts from Caroline’s letter:

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. Perhaps the skull of Lobo still resides somewhere in Plainfield. If anyone can find out, I would like to know.

Please send this on to others who might be interested in Seton or wolves.
Text copyright 2012 David L. Witt

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lobo the King Wolf Part II

“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?”
Ernest Thompson Seton

Wolf drawings by ETS
Seton’s published account of the Lobo story came out in the November 1894 issue of Scribner’sMagazine – ten months after the wolf’s death. Repackaged with other stories late in 1898, his book Wild Animals I Have Known became an immediate best seller. The book has remained in print to this day. The story of Lobo and Blanca was featured in the 2008 BBC/PBS Nature documentary “The Wolf That Changed America.”
 But what of Seton’s personal story? On the day of Lobo’s death Seton made ready to leave New Mexico, a sudden and unexpected change of plans. Somehow, having touched Lobo and looked into his eyes, the wolf hunter could not bring himself to hunt another wolf. Ever.
I have told of Seton’s personal transformation from wildlife killer to wildlife protector in Ernest Thompson Seton, The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist so need not repeat all of it here. Yet it is important to point out that if one were to read the Lobo story while knowing nothing else of Seton, its complete meaning would be missed. Readers of the late 19th and early 20th century were able to follow the progress of his personal development through what he wrote. Seton became ever more adamant about the need to protect wild nature, so much so that he became, along with John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, one of the godfathers of today’s environmentalism.
Another way to put this is that the three month period covered in the Lobo story is but one part – although probably the most important – in a longer journey made from his time growing up on the Canadian frontier to his final years teaching the principles of Lifecraft in Santa Fe. The man who hunted Lobo and Blanca later came to bitterly denounce the wanton and senseless destructions of our wild relatives.
 The importance of this relatively short period to the longer struggle of developing a consciousness about animals has a literary antecedent, another, much earlier tragedy.
 You may recall that the Iliad of Homer describes a scant 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, nor do they have any 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, but this does not change the pathos of the humiliating and ultimately pointless death of Hector. Under the circumstances, there is no honor in the way Achilles kills Hector, although Achilles is otherwise an honorable man by the standards of his time.  

 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 far away land. In the Lobo story, Seton gives us a hint that his attitude towards wolves in general (and about Lobo in particular) is already beginning to change – but that is all we see here, just a beginning of a change in consciousness. It is in the 1901 Lives of the Hunted that 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, “Badlands Billy: The Wolf that Won,” in Animal Heroes. If we can extend the Iliad analogy for a moment, Seton, Odysseus-like, continues his journey home (to a new level of consciousness) through a journey of many more years.
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.
I hope that in another 3000 years, just as for us now when the Achaeans are better known in legend than in fact, when our civilization is for the people of that time more mythical than real, that the story of Lobo and Blanca will live on as the greatest nature story of the era when still the howl of the wolf could be heard in the West and was its most beautiful sound.
Please send this on to others who might be interested in Seton or wolves.

Text copyright 2012 David L. Witt


Friday, November 2, 2012

Lobo, The King Wolf Part I

“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.”
              Ernest Thompson Seton

Lobo, photograph by ETS
So Seton begins his introduction to “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” in his 1898 book, Wild Animals I Have Known. First published in the November 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine, Lobo led Seton to huge literary and commercial success when the book came out. As we approach the 114th anniversary of its publication, the book has sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies through many editions to our own day. While all the stories in the book became popular, the lead story about the wolves became the best known. In the story, a clever hunter (Seton) pursues the brave and noble Lobo to his death. I will present an in-depth consideration of the story in Part II; here, in Part I, is a synopsis of this great American story.

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.) This semi-arid region of broad tablelands is cut by deep arroyos. Rising from the flanks of two volcanoes, Sierra Grande and Capulin (a National Monument), the Corrumpa Creek (an intermittent stream) strikes eastward across dozens of miles toward the town of Clayton. It was in this area that Seton hunted the wolves. Although written with some embellishment, Seton’s account of his encounter with Lobo is close to the actual events as he recorded them in his journal at the time.

Lobo, Part 1: A large gray wolf, leader of a small pack, preyed upon cattle introduced into the Currumpaw Valley by ranchers (in the mid to late 19th century). The “Mexicans” called him “Old Lobo” or the “King.” Lobo gained a reputation as the largest, smartest, and loudest of his kindred. The pack consisted of an additional five wolves including a white-coated female, Blanca.

These animals were occasionally spotted – from a 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 larger wolves. The killing of sheep and cattle by wolves continued unabated. From the rancher standpoint, all seemed hopeless.

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) when an acquaintance, a ranch owner on the Currumpaw, invited him to New Mexico. Seton agreed to hunt the wolf pack.

He hunted, however, not with a gun, since the wolves were out only at night, but by scattering poisoned meat and later, poisoned meat baiting metal leg traps. Although he made every effort to hide any hint of human scent from the traps, Lobo seemed to taunt him, gathering up baits and scattering “filth” over them. Lobo 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 kept up his acute observation of wolf habits, he at last 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 set traps with his usual cunning, concealing them in the usual way so that Lobo would find and disable them as was his habit. He set out six steel leg traps near a freshly killed cow. He removed the head and tossed it casually aside. There he planted a devious booby-trap. 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.

Seton returned the following morning to see if this trick worked. The head was gone along with one of the traps, dragged away by a strong but trapped wolf. He followed the trail catching up within a mile to find 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 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 her body through a field to set out a chaotic pattern that Lobo would attempt to follow if he returned. Counting on Lobo’s love and loyalty for his mate, he set out even more traps. Surely the heartbroken wolf would come looking for Blanca in a reckless state of mind.

And so it came to pass.

Two days later Seton found Lobo caught in three of four traps. Like Blanca, he 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, somehow unable to carry through.

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. The hunter examined the wolf closely, looking into Lobo’s eyes and reaching out and touching him. But the wolf did no more than stare 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.

Here ends the life story of Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, but, as we shall see in Part II, the legacy of this wolf proved all the greater with his death. Although he never admitted it, Seton spent the remainder of his long life atoning for what he had done. It will not be giving too much away to write that he never killed another wolf.