By Lisi Niesner
“You can join me and pick up the deer carcass”, German wolf researcher Werner Freund invited me as he climbed into his lorry. I quickly jumped in. A rotten smell of meat hit me. I thought I wouldn’t smell it after a while but this proved to be a very false assumption. We chatted while driving and he told me about his education as a gardener and his first botanical job at the Stuttgart zoo. Soon, his job turned into a predator zookeeper after the initial bear keeper was injured. “I have cataracts, but have heard it can be treated very well today”, he suddenly added. I started monitoring his driving suspiciously until we reached a house, not far from the French border. There it lay in the snow, directly on the driveway. He asked me to give him a hand, and in view of the fact that Werner Freund is almost 80 years old, it was just polite to help him load the animal’s cadaver. On the way back I told him I had never loaded or even touched a dead deer, which seemed to amuse him.
Back at his home he changed clothes to confront the Mongolian wolves pack with a familiar odor. I was curious. Werner opened the door of the fence and entered the enclosure. First the alpha male wolf Heiko, came towards him and licked his mouth which is a sign of acknowledgment and a sign of membership of the pack. After this ritual Werner got the deer cadaver, put it on the snowy ground, lay down and held it in a manner as if it were his prey. As a child I was told, like most other children, the tale of little red riding hood making me wary of the big bad wolf with bared teeth on display. Unexpectedly the pack was shy and approached carefully. Werner took over his role and bit into the leg of the deer but spat out the raw meat. I was too busy trying to shoot pictures through the wire-netting fence, to wonder what was going on in front of me. None of the wolves competed with him for the food.
In the afternoon I met Werner at the enclosure of the Arctic wolves, he had changed his jacket again. It was terrific watching the beautiful white animals howling in anticipation. They recognize the sound of Werner’s car and were excited long before he arrived at the gate. “From the moment the wolf cubs taste meat and blood, they turn into predators and cannot be domesticated like dogs”, he said while entering the enclosure with a bucket of meat. From when the Arctic wolf Monty, named after the horse whisperer Monty Roberts, and the female wolf Deborah had a litter of cubs, Werner began feeding the cubs from the mouth. It was incredible that the whole pack adopted this behavior.
Werner proceeded to a small hill where the pack assembled. He made odd, muted noises to call the pack. “I had to re-educate my voice as my German dialect sounds quite hard, but the wolves are used to gentle noises”, he explained later. He sat down and started howling. For my part, this was the absolute highlight. The light was just perfect and the wolves roamed around while he was always centered. They stopped sometimes to join into the wolf song and their breath became visible in the cold air.
“People said, I am half human“, Werner said with a canny smile later as we sat at a table in his living room having a cup of tea together. One side is human the other side is lupine. “I have always remained human”, Erika his wife joined in and mentioned how quickly their 50-year marriage had passed by. Back in 1972 they adopted a wolf from Yugoslavia. Ivan the wolf was released into an enclosure and mated with a female wolf who gave birth to cubs soon after. When they visited the wolf family they had a life-changing experience: “Ivan brought one of the cubs to us and laid it down”, Werner related as if it had been a miracle. Apparently this was the moment when he decided to dedicate his life to the wolves. I listen to his stories about the wolves, how he raised them at home and I noticed that he used terms like muzzle and claw for his own body parts.