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Original Issue


In south central Texas the wolf hunt survives as a living fragment of a wild past. Dogs, pickup trucks, campfires and an occasional howl in the desolate night are the background for hunters' tales of wily predators made even more clever by civilization

In the classic movie scene Spencer Lovingcup is reading in his study late at night, emitting clouds of pipe smoke and ponderous respectability in equal measure, when a mournful howl is heard in the distance. Spencer drops his book and listens, a stricken look on his face, as the cry is heard again. Now the film begins to flicker, and with each flicker we observe a subtle difference in our hero. Hair has begun to sprout from his ears, fangs are seen emerging from his mouth, his face is turning into a jungle of fur. Suddenly he grunts, springs to his feet and plunges out the window, a leap made all the more exciting by the fact that the window is closed. And now we know the truth, the harrowing truth that made us cough up our two bits' admission in the first place: Spencer Lovingcup is a werewolf.

Earl Needham, a middle-aged cattleman from the little cow town of Flatonia, Texas, is in no immediate peril of being mistaken for a werewolf, though even his best friends would have to admit that there are points of resemblance. At night long strings of empties rattle through Flatonia, and when the engineers whistle for the crossing there often is heard an answering call from out on the range. The wolves of Texas, after all these years, are still inclined to think of the night trains as brethren, and their answering howls easily could be taken from the sound track of a werewolf movie. No hair grows on Earl Needham's face when these cries are heard across the prairie, but in other respects he is likely to emulate our movie hero. Carefully remembering to open the door first, Needham rushes into the night, jumps into his pickup truck, drives out to his camp house, assembles his pack of hounds and rides to the hunt.

To those who were under the impression that the wolf is merely a wise apple who tried to con Little Red Riding Hood and then scampered right off the pages of history, let it be observed that as many as several thousand of the animals may still be found in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas. These are red wolves, Canis niger, 35 to 80 pounds heavy, elusive of habit, destructive of goats and sheep and sleep, and as savagely brilliant an animal as lives. The mere fact of his existence, after hundreds of years of unremitting attack by man is a testimonial to the wolf's sagacity. Ever since Roger Williams told his fellow Puritans to regard the animal as "a fierce, bloodsucking persecutor" the American wolf has been shot, poisoned, trapped and clubbed with abandon. The gray wolf, larger of the two North American species, beat a retreat to Canada and a few outposts in Mexico. But the red wolf remained, and indeed in some areas—like east central Texas—his tribe is momentarily prospering, all of which is perfectly satisfactory to Earl Needham and his cronies.

To understand wolf hunters like Needham, one first has to throw out all previous conceptions of hunting. Wolf hunting is a visual and an auditory experience, an affair of the senses. No shots are fired, and there is no ridiculous stomping through jungles and forests. Mainly, wolf hunters spectate. In the absence of train whistles they drive their pickups to the outback, sound loud police sirens across the night, listen for answering cries from wolves and then release their hounds as close to the wolves as possible, all in the hope of starting a "race," the long run that may take wolf and hounds 100 miles in diminishing circles before the quarry goes down in a frenzy of snapping teeth or, as is more commonly the case, until the wolf gets away. While this is transpiring, the hunters sit alongside their pickups, drinking coffee, telling wolf-and-bull stories and reveling in the cacophony of a pack of hounds hot on the scent. "That is the real reason we are here," says burly Earl Needham. "The sounds and the hounds."

The hero of this melodrama set to music is, of course, the noble wolf, and no one respects the tawny reddish animal more than Earl Needham. "He is the galliest critter and the smartest critter you ever seen, and it takes a mighty smart hound dog to keep up with him," says Needham, who speaks in a wondrously clear and simple Texas twang that would have gladdened the ears of George Bernard Shaw. "You could live on a acre of land with a wolf family for years and years and you'd never even know they was there." One reason is that the wolf does not hunt near his den, lest he give away the whereabouts of his defenseless pups. Says Needham: "Sometimes I'll get a call from some rancher that wolves is chewing up his turkeys or his sheep, and will I come out with my hounds and catch him. First thing I do is I don't even bother looking for the wolf within three, four miles of that ranch. If a wolf is killing on a ranch, that means his den is nowheres near."

