As the old adage goes, “You can never truly understand a person until you walk a mile in her shoes.” For veteran documentarians Jim and Jamie Dutcher, a mile in someone else’s shoes was six years living among a pack of wolves in an effort to better understand the creatures famously villainized in folklore and history.
From 1990 to 1996, husband and wife documentary team Jim and Jamie Dutcher lived without electricity and running water in a tent within a 25-acre enclosure on the outskirts of the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho, photographing and filming the Sawtooth Pack, a family of wolves maintained within the 25-acre territory. Present from the wolves’ cubhood on, the Dutchers gained the trust of the normally aloof and elusive animals, allowing them intimate insight into the lives of the creatures once hunted to the brink of extinction.
The Dutchers spent these years deeply entwined with the members of the wolf pack. While the wolves stayed in the enclosure, they were free to establish their own society, form bonds, resolve disputes, and choose their leaders, all under the respectful watch of the Dutchers. Acclimated to the presence of cameras and the pair of humans, the wolves exposed parts of their lives never before witnessed, revealing a creature of deep family bonds, playful curiosity, complex hierarchies, natural strength, and keen intelligence. The Dutchers were unable to capture the Sawtooth Pack wolves as hunters, but they did capture them as the participants in a sophisticated social structure centered around family—a feature of the wolves’ lives that resonates deeply with our own.
(Photo: Jim & Jamie Dutcher/National Geographic/Getty Images)
And the Dutchers’ discoveries are illuminating. Never has any other creature been as revered and reviled, captured our imaginations and our minds. Once cast as the “big bad wolf” and the enemy of cattle ranchers, our history with wolves is fraught with misunderstanding, violence, and controversy. Through this project, the members of the Sawtooth Pack have become ambassadors for wolves and the importance of education in the conservation efforts.
Many of the wolves the Dutchers observed from youth onward now exist only in these stunning photographs, yet their message still echoes as a wolf howl reverberating through a snow-laden forest at night: that these fiercely devoted, majestic, and awe-inspiring creatures are an intrinsic part of our ecosystems, as well as a figure of our historical and folk landscape. These photos by Jim and Jamie Dutchers convey exactly that.
While the project garnered praise from naturalists, conservationists, scientists, and filmmakers alike, it is not free of critique, criticism, and controversy. There may not be a consensus regarding the Dutchers’ intentions and methods, but there is no question that the images the team captured are breathtaking, intimate, and at times, transcendental. Thanks to the Dutchers’ efforts, as well as scientists, conservationists, and other animal advocates, there is hope for preservation and redemption.