At dusk, no stray lights or sounds of civilization disturb the tranquillity of Jack Lynch’s homestead, a log cabin perched near the timberline in the Gallatin mountains of southern Montana. But as the snowcapped peaks in the distance slowly fade to black, a pack of wolves begins circling restlessly just behind the cabin. The pack leader, a hulking male with a magnificent silver ruff and his tail held high, has cornered a female and is snarling and snapping mercilessly. From his living room window, Lynch stares, momentarily transfixed, at the confrontation. Then he opens a door and, like a chiding schoolmaster, wags his finger at the male, who backs off without protest. “These wolves could eat me alive,” Lynch jokes, “but I guess they haven’t figured that out yet.”
Or perhaps the wolves simply accept him as one of their own. Lynch, 65, and his wife, Mary, 57, share a 160-acre section of wilderness with 85 wolves, separated by family groupings in 19 10,000-square-foot fenced enclosures. The majority are buffalo wolves, the fearsome lobos of frontier lore. For the past 27 years Lynch has protected and nurtured three generations of the endangered breed, whose genetic kin are extinct in the wild. “This is the final holdout for the buffalo wolf,” Lynch says. “If they die out here, it’s the end of the line. There is no Noah’s Ark for them, no separate creation.”
Wary of strangers, the Lynches lead a solitary life and are on constant alert for trespassers. “There are a lot of folks in these parts who would love to hang a wolf pelt on their wall,” explains Lynch. Like the wolves, Lynch is hypersensitive and can be prickly on occasion. But over time he reveals a quick mind as well as a playful sense of humor. And when it comes to social etiquette, Lynch maintains that people could learn a thing or two from wolves. “Wolves know the meaning of respect,” he says, “which is more than can be said of many humans.”
A few years ago Lynch inadvertently failed to heed the wolf code of respect, at the expense of a wolf named Lupi. “Lupi had never lost a fight in his life until some other wolves ganged up and really stomped him one night,” Lynch recalls. “The next morning he looked pathetic, and I couldn’t help laughing, which was a terrible mistake. After that, Lupi felt so put down he wouldn’t show his face for five days.”
Over the years Lynch has gained as much firsthand knowledge of wolves as any man alive. Unafraid of his charges, he has, on occasion, even slept with the wolves in their lairs. “The first time I crawled into a den, 10 wolves scattered instantly,” he says. “Then they realized it was just old Jack, and they started licking me and chewing on my ears. Finally they all laid on top of me, and I discovered they are very fitful sleepers. Somebody would growl. Then somebody would snort. More than once during the night I woke up with a paw in my face.”
Though half a dozen wolf-bite scars on his arms are a legacy of times Lynch has been “disciplined for showing bad manners,” he says his life has never been seriously threatened. Moreover, Lynch has come to regard some of the wolves as trusted friends. When Lummox, a ferocious pack leader, suffered a heart attack two years ago, Lynch cried as he cradled the dying wolf in his arms.
Living with the wolves, Lynch has found a sense of belonging he says he has never felt in the company of men. Abandoned by his mother as an infant, he was adopted and raised by an Irish immigrant railroad worker and his wife in Champaign, III. “I was a wild kid who didn’t care about anything or anybody,” he says. In 1940, at 16, he lied about his age to enlist in the Army Air Corps and subsequently flew 132 fighter missions in China and Burma. World War II left him shell-shocked, he says, and back home he drifted from job to job, including a stint as a sulphur prospector in Mexico. By the late ’50s he had settled into a lucrative position as superintendent of a large heavy-construction firm in Milwaukee and had begun training and racing sled dogs as a hobby. Then, in October 1960, he read a short article about Dr. E.H. McCleery, a country physician who maintained a sanctuary for buffalo wolves in Kane, Pa.
On a whim, Lynch took a few days off and drove more than 500 miles to meet McCleery, then a frail and impoverished 93-year-old. As a young man, McCleery had fought a government-sanctioned wildlife extermination campaign, aimed at predatory animals who were viewed as a threat to livestock, by offering trappers a bounty to capture live wolves for him. When Lynch appeared on his doorstep, McCleery had 32 buffalo wolves in residence on a 50-acre farm and was racked with worry about who would become their second keeper. “When I saw the wolves, I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Lynch says. “Here was a vestige of real Americana that would have been destroyed except for this little 110-lb. man. I knew immediately that I had my life’s work cut out for me.”
A year later Lynch left his job to manage McCleery’s sanctuary. “When I arrived, McCleery had $380 left to sustain the place for a year,” he says. “The fences were all falling down, and everything was deteriorating so badly it was debatable whether we could make a go of it.” A trickle of tourists, who paid 35 cents apiece to see the wolves, helped cover only minimal expenses. Lynch spent most of his waking hours searching for meat to feed the animals. Sometimes local farmers or ranchers would donate cows and horses that had been injured and put to sleep. Other times Lynch scrounged for scraps around slaughterhouses or roamed country byways looking for deer and other animals killed by cars.
