Erica Cirino is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Audubon, Scientific American and National Geographic Ocean Views.
As once-vanished wolves return to Europe and move into urban areas, humans are trying to empathize with the creatures through nighttime “wolf safaris.”
She puts her nose into the air as she trots into a dark parking lot in Valby, the district in Copenhagen that is home to the Carlsberg brewery. She tilts her head back and howls into the clear, dark sky, and then falls quiet, waiting.
Suddenly, a chorus of howls echoes off the concrete walls of office buildings and into her ears. She slinks toward the sound quietly, on two legs, in the hope of locating other members of her pack.
Yes, that’s on two legs, not four. She is not a wolf; she is a woman from rural Jutland, Denmark, named Dorothea Marie Bach Nielsen. Nielsen now lives in Copenhagen, where she is studying midwifery. But for one night, she and 10 other Copenhageners assumed the identity of wolves to try to think and feel more like these wild canines.
It was part of a performance art project called Wolf Safari, hosted by Finnish art collective called Toisissa Tiloissa, or “Other Spaces,” in collaboration with two Copenhagen performance spaces. Other Spaces has organized wolf safaris across Western Europe and Russia.
On a chilly morning in February, I met up with Nielsen for a walk around Copenhagen’s central lakes. Passersby sent sideways glances as she explained to me, through a loud demonstration, the difference between the “woooooo!” howl that wolves use to find one another and the “arfarfarf!” yips that serves as a greeting.
“While I’m interested in all animals, wolves are particularly special,” Nielsen said. “I’m from Jutland, where there are many farmers. The farmers fear that the new population of wolves will destroy the current balance of nature and kill off their livelihoods: sheep.”
Danish scientists last year confirmed the presence of a wolf pack of two to four adults with seven to eight pups in Jutland. It’s the first wild pack to wander through Denmark in more than 200 years. The country’s last wild wolves had been killed off by hunters and disgruntled farmers by 1813. Scientists say male wolves have been present in the country since 2012, but the pack was able to form later when a young female wolf traveled more than 300 miles north from Germany into Denmark.
Denmark is just the latest country in Western Europe to see a resurgence in the wolf population. But in most countries, the hunting, trapping, and poaching of wolves are still prevalent.
Eva Handberg and Ricardo Melitón Torres, friends who separately participated in wolf safaris in Aarhus (another Danish city, in Jutland) and Copenhagen, described them over coffee days after I met with Nielsen. “We all gathered inside a small room at the Brobjerg School around nine o’clock at night, where we sat in a circle,” Handberg said. “Instructors taught us all about wolves’ natural and social lives, how they are threatened by people and how wolves communicate with sounds and body language. Then, when they thought we were wolf-y enough, they set us off on the streets.”
Torres said his wolf group had two main tasks: First, locating all the members of the pack, and second, making a kill together by finding the “elk”—a person holding a backpack of food.
“I howled and howled, and ran around exhausted, trying to find my pack, and it was completely exhilarating,” he said. “I got strange looks from people on the streets. That was challenging, because I couldn’t tell them what I was doing. I was supposed to be a wolf, after all.”
The safari organizers give the “wolves” small slips of paper explaining the performance. Participants can silently hand these to anyone they encounter—like a security guard—who appears suspicious of their wolf-like behaviors, which might include howling, yipping, sniffing, slinking against buildings, avoiding people and cars, or jumping fences.
“If only [the bystanders] could have run along with us as wolves—I bet they would have enjoyed it,” Torres said.
The project coincides with wolves’ comeback, but was not created in response to it. Other Spaces Producer Timo Jokitalo said the idea came after a long training session in 2014, when a group of artists raided the kitchen and “ate everything they could get their hands on.” Someone joked that they were acting like wolves. Other Spaces had already created a performance in which the public is invited to learn about and act like reindeer, called Reindeer Safari. So Wolf Safari was a natural offshoot.
Jokitalo said one of the artistic goals is for people to have a nonhuman experience. “We hope that the participants will, at least momentarily, feel that they actually become a wolf,” he said. “We think that this transformation is a key to a deeper understanding of the animal, and it also transforms the character of our humanity.”
Handberg said the workshop did make her feel different. “Maybe I didn’t think or feel exactly like a wolf; I don’t know if that’s possible. But I did feel more wild and free. I think it’s very valuable to look at your city from behind an animal’s eyes. It can help you understand and hopefully respect them a little more. ”
Wolves’ return to Jutland and other parts of Europe may be welcomed more by urban residents than by country farmers, who have livestock to safeguard. But wolves have ventured close to some major population centers, including Berlin. And the more that human cities encroach on natural habitats, the more humans are likely to interact with wolves. Norway, France, and Denmark are trying to come up with wolf protection measures that conserve natural biodiversity while also appealing to farmers who largely see wolves as a threat to their way of life and react to wolves’ presence by shooting them and setting traps.
Killing wolves and other large predators may actually increase their populations, worsening livestock deaths. According to scientists, the expected average number of livestock preyed on by wolves increases by 5 to 6 percent per herd for cattle, and 4 percent for sheep, after each wolf killed in a pack. This may be due to the shuffle in pack dynamics that occurs after a kill. On top of that, top predator animals like wolves are a critical part of a healthy ecosystem.
Kent Olsen, a biologist at the Natural History Museum in Aarhus who studies wolves, said he believes Wolf Safari could benefit wolf conservation in Denmark through some kind of performance-based education program. “I told my 13-year-old daughter about Wolf Safari and this immediately kick-started several thoughts where she suggested how [the safari] could be done,” Olsen wrote in an email.
Whether or not Wolf Safari participants feel a genuine wildness—or even a wolfiness—that could help further wolf conservation, there’s one thing that’s certain: Acting like a wolf in public is an experience you won’t forget.
Although it was months after his safari, Torres pantomimed his hungry wolf persona as if he had done the performance yesterday. “The prey was a mix of French fries, chocolates, carrots, biscuits, wine, dried fruit, wine. One guy brought raw meat,” he said. He looked down at his fists still clenched as paws, as if in reminiscence.
“You know, after we caught the elk and ate the food together, all I wanted to do was find a nice place to hide and sleep together with the other wolves,” Torres said. “I was kind of sad to realize we wouldn’t be doing that because the performance was over, and the organizers wanted to go home and sleep.”