Teacher's Guide: American Wolf
NOTE TO TEACHERS
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1. According to the author, what is known as “the greatest wildlife conservation success story of the last fifty years” (p. 40) and why was it considered such a success? Who were some of its opponents? Do you agree with their point of view? Why or why not? What larger cultural clash is revealed through the retelling of this “success story” and what does each side feel they are fighting for? Has this clash ultimately been resolved?
2. Who does Rick McIntyre consider to be the “face of the reintroduction” (p. 25) and “American royalty like the Kennedys” (p. 45)? What makes him see the group in this light? What ultimately becomes of this group and what does their story reveal about the lives of wolves and the fate of wolf packs? What larger story is Blakeslee able to tell through an exploration of the story of this particular pack?
3. Who is O-Six and why do so many people seem to be interested in her particularly? What distinguishes her from the other wolves? Why do you think that she becomes a “famous” wolf? How does she achieve this fame? How is she regarded by her own pack and by her peers? What evidence do we have for this? How do we, as readers, become invested in O-Six’s story? What makes her such a compelling figure on the page?
4. What does the book reveal about the role of politics in the delisting or relisting of wolves on the endangered species list? What larger significance does this controversial issue play within American politics? Did this surprise you? How, for example, did the question of whether wolves should be protected or hunted impact a crucial senate race in recent history? What does the author suggest “the real struggle” is actually about and how does the Sagebrush Rebellion help to illuminate this? Is the listing or delisting of wolves ultimately determined by science or by politics? Explain. What are some of the implied dangers of politicians making these decisions?
5. Although American Wolf is a work of nonfiction, the book possesses many qualities of a novel, including, in many cases, a treatment of the wolves as “characters” with their own individual narratives. How does the author create this sense of animal as protagonist? How do you think that this rendering affects the way readers respond to their story and the controversial issues contained therein? How did this characterization affect your own view of the story?
6. Alternatively, the book reveals that many biologists feel that anthropomorphizing wolves and other animals is “a cardinal sin” (p. 139)—why? Do you agree with them? What would be some of the dangers inherent in assigning human qualities to animals as we study them and seek to understand them?
7. Discuss the theme of survival. What does the book reveal about survival both for the animals of Yellowstone and for ranchers, guides, hunters, and other people who have made their life in the West? Does the book reveal what traits or skills are necessary in order to survive? What can threaten survival for both animals and humans and how can this be overcome? Are we more sympathetic to the actions of others if they are undertaken in self-defense? In other words, does survival play a role in what we consider ethical?
8. Evaluate the motif of conflict. What do the various conflicts illustrated in the book reveal about what causes tension between two or more groups? How does the book illuminate how we respond to conflicts and how we choose where to lend our empathy or support? How did you respond to the various animal conflicts versus the human conflicts, for instance? Who did you find yourself siding with, and why? Did your stance ever change as the story progressed?
9. What is a “trophic cascade”? What did observers learn about the impact of wolves on their environment when wolves were protected for a period of time? How does the presence of wolves impact other species of both plants and animals? Why, for instance, does an increase in wolves also result in an increase in beavers? Alternatively, how did an absence of wolves affect the evolution and the surrounding environment? According to Blakeslee’s accounts, what role did these facts play in determinations of whether wolves should be hunted or protected?
10. What does Rick observe about the wolf 21 that is considered unusual in the animal world? What does Rick think is the single most important trait for an “alpha” to have and why does he consider it an “evolutionary imperative” for them (p. 44)? Do you agree that each of the alphas represented in the book possesses this quality? How important would you say that this same quality is in humans—particularly leaders? Would you say that it is an imperative by nature as it is for wolves?
11. What is the “phenomenon that Rick had encountered many times” (p. 56)? Is “gameness” a good quality for wolves in general—what about wolves in Yellowstone? Which of the wolves in the story seem to possess this “gameness” and do they seem to be well served by or betrayed by this trait?
12. Who do you think the “Killers” is referencing in the title of Chapter 4? Consider how the book creates a dialogue around those who kill and those who are killed. With whom do you sympathize? How does the book create a dialogue about what is “instinctual” and what is human or animal “nature”? How would you characterize the author’s overall treatment of the subject of death?
13. How do the local hunters feel about the wolves in and around Yellowstone? Why do some of the hunters in the book choose to hunt, and what rationale do they provide for the choice of animals they hunt? What ethical questions arise within the hunting community? What is fair chase hunting? Do all of the hunters in the book abide by it?
14. The book draws attention to the abundance of world myths with wolves at their center. What are some of the popular stories and myths about wolves with which you are familiar? How are the wolves depicted in these stories? Are they cast in a mostly positive or negative light? Is this still how wolves are perceived today or would you say that our views of wolves have evolved over time? Discuss.
15. Why do you think the author chose to bookend his story with Steven Turnbull? Were you surprised by Turnbull’s action at the end of the story? Does he seem to feel any remorse for what he did? Why or why not? How do others react to what he has done? When the author spends time with Turnbull, how does it affect his view of Turnbull and what Turnbull has done? Would you say that Turnbull is a figure who elicits sympathy? Why or why not? How did you feel after reading the Epilogue? Did any of your own views change after reading about the meeting of Turnbull and the author?
16. What was Rick McIntyre’s dream? Would you say that he achieved it? What impact did Rick’s work have upon the Yellowstone community—and communities beyond Yellowstone? What story does Rick tell at the gathering to celebrate his career and what does he feel this story is about? Why does he consider the story a romance? What question does he feel this story should invite about wolves and what does Rick believe is the answer to this question?
17. American Wolf incorporates many characters and many different points of view, often in conflict with one another. Would you say that Blakeslee was neutral in his telling of these stories or do you feel that he was more loyal to one character or point of view in particular?
18. What does Blakeslee’s book reveal about the art of storytelling? What makes a “good” story and where do we find evidence of this in the tales of O-Six and other inhabitants of the American West? Although many of the main characters of American Wolf are animals, what common themes, plots, and devices from world literature do we find in the stories found in Blakeslee’s book? What does the author say is ultimately “as good a reason as any” (p. 269) for telling a story?
ABOUT THIS GUIDE'S WRITER
Je Banach is a senior member of the Resident Faculty in Fiction at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. She has written for PEN, Vogue, ELLE, Esquire, Granta, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, and other venues and was a long-time contributor to Harold Bloom’s literary series. She is the author of more than sixty literary guides, including guides to works by Maya Angelou, Salman Rushdie, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Haruki Murakami, and many others.