And he began learning about wolves. “They just didn’t seem at all aggressive to me,” he says. “But it wasn’t long before I discovered otherwise.” Three weeks after his arrival in Kane, Lynch entered a pen to fix a fence hole and was confronted by a 200-lb. male wolf named Saber. “I just walked right in with some pliers and a piece of wire, and suddenly this great big old monster had his jaws around my thigh and was dragging me around the pen,” Lynch says. “I didn’t try to fight. Instead I kept telling him he was a good wolf. I guess I blacked out, because the next thing I knew I was outside the pen on my hands and knees, all covered with mud, and didn’t know how I got there.” The attack didn’t put him off wolves. “I wasn’t seriously injured or dead, so the next day I went back in,” he says. “Saber walked around me, with his tail straight out and erect, and he rubbed up against me and pushed me with his shoulder. He didn’t make a sound, but with the carriage of his body and his tail, he was letting all the other wolves know he was the boss. Later, when I told McCleery what had happened, he didn’t seem surprised. He just put his hand on my arm and said, ‘By golly, I’ve found my man. I’ve found my man.’ ”
Lynch says that on May 23, 1962, all the wolves began howling in unison. “If they are disturbed by something, they might howl for about 20 seconds,” Lynch says. “But this time they kept at it for 10 minutes. Later that afternoon I learned Dr. McCleery had died from colon cancer around the same time the wolves started howling. I have no explanation for it, especially since he was in a hospital 36 miles away. I just know what I saw and heard.”
Left to manage alone, he became a slave to the wolves. “The only thing that saved me was my young body,” he says. “Everything had to be done with little or no money, but somehow I always managed to get by.” In 1970, with an inheritance he received after his adoptive mother’s death two years earlier, he purchased 34 acres on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State and moved the wolves, which by then numbered 56. Twenty wolves were tranquilized and sent airfreight, while Lynch and a friend trucked the rest out in a nonstop drive. “After all the harsh winters in Pennsylvania, the wolves acted like they were in heaven,” he says. “They rolled on their backs in the grass. But a few months later the rains came, and it seemed like we’d never see the sun.”
As the months and years passed, Lynch found conditions in Washington even more difficult than in Pennsylvania. Constant rain made the older wolves listless and seemed to stunt the growth of the pups, and chronic money problems and the need to travel great distances to find meat gradually took their toll on Lynch. Enter, just in time, Mary Wheeler, who had just ended a bad marriage to a Los Angeles cop. In 1976 Wheeler moved into a cottage down the road from Lynch’s property and immediately volunteered to help with the wolves. “All my life I had always been a sucker for animals,” she says. “In L.A. they used to call me the cat lady because I was always taking in strays.” At first Lynch was anything but cordial, and Mary kept her distance. But a few months later she heard from local gossips that the wolf man was very sick. Angered that no one seemed inclined to help, she drove to Lynch’s cabin. “When I got there, he was sitting in a daze in the bathroom and looked half dead,” Mary says. “But he said he didn’t believe in doctors and wouldn’t go to a hospital.”
Mary nursed Lynch, who was suffering from exhaustion, back to health with a few good meals and large helpings of TLC. She stayed on to help with the wolves, proving particularly adept at hand-raising pups. “Pretty soon it was no longer a one-man operation,” Lynch says. “It was Mary and Jack.”
In 1980 the couple fled Washington’s wet climate and trucked the wolves to Montana. “This is the natural habitat of the buffalo wolf,” Lynch says, “as well as an absolutely beautiful spot where I could spend the rest of my lifetime and never be bored.” Married by a justice of the peace soon after their arrival, they have grown used to an isolated life focused on the needs of the wolves. They have never taken a vacation. While Jack busies himself with fence mending, veterinary care and the logistics of gathering and distributing the weekly 2,500-lb. ration of meat, Mary corresponds with wolf lovers around the country. The generosity of a growing number of small donors to the E.H. McCleery Lobo Wolf Foundation has freed Lynch from the unwelcome task of scavenging for road kill. In addition to the wolves, the couple also care for nine dogs, nine cats, eight goats, four horses, one coyote and the Siberian tiger a friend in Washington had given up trying to raise as a pet. “We find critters make better neighbors than people,” Mary says. “They take you for what you are and don’t ask for much in return.”
Lynch hopes that conditions will someday be right for his wolves to be returned to the wild. But he is highly critical of most wildlife reintroduction plans. “Without adequate prey, wolves will start killing cows and sheep right away,” he says. “As soon as that happens, hunters will be sent to shoot them.” As for his own buffalo wolves, Lynch is hoping for nothing short of a miracle. Before he will consider letting the wolves loose, he insists that at least 2 million acres of wilderness would have to be fenced off for a variety of wildlife and closed to humans for 20 years. He knows it’s a pipe dream. On the other hand, he says bluntly, “Anything less is just nostalgic bull——.”
In the meantime Jack and Mary patiently wait for the day when an able-bodied soul will hear the call of the wild and volunteer to carry on the cause of saving the buffalo wolf. “People with narrow vision might think we’re crazy,” says Lynch, gazing up over the wolf pens at the starlit Big Sky on a clear spring night. “But human beings fit into the ecological scheme of things just like every other animal. And if we can’t find a place for the wolf and other wild creatures as we overpopulate the earth, I believe we have only to look to the future for our own demise.”