At one point, several red wolves got it into their heads that when Needham loaded his hunting dogs into his truck and drove off into the night the safest place to be was right there at the camp house, the jumping-off spot. "I'd come back from huntin' all night, without a sign of any wolf, and my dogs'd be all whupped out, and we'd find wolf tracks all around the camp house. While we was off huntin' 'em, them scouns was back there tryin' to dig under the fence and get the dogs' dinner."

Professional federal trappers find the red wolf so canny that they sometimes have to resort to complex doublethink to kill particularly experienced specimens. Gone are the days when the simple No. 4 trap could be trusted to do the job directly. For some reason unknown to the federals, red wolves will sniff out a baited trap and dig it up, like sappers. Or they let the trap alone and make scratch marks all around it, as though to point out the danger to less intelligent wolves. "How we catch some of them is to set a trap in front of a trap," says Hinton Bridgewater of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We set one trap and let it stay there for weeks, in the rain and the sun and everything, till it becomes a very natural trap. We don't bait it and you can't even tell it's there. Then we go in and make a perfectly obvious set with another trap a few feet away, and now the wolf will come in and scratch around the new trap, and he gets caught in the old one. But some of them are even too smart for that trick. Wouldn't surprise me if someday we'll need a trap in front of a trap in front of a trap. You've got to keep thinking where red wolves are concerned."

It is this adaptability, this extrasensory survival instinct, that makes the red wolf so formidable a quarry. Even when 40 or 50 hounds jump a wolf, the odds remain strongly in the wolf's favor. "Some people say the dogs has the same chance the wolf has," says Needham, "but experience has showed that's just not true." The wolves will sometimes relay the dogs. With the pack in hot pursuit, a second wolf will cut across the trail and take the whole pack of hounds with him. After an hour or so at a 15-to 20-mile-an-hour pace, the second wolf will hand the pack back to the first wolf, now well rested. After four or five hours of this, the hounds will be so exhausted that they will lose all chance of making a kill. Sometimes three or four wolves will separate a hound from the pack and make a kill of their own, first nipping the dog's hamstring to immobilize him and then applying the coup to the dog's throat.

A smart wolf will run straight for a hole in a barbed-wire fence in the dead of night; the hounds will come caterwauling up, slam into the barbed wire, then waste time trying to find the hole. In the meantime, the wolf has come back through the fence via another hole. Wolves even have learned to run along the highway, a most unnatural place for so wild an animal. The pavement does not hold scent as well as brush, and auto fumes make it hard for the hounds to pick up what little scent there is. Wolves will run through herds of cattle, confusing the issue still more, or take a shortcut through a backyard, mixing scents with the local watchdogs.

To the eternal consternation of those who like to order nature into lists of good animals and bad, the red wolf is impossible to pigeonhole, a living organism as full of conflicting and apparently contradictory impulses as the most neurotic business executive who ever got off the train at Burlingame or Kenilworth. For one thing, the murderous wolf is one of nature's noblest family men. Wolves mate for life and den in old armadillo holes, or in sandstone or limestone bluffs, stumps of trees, even in abandoned beaver dams. During the daytime the mother stays with the whelps while the father alternately snoozes and watches for danger from the nearest hilltop vantage point. At night the family hunts. At first, when the pups are small, mother and father make kills, stuff themselves to the ears with fresh meat, then return and disgorge it in neat piles for the whelps. Hunters once found 150 pounds of such slightly used beef at a den in southern California. When the young are a few months old, the parents take them out for hunting lessons, teaching them how to bring down small game, one pup going for the neck, the other for the hind legs. For two or three years, until full-grown, the young wolves hunt with their parents. The family that preys together stays together.

