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My Dad Tried to Tame a Wolf

When I think back on the tragedy that unfolded, I look past my dad's alpha-male facade and see a man who just wanted to give his boys the childhood he didn't have.

by Gavin Jenkins
30 June 2015, 4:00am

I was four years old when my dad bought a wolf. We named the pup Dusty and gave him a pen at the edge of our basketball court, in front of the garage. Our lives were already extremely weird by suburban Pittsburgh standards: My dad owned almost two acres of land and six huskies, and dogsled racing was his hobby. He raced in the Pennsylvania tri-state area, and as my older brothers and I grew up, he bought more dogs and structured our lives around the sport.

He dreamed of training a wolf to pull a sled. That dream failed, and today, when I remember the tragedy that unfolded, I look past his alpha-male facade and see a man who just wanted to give his boys the childhood he didn't have.

The author and Dusty. Photo courtesy of the author

Dusty bit me the day we met. It was spring, 1985. My brothers, TJ and Aaron, were eight and six, respectively, and Dad had gathered us in Mom's backyard to play with the pup. Mom lived on a hilltop overlooking the Allegheny River, and the yard sloped gradually. At three months old, Dusty wobbled and fell, but once he got going, he charged. "Don't run!" Dad warned me. Ignoring his command, I tried to flee and Dusty chomped down on my ass. Mom, who believed her ex-husband when he said the pup was half-German Shepard, rubbed the bruise. Dad wasn't as moved by my tears.

"I told you not to run," he said.

People envision Paul Bunyan when I tell them about my dad. The opposite is true. He was a clean-shaven math teacher, who, at his peak, stood five foot eight. Since retiring, he's shrunk a couple inches and lost most of his hair. Once, as an adult, I watched his feet dangle off the couch and thought: This is the man who squeezed my neck when I made an error in little league?

I resent fearing him as a boy. Back then, he was big and strong. Every dog obeyed him—even the wolf was his friend. Dusty became the first in the family to stand up to him, though. The rebellion started on the trail. Dad lined him up with several teams, and when Dusty pulled the sled, he was stronger than all the dogs combined. But unlike our huskies, who instinctively wanted to run, Dusty usually trotted, and afterward, he'd tear his harness to shreds. Dad finally gave up when Dusty dragged an entire team into the woods after a bird. After that, Dusty's life was confined to a large pen and the enclosed basketball court, where Dad played with him every morning.

I was in kindergarten when Dusty bit me again. Dad and one of his many girlfriends stood inside the garage while I played on the snow-covered basketball court. I stuck my gloved hand through Dusty's fence. He sniffed and then chomped. I ripped back my arm, leaving the glove in his mouth. There wasn't a struggle or a scratch, but I felt the pressure from his vise-like jaw. Shaken and scared, I walked inside the garage. I was a fast talker who was often yelled at for interrupting adults. Afraid of angering Dad, I stood silent, waiting for my turn to speak. Eventually, he looked down.

"Where's your glove?"

"Dusty has it."

Dad ran into Dusty's pen and tore the glove from the wolf's mouth. While reprimanding me for not speaking up sooner, he duct-taped the glove back together, and made me wear it until he bought a new pair. That wasn't the last time he patched Dusty's handiwork with duct tape. I used to joke about these anecdotes, but there's one incident that seems too alarming to make wisecracks about.

It was summer, 1988. TJ, Aaron, and I were shooting hoops in the driveway. We had just finished a game of two-on-two, and Dad had run into the house to get Pepsi. Three years old and now as tall as me, Dusty rubbed his ribs along the fence. I stuck my fingers through the chain links and scratched him. I was afraid of Dusty after the glove incident, but I hadn't learned my lesson. He was so beautiful. The way he howled at the moon was art, and I wanted him to love me like he loved my dad. I would have settled for how he let my brothers pet him through the fence, sometimes even licked them. But the wolf didn't feel the same way about me.

I both feared the wolf and wanted him to love me, which is more or less how I felt about my dad.

