Eco-reporter Zoe Krasney recently interviewed filmmaker and photographer Elke Duerr after she founded the Web of Life Foundation (WOLF), which is devoted to education and outreach to communities in close proximity to wolves, and completed the documentary film, Stories of Wolves – The Lobo Returns.
Elke Duerr loves telling this story: when she was growing up on an organic farm in Germany, she asked her grandfather why one of their plots of land was called “The Wolf Trap.” He replied proudly that it was where their ancestors killed the last wolves, “so you and I could be safe.” Instead of feeling safe, the young Duerr felt sad that she would never see them. “I will bring them back,” she vowed. Decades later, she honored that vow.
It began with Duerr’s concern for wolves, and evolved into her Web of Life Foundation.
“It became clear to me that we are all connected, coming from the one life source, that whatever happened to one of us, happened to all of us. The web shows that interconnectedness and relatedness … would like to see us be caretakers of the whole web of life, not just of the wolves.”
It wasn’t until after she founded the organization that Duerr realized its acronym spelled “wolf,” something she thought illustrated the interconnectedness in a delightful way.
In the past few years, Duerr has made two films about the endangered wolves of the American West. She moved to southern New Mexico in 1988, near Gila National Forest. Close enough, almost, to hear the mournful howls of the first few Mexican gray wolves that were released in the nearby Blue Range Wilderness area in an attempt to recover a species near extinction. Those wolves struggled to survive. Some were shot by angry ranchers, some never found mates, and orphaned cubs died before they could fend for themselves. Local cattlemen organized to fight the recovery program and prevent new releases. It has been a bitter conflict for 20 years.
“I thought, finally a keystone species will be back,” Duerr says. “We really need the wolves. But we didn’t do very well with the reintroduction.”
It took Duerr three years to make the documentary film, Stories of Wolves, which she completed in 2011. She also founded the Web of Life Foundation (WOLF), which is devoted to education and outreach to communities that live close to the wolves, teaching about the co-existence of wilderness and civilization. Stories of Wolves is an incredibly moving film about the Mexican gray wolf. It is now available online as part of the Culture Unplugged Green Film Festival.
In 2013, she made a shorter film, Wolves and Humans, which included her new efforts at outreach in Montana, where controversial wolf hunts are sanctioned by local government. That film premiered at the Taos Short Film Festival in 2015, where I had the chance to talk to Ms. Duerr about her work:
ZK Your grandfather did what he felt was his responsibility. The elders now, and those who will become elders, what is their responsibility?
ED We need to come from the standpoint of unitary consciousness, and not the binary culture of good and bad, wolves versus cows. Every life form has a place on this earth.
ZK How can we teach that, open people to seeing that way?
ED In Montana, they started a wolf hunt.
I’m doing a lot of outreach in the schools with the children of ranchers. I think it’s very important not to make their parents wrong if they do a lot of predator control. Instead I ask them, “What would you do if you got the ranch? How would you do things differently?” I always find a lot of love in children for wild things and, by affirming that, not making them wrong for loving wild animals, there is a lot of opening. At lunch, at recess, a lot of them come to me and tell me that they have seen a wolf or a bear, and how wonderful that was. There is really a sense of wonder in them and they ask the right questions. They see how everything goes together. In Colorado after an outreach talk, a student came and gave a drawing of the Pegasus wolf—a wolf with wings.
Only a few hands go up when I ask a class who is afraid of wolves. They are not afraid of wild animals. Living so close to them, they have learned how to coexist, and also how not to put themselves in jeopardy by following a mother wolf or bear with cubs. At the end of the school year, I remember thinking that I don’t have to worry anymore. This generation will do a great job. They can stand on our shoulders.
ZK Do you think, in some ways, with all the advances of civilization and urbanization, that that makes some people feel that what we have left of the wild is more precious to us?
ED Definitely yes. I am always saying in my outreach that this is the last bastion of wilderness. In Montana, New Mexico, in the whole world. We are literally the guardians. I think people are embracing that. I say if you don’t like wilderness, well, 99 percent of the world is now non-wild. So there is no reason to go to the last wild place and annihilate that too.
ZK Is technology the antithesis of the wild, or in some way do they bring truth and balance to each other?
ED If you just use technology and never go out there … that’s not the way to go. But I’ve found technology has a way to help the wolf, because the word is spread on social media. About six years ago, when I started this work, there wasn’t much awareness about the wolf recovery and threats to the wolves. Now everything is made public immediately, and people who are in favor of coexistence are informed. So technology has helped a lot.
ZK You have written about the ethics of wildlife photography. What about your own work?
ED For the longest time, I didn’t have a camera. I never wanted anything between myself and the animals I loved. Usually that love feeds me when I go into the wilderness. But then it became clear to me that I needed to share so that people could benefit, so that they might have a different story about the animals. I feel that photography really reflects my love for the whole. And we can’t blame others for what they do to the wild. Conservationists say it’s the ranchers or the hunters, but actually it is all of us, how we live. Everybody is armed with a camera now. There is a lot of stalking and baiting going on. I’ve heard about people putting out food so they can see bears in their backyards and take pictures. Everybody wants their own piece of nature. But it doesn’t work that way. It really stresses the animals out by baiting them and exploiting them.
ZK A while back, you said that when you wanted to write “lobo” you instead wrote “love.”
ED That’s still true, it happened just a couple of days ago. I have a deep love for the wolf, and for all the animals, all of what has been created. I feel it really is all about love. We can look at the wolves as numbers, as having a purpose to cull elk or deer in the ecosystem, always thinking in a consumptive way. We think: “What are they good for? What can we use them for?” This is what our world has become. But when we come from love, for the wolves, for the land, it’s enough that they simply exist. They don’t have to give anything to us, not dollars for ecotourism. It’s enough that they’re here.
Photo credit: Scott Block, © 2014