Our human woman-chasing wolves come well by their names. The male wolf has an exceptionally strong sex drive, and before his lifetime mate has arrived on the scene, he will sometimes go prospecting among the young ladies of the nearest domestic canine community. In Red River County in northeast Texas the offspring of one of these clandestine trysts had all the physical characteristics of a wolf but the head of a bulldog. Wolves have been known to break into shacks housing female dogs in heat, spend long happy hours under the Texas moon and leave their female friends with gaudy, purple memories. Earl Needham knows a man who mated a wolf with a black and tan, a hound dedicated with every fibre of its being to the slaughter of wolves. The offspring was a house divided. "He didn't know whether to hunt himself," says Needham, "or hunt himself!"

Needham's own wolf dogs come in all shapes and sizes, for the test of a wolf dog is not his pedigree but whether, when the issue is joined, the hound will tangle willingly with the slashing teeth of a wolf. As Needham puts it, "Some hunters won't use anything but a registered dog; the pedigree got to be three feet long. But that paper don't run that wolf. Trial and error is what you use till you got the right dog. I've used all kinds of hounds: Walkers, Julys, blue ticks, Triggs, black and tans, Goodmans and what we call 'potlickers,' mixed breeds. They cost me about $150 apiece, and if I get one good dog out of every coupla dozen I buy I figure I'm lucky."

Wolf dogs are trained and treated like scholarship athletes at UCLA. Needham's own pack runs from 15 dogs up; the number is always changing, because hounds are killed by wolves and new dogs are brought in and others die when they get to be about 6, old age for a working wolf hound. Needham has no stomach for training his own dogs; he has found the necessary techniques too offensive to his own gentle nature. "The way they train dogs to fight wolves," he says, "is they'll catch coyotes in traps and they'll tie the coyotes' mouths, which is cruel, and I've never been able to do anything like that in my life. Then they'll turn the coyote loose and let the young dogs catch him and kill him. When the dogs learn how to do that, they'll let one coyote go without his mouth being tied, and then the dogs'll learn a little more. They get some of those hounds so highly trained they'll tear through a screened wire so they can get at a wolf."

After a dog has learned how to hunt wolves, he must be kept in shape, like any other athlete, and the only way to keep him in shape is to keep him running wolves. "It's like trainin' a fighter to fight," says Needham. "You got to have those dogs hard as arn to catch wolves. So you got to hunt 'em. They won't exercise, and if you don't hunt 'em for a few weeks they get fat and sloppy and short in the wind." The discerning reader already will have noted a strong similarity between wolf hounds and baseball pitchers, in matters other than appearance. Both can function like machines so long as they keep in motion, but as soon as they stop for any appreciable length of time they stiffen up and become useless. Fay Autry, a county commissioner in east Texas, learned this the painful way and is still paying a stiff price in smart remarks by his friends. Autry's dogs had spent four hours catching a wolf and working it over, and now the animal was presumed dead. Autry had roped the wolf and dragged it out of the brush when he noticed that one of his dogs was lagging behind as though injured. He let go of the wolf to administer to the dog, and when he turned around the "dead" wolf was gone. Not one of the dogs in the pack had deigned to give chase. "They were so tired and sore," said the rueful Autry, "that they wouldn't even look for the trail." Needham had a similar experience. A wolf, certified dead by a coroner's jury of wolf hunters, was pitched over a barbed-wire fence toward Needham. "That wolf came down on his four feet and took right off into the cedar brush," Needham recalls. "Lucky I had one big old dog left with enough energy to go catch him again. The rest of my hounds had cooled out."

Also like major league pitchers, wolf hounds are expected to perform as specialists, not as all-round stars. Their job is to find, chase and kill wolves, and nothing else but wolves. And if their attention wanders off to other forms of wildlife, they are sent back to the minors. To chase anything but wolves is called "trashing," and a dog that "trashes" is subjected to stiff punishment. "A lot of hunters will whup the whey out of a dog that trashes," says Needham, "and I've even known 'em to shoot their own dogs in the tail with a light load of No. 7 shot from a .410. It's like a sharp spray, but the noise scares 'em, and pretty soon they learn that they're gonna get hurt if they open on anything but a wolf trail."