Dusty froze, and in a flash, I was thrown onto my back. There was a six-inch gap between the fence's bottom rail and the concrete, and my foot had gone inside his pen. Dusty clenched my sneaker and, shaking violently, began pulling me under. We owned 14 huskies at the time, and their pens wrapped around Dusty's on the driveway's edge. While the dogs went berserk, Aaron tugged my arms. Dusty's fangs pierced the shoe and I screamed. I realized he was going to eat my foot.

Dad kept a shovel by the garage door. He used it as a dustpan for pine needles on the court. TJ grabbed the shovel, ran over, and drilled Dusty's head through the fence. The wolf jumped back with my shoe, and I shot backwards, toppling Aaron. Dusty retreated to a corner and began mincing the Nike high-top. Dad ran into the driveway, dropped the Pepsi cans, and hurried into Dusty's pen. He jammed his knee into the wolf's neck and pounded his head until he let go of the sneaker. The huskies tapered into silence with each blow. A few jogged in circles, unable to control their excitement. Shoe in hand, Dad backed out of the pen. A husky barked.

"No!" Dad's face and neck were red. "No bark!"

The dog whimpered and then stopped. I stood there, tube sock half off, too shocked to speak. TJ explained what happened and, patting down his thinning hair, Dad ordered me into the garage. I followed him to a workbench in the back. He clicked on a light, picked up a roll of duct tape, and began repairing the shoe. He grumbled about Nike prices, and thinking I was in trouble, I began to cry. Dad ordered me to stop.

It's not that he was unable to handle emotions. He hugged us and kissed us and said, "I love you" on a daily basis. But he sprinted away from vulnerability. And so, instead of acting concerned, he tried to turn the attack into a life lesson: "How many times do I have to tell you to be more aware of your surroundings?"

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The next day, he wired additional fencing to close the gap, and then everyone acted as if I hadn't been viciously attacked. I became terrified of the wolf and prayed for the day when he would go away. But then he'd howl at a fire whistle while I was shooting free throws, and my heart would fill with love—for the animal and for my dad. I feared the wolf and wanted him to love me, which is more or less how I felt about my dad.

I never talked about how the attack affected me—I was too afraid—and now my dad and brothers don't believe that it was traumatizing. Whenever I bring it up today, they roll their eyes. There were other violent incidents in my childhood; I once saw a dog's intestines torn out by other dogs. But my dad and brothers usually refuse to talk about any of that. When one of them does, their memories differ starkly from mine, and sometimes they don't even remember events that seem vivid to me. These conversations end with me being told to "leave it in the past" and "just move on."

Dusty turned against Dad because he was a wild animal in a cage, but for a while, Dad was a badass who wrestled a wolf while he stared into its eyes, just like Ethan Hawke in White Fang.

Deep down, my dad is a good man and, at times, a great father. My brothers beg me to embrace that side of him. He instilled the values of hard-work and responsibility. He raised us to love the environment and practical jokes. He encouraged us to watch the news and read the newspaper, and he took us whitewater rafting and horseback riding. He taught us to play poker, and when I watched him shave as a young boy, he'd cover my face, too, scraping down his cheek, and then skimming mine with the back of a comb. Zzzzip!

But even the good times had a hyper-masculine theme, and the negative moments overshadow them because my dad and I have never gotten along. Now, we hardly even talk. He has shown me nothing but indifference for over a decade because I don't live up to his standards of adulthood. I've had several careers and apartments, and nearing my mid 30s, I'm in grad school with no money. He thinks I'm selfish, and I'm the idiot who thinks he has the ability to change, suddenly have an open mind, and show unconditional love. I struggle to realize this is who he is, and he's trying his best.

I usually keep the daddy issues hidden. Some close friends don't even know about Dusty or the dogs. I once let it all fly, though, on my first and only OKCupid date with a woman who had interned at a Yellowstone National Park wolf habitat. Her name was Laura, and we met at a dive bar that smelled like chew spit and skunked beer. She wore a brown sweater and an army cap, and tucking strands of brown hair behind her ears, she asked:

"How old was the wolf when he snapped?"

