Crisler, Lois (1897–1971)

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Crisler, Lois (1897–1971)

American writer whose observations provided some of the first detailed descriptions of wolves' social interactions. Born Lois Brown in 1897; died on June 4, 1971, in Seattle, Washington; married Herb "Cris" Crisler (divorced); no children. Taught at the University of Washington.

Lois Crisler's observations of the wolves with whom she shared her Arctic tundra home in the mid-20th century were called by A. Starker Leopold in 1958 "the most meticulous and complete description of wolf mannerisms and behaviour that has been written." In an age when the wolf was still a largely misunderstood and widely feared creature, Lois Crisler and her husband Herb (known as Cris) spent more than eight years observing and living with wolves. While filming wildlife for a Disney movie that featured caribou, they began their journey in the Arctic wilds of the Brooks Range where they were to spend 18 months. At a secluded lake in the Range, Crisler posed a question to herself: "'What do I want?' My answer was instant. 'To be where "the people that walk on four legs" are. For the rest I can pick myself up, get off the couch of uncorseted slackness. Tauten my muscles and take the direction of the desire under the desires.'" Her purpose was not to be challenged by survival in the wild, as it was for many who came to such harsh environments before her, but rather to establish communication with other species.

Reluctant to take guns with them, or to film any set-up scenes, the Crislers were looking to document the real action of Arctic wildlife while setting ethical boundaries for their imposition on the land. In addition to living among the free creatures of the Arctic during their time on the Range, the Crislers brought two wolves into their home for the purposes of observation, filming, and, most paramount, friendship. During the beginning of their first summer camp, two cubs, Trigger and Lady, were obtained from Eskimos, and Lois began writing descriptions of the wolves' interactions with each other and with their adoptive family; hers were detailed, intimate, and extended observations and notes. Attempting to "try to live in a degree of freedom with animals not human-oriented," Crisler worked to shape her life to the needs of the wolves and assumed that her venture with Trigger and Lady was marked by a moral correctness that included respect for the wolves as free beings, "neither doglike nor humanlike, but wolf and wild." She was amazed when, given opportunities to roam out of the pen and off-leash, the young wolves returned voluntarily to the Crislers.

The 1958 work Arctic Wild is Crisler's account of the months spent sharing a cabin with Trigger and Lady. Providing unprecedented details of these social creatures, she described wolves "smiling," "talking," and, at particularly rewarding moments, sharing eye contact with her. "The wolf had read my eyes!" she said of Trigger:

The thing happens so fleetingly, the animal's wild inexorable intelligence seizes the knowledge so instantaneously that the wonder is I ever blundered into awareness of this deepest range of communication … your true feeling looks out of your eyes, the animal reads it. The wolf has a characteristic way of looking at your eyes. He does not stare, his eyes merely graze yours in passing. I learned at last to have my eyes ready for that unguarded instant when the wolf's eyes brushed mine.

Rachel Carson , in a letter to Dorothy Freeman , repeated a description of Lois provided by their friend Elizabeth Lawrence : "Lois and Cris are exactly the people you would expect and hope them to be. She is more beautiful than the photographs indicate—her eyes perhaps are a difficult color. Not large or small, but with a kind of magnificence about her." In another letter to Freeman, Carson elaborates on Crisler's character: "I think we must remember that she lives in a world almost wholly without companionship, something hard for us to conceive. There is no 'small talk' in her—she has forgotten the easy chatting and exchange of not-so-important comment that makes up social intercourse. She thinks deeply—when she speaks the thoughts come from far down in the recesses of that solitude-bound mind and personality. 'Like someone from another world.'"

In their efforts to produce a marketable film, the Crislers wanted to show the true social nature of wolves, and it was thought that views of family life among a wolf pack could achieve this purpose while also displaying the emotion and intelligence the Crislers had witnessed in the wolf. Hoping to film wild cubs in a den, Herb was unsuccessful in his first attempt. He then raided a den. Late one evening, he surprised Lois with the cubs. Greeted by the stolen cubs, Lois "involuntarily … shrank," as her relationship with the world of the "people who walk on four legs" was altered irrevocably. While she and Lady nurtured the cubs, Crisler was haunted by images of the she-wolf from whom the young cubs had been taken. Before their time on the tundra was out, Lady was killed by a female rival. Another female wolf who hung about the camp prompted Crisler to question if she might be the cubs' mother, but when Trigger attempted to lead the cubs off the tundra toward this wolf the Crislers prevented him from doing so.

After Trigger left them to form his own family with another wolf pack, the Crislers continued to parent the pups and encouraged them to stake out their territory. But upon the film's completion, the Crislers had to return to the States. Knowing the cubs would starve to death if left on their own, or be forced to live in captivity if brought to America, Lois Crisler faced the violation the couple had committed: "What was right to do," she said, "in a situation unright from its beginning—the hour the pups were stolen from their den?" Determined not to destroy the cubs, the couple shipped them to their cabin in Colorado, where several acres were used to construct a pen. Writes Carson to Freeman: "[Lois] wrote such a heartbreaking, revealing thing … about the morning after her return—that when she awoke she lay abed for a while, moaning from time to time, and that the dog who is her special companion came and laid his muzzle across her face, trying to comfort. I could see that it was agony for her to return to that life." When the wolves escaped the safety of the pen, all but one were killed by locals.

For the next seven years, Lois Crisler's life was dedicated to the lone surviving wolf, Alatna, with whom she had a private, exclusive bond. Crisler's purpose was to protect Alatna from the crippling effects of captivity and to provide some semblance to the life of a wolf in the wild. Alatna was given a series of dog mates with whom she produced several litters of puppies. Unlike wolves, wolf-dog hybrids have been shown to be potentially vicious and unpredictable; many of Alatna's hybrid pups had to be destroyed because they were dangerous or for the purpose of controlling the population in the pens.

Rachel Carson begged Crisler to give the world the story of Alatna, and Crisler would publish Captive Wild to document her seven years with the wolf. Crisler's impending divorce from her husband forced her to leave the cabin in Colorado. Finding no other way to honor her friendship with Alatna given the possibilities she saw for the wolf's future, Crisler euthanized Alatna and her family. Writes the naturalist Barry Lopez: "Lois Crisler … killed the wolves she raised from pups because she couldn't stand what captivity had done to them. And her." Confronted with the choices of death or life as a captive for the animals they studied, women who were to come after Crisler—Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey , and Biruté Galdikas —saw a third alternative that reintroduced the wildlife into their home terrain. In Crisler's day, however, this alternative was not yet in common practice. Crisler's narrative Captive Wild ends at the moment she kills Alatna while recalling her "free with her fellow wolves on the tundra in the old big days of her youth." By returning Alatna to the wild in this literary gesture, Crisler conceptualized the obligation that the next generation of observationalists would honor by returning borrowed animals to the wild.

Wrote Crisler of her experience with the wolf: "I had not dreamed until now that I had something to give Alatna—and she had been able to receive it—besides my main effort and preoccupation, which had been, so passionately, to keep her as herself, to keep her heart confident and free. But I had given her something—I did not know what in a wolf's mind. I had given her of my humanness. She had given me of her wolfness. We were both different. She was still all wolf. I was, I thought, more human."


Freeman, Martha, ed. Always Rachel: The letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1995.

Norwood, Vera. Made from This Earth. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1993.