As if the poor hound dog doesn't have enough problems, he is expected to follow a code of ethics as strict and inflexible as the rules for admission to the Junior League. "Silent trailing," for example, is a major breach of the code. A silent trailer will jump a wolf track and go off in quiet pursuit, single-o, leaving the pack far behind. If he catches up to the wolf, he won't be able to make the kill alone and may well pay the supreme penalty for his rashness. The proper behavior for a dog that cuts a wolf's trail is to bark bloody murder, thus bringing the whole pack into the chase and improving the odds. The converse of the silent trailer is the dog that begins barking just for the sheer dizzy joy of being out in the country of a pleasant evening. "We call this kind of dog a babbler," says Needham. "He shoots off his mouth for nothin' and drags the whole rest of the pack with him."

But the ultimate offense against the code of the hunt is the dog that gets too smart, the so-called "cutting dog." "He'll chase that wolf with the rest of the pack for a while," says Needham, "till he figures out the pattern the wolf's runnin' in. Wolves usually run in circles, five or six miles around, and they keep passin' the same checkpoints over and over again during the race. Now this smart dog'll dope this out, and he'll find a spot where the wolf is crossin' and lay there waitin' for him, and when that wolf comes by the dog'll take out after him ahead of the pack. Now we consider that downright unfair. We try to make the race equal to all the dogs, and this cuttin' dog is cheatin' because he's not makin' the whole race. So we get rid of him."

Wolf hunters can tell exactly what's going on during a hunt by the sounds made by their dogs, by what they call the dog's "mouth." "We got all kinds," Needham says, "and you just have to learn to tell 'em apart, one by one. We got dogs that on a cold trail they may be bawlin', wailin' and squallin'. Then they get on up there close to that wolf and they'll begin to chop a little bit, shorter barks. They're changin' their mouth now, and you can tell from this how things are goin'. Course, there's different mouth dogs—some of them are squallin' mouth dogs till they start runnin', but a squallin' mouth dog don't usually give as much mouth when he starts to runnin' a wolf. There's chop mouth, coarse mouth, fine mouth, horn mouth that sounds like a horn, and bawlin' dogs. We got a dog that's a goose-mouth dog and another one is a turkey-mouth dog: talk, talk, talk, talk, like a old turkey gobbler. We got dogs with high screamin' mouths that gives a lot of mouth, very loud, and they scare a wolf and make 'em move out and tire their-selves. When my dogs take out after a wolf, I can tell each dog and what he's doing and what his mouth means. You get to know 'em. It's just like you listenin' to a crowd of people and you can recognize different voices."

The mise en scène of this vigorous listening activity is about an hour's drive, at presidential speed, westward out of Houston. Flatonia lies at a point where the arid sections of south Texas, the blacklands of east Texas and the gently rolling sand-and-clay hills of north central Texas all come together. Most of this land is barren, inimical to life, and yet certain forms of flora and fauna brazen it out: post oaks, mesquite, cactus, bobcats, roadrunners, wolf hunters. Once longhorn cattle roamed free here, but then the long-horns died away and the country was chopped into small, harshly demanding farms. During the Depression people began leaving for the big cities; the trend has never stopped, and now hundreds of these submarginal farms have been abandoned and turned back into range for the kind of cattle Earl Needham raises and sells: "hoopies," mixed breeds, scrawny animals of the second rank. One comes across deserted homes rotting into the ground, old dipping vats rusting away, bare spots in the woods where a pot and a patterned stand of oaks and a cistern are all that remain of a homestead. Here and there an elderly couple will be hanging on, running out their strings on social security and occasionally calling on Earl Needham to catch a wolf that has been chewing on their chickens and turkeys and lambs.