"Four," I said, surprised. Most people ask questions, like: How did he die? Is it even legal to own a wolf in Pittsburgh? But these were afterthoughts for Laura. I told her how, after trying to drag me under the fence, Dusty went after Aaron and TJ, but didn't bite them.

"Pretty standard wolf behavior," Laura said. "Go up the pack's food chain."

On the psychology of wolves: Motherboard says wolves howl for more than just their friends.

She asked if my brothers or I had dogs now. I didn't have one—still don't—and the excuse I clung to was a lack of money. But the truth was I couldn't stand to see another dog die. TJ owns a Bichon Frise and a Havanese. Aaron bought two Irish wolfhounds, which seems like overcompensating for TJ's ankle-biters. I admitted to Laura that I love shadowboxing the beasts in the backyard. It reminds me of the way Dad used to play with Dusty.

"He roughhoused the wolf?" Laura asked, incredulous. "Jesus Christ! No wonder the wolf attacked everyone. Your dad's an idiot."

For years, I believed a different narrative, one where my dad was a tough guy to be feared. Dusty turned against him because he was a wild animal in a cage, but for a while, Dad was a badass who wrestled a wolf and let it gnaw on his arm while he stared into its eyes, just like Ethan Hawke in White Fang.

The morning Dusty bit Dad is ingrained in my memory. After feeding the dogs, Dad let Dusty into the enclosed basketball court to eat and play. TJ, Aaron, and I watched from the dog pens. They were shadowboxing as usual when all of a sudden, it became real. Dusty sliced the top of Dad's hand. Dad jumped back and wagged his finger at the wolf.

"That's not how we play!"

Dusty's hair stood straight up and he growled. Dad ran to the garage door and grabbed the same shovel that TJ had used to free me two years earlier. He spun and jabbed Dusty before he lunged. Dusty had trapped Dad in a corner. The dogs jumped onto their doghouses and barked in excitement. Dad tried to jab with the shovel and escape the corner, but Dusty pinned him back. I hugged one of the dogs and started crying. Aaron yelled at me to shut up, and I forced back tears. TJ ran into the house and returned with a beef knuckle and a steak. Beef knuckles were Dusty's weekly treat, and TJ threw that into his pen first. When the wolf looked away, Dad jumped from the corner. Dusty spun back and followed Dad. TJ hung over a fence, waving the steak in the air, while Aaron banged on a doghouse. When Dusty looked back, TJ tossed in the steak, and Dusty ran into his pen after it. Dad closed the gate and locked it. Dusty never left his pen again.

Later, in a rare moment of candor, Dad admitted that he shouldn't have gotten Dusty. But he said he didn't regret the decision.

Dusty. Photo courtesy of the author

"I really loved him," Dad justified. "He was so beautiful."

In his voice, I could hear the little boy inside him. His childhood was much worse than mine—a controlling mother, an austere household. He wasn't allowed to have a dog. Dad stopped talking to his parents when I was a boy, and while he rarely spoke about his mom, he often criticized his own father for caring more about hunting and fishing with his friends than about spending time with his son.

To Dad, dogsled racing with my brothers and me made him better than his father. His intentions were good. He just never addressed his emotional baggage. A well-adjusted adult would not have seen buying a wolf as liberating. A well-adjusted adult would have stopped and thought: What will I do if I can't tame the wolf?

After the basketball incident, Dad tried to find Dusty a new home. He called zoos and habitats, but no one wanted our wolf. Their wolves wouldn't accept him, which would be a death sentence. Like the thousands of other Americans who buy exotic pets, Dad agonized over what to do. He didn't want to kill Dusty, but keeping him locked in a cage was torture, and Dad had a nightmare about the wolf getting loose and attacking someone. Finally, almost two years after Dusty bit him, Dad mixed tranquilizers into his food and dumped it over the fence. Dusty ate every scrap, walked around as if drunk, and then lay on his side and closed his eyes. He breathed slowly for a while before dying.

My brothers and I stood in a line next to Dad as we looked down at Dusty's lifeless body. Dad began to cry.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever done," he said, wiping away a tear.

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