With homo sapiens slowly vanishing from the landscape, wildlife has moved back in. Wildcats and gophers abound, blackbirds blot out the sun in flights of tens of thousands, roadrunners and larks and hawks wheel about. The armadillo, once a rare sight, considers the area around Flatonia to be his Levittown and provides the wolf with a steady staple of diet. Sometimes hunters will find as many as 50 vacant armadillo shells around wolf dens. But few men share the wolf's enthusiasm for the flavor of the "poverty pig." Says Hunter Bill Stulting: "We barbecued a armadiller once, but it was a old one and the longer I chewed it the bigger it got. I threw it away." On wolf hunts at night one sees armadillos gnawing away at roots in the fields; they look like miniature knights of yore all dressed for the lists but, unlike knights, they are easily frightened. Sometimes their first reaction to danger is a jump straight up in the air, right out of the Terrytoons, followed by a 50-yard dash that would do credit to Bob Hayes.

An east Texas wolf hunt in this bizarre setting will begin, like as not, at Needham's camp house, a ramshackle structure outside of town, where all the boys and their individual packs of hounds will convene around dusk. While the dogs wait nervously in the pens outside, the hunters stoke up on wolf hunters' stew, coffee and badinage. Wolf hunters' stew is a thick, bubbling mixture of potatoes, carrots, celery, meat, corn, onions, black pepper and "chili pateens," which are tiny wild peppers that may someday find their proper niche in industry, replacing such relatively mild substances as pyrosulphuric acid and sodium hydroxide. A hunter who has lined his stomach with chili pateens ("Don't ask me how to spell pateens," says Cook Lester Gosch. "I don't think it's ever been spelt") need never fear the cold on the range. "He may be freezin' to death," says Need-ham, "but he won't know it." Also useful is the gallon pot of coffee that is made first at the camp house and then trundled all night from campfire to campfire by the hunters. "A wolf hunt runs on coffee," explains Bill Stulting. "We heat it and reheat it, and by morning we have to chew it."

The long dinner in the camp house is as much a part of the hunt as the race itself. The hunters sit around and talk in the traditional manner of men without women, trading intimacies, walking the thin line between hostility and affection, and ragging one another now and then to show how bold they dare to be with their friendships.

"I bet you never take a bath."

"Never take a bath? I take three baths a day!"

"Man, you must be a dirty s.o.b.!"

Fay Autry likes to ride Needham about his hounds. "You got dogs that'll bay farm girls, I swear!" Autry says, while everybody laughs at Needham's feigned discomfort.

"Them ain't wolfhounds," says Stulting. "Them's armadiller dogs."

To any but close friends, these insinuations about the dogliness of a man's pack would be fighting words, but these men are old hunting partners, and no blood is drawn. Soon the hour, the wind and the temperature are deemed correct, and the hunters file out, load their pickups with hounds and listen to Commander in Chief Earl Needham's final words of advice, spoken in a pure Texas idiom: "Y'all go to whar you blowed the sireen the other night. Carl, you know whar you blowed the other night? We goin' up to Ernie Bee's and listen. I'm just gonna go back in on that hill so if they howl I can turn loose on 'em. And y'all'll know whar we at if we don't come down outa there now?" In a cloud of exhaust fumes the convoy of dog-carrying trucks takes off into the black Texas night, and another wolf hunt is on. Till dawn it continues, like a battle, with Needham deploying his troops, reassembling his dogs, sending his hunters far up backcountry roads to sound their "sireens" and occasionally joining them all around a camp-fire, there to chew some coffee and some fat. Observing this frustrating night, when not a wolf is heard or seen but only miles and miles of wolf tracks that might have been made by phantoms, an outsider gets the impression that the prospect of executing a wild animal is just a peg to hang the evening on, a Texas way of staying up all night with the boys and getting away with it.

Soon the excuse may be gone. Civilization, that implacable enemy of hunter and hunted alike, is approaching Flatonia; a freeway is inching across from San Antonio to Houston, and Earl Needham reckons that it will pass "right behind my dog pen." Nothing would kill wolf hunting faster than an uncrossable modern turnpike. Earl talked to the authorities about this encroachment on his constitutional right to foray all over the country in search of the red wolf, "and I told them they're agonna have to build them a underpass for my dogs to run." Then, with the look of a stubborn old Texan digging in for a long range war, Needham added: "Yes sir, that's all they are to it!" With his code of ethics, his faithful hound dogs and his chili pateens all going for him, Needham would seem to be the favorite.