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“The Custer Wolf” A biography of an American Renegade, a book review by Sarah Devonshire

“The Custer Wolf” A biography of an American Renegade, a book review by Sarah Devonshire*

A truly heart wrenching story about a legend who eluded the deadly offenses of man in the early part of the 20th century in the agricultural boundaries of South Dakota and Nebraska. The outlaw is a pure white male North American grey wolf known for his ability to kill and eat thousands of dollars of livestock in his lifetime without being caught, despite the five hundred dollar cash reward put on his head. Expertly written by Roger Caras, this book immortalized the cunning wolf known as Lobo. Published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, first edition, 1979, 176 pages.

The story is that of the most misunderstood creature in American History. The war between man and wolf runs deep within the living veins of this country. Although there are many stories to be told regarding this battle, this book tells the tale of the Custer Wolf, known as Lobo, the most legendary and hated wolf of the Dakota region. Throughout Lobo’s life, his one and only enemy was man. Man destroyed his father, separated him from his brother, and mangled his mother unrecognizable. He lived a life of solitude after the death of his mother, a life of fear, revenge, and the never ending struggle to survive world that would rather see him dead.
The story begins like many others; a feeble and helpless creature comes into this world, unable to survive without his mother’s milk. He was born last of five, of the four that survived, Lobo stood out from the rest. For he was as white as the moon, “and men would come to know him well, and call him by a name that would live in history.” Of the four cubs, Lobo was bold; he defied his mother’s warnings and ventured out into a world while he was still blind. At the age of 34 days, Lobo and his littermates had their first taste of blood, a chunk of meat his father brought to the den. Soon after, he witnessed his parents as they hunted a doe. “All this the cubs could see, and from it they learned.” Only weeks later, following the example of his parents, Lobo killed his first prey, the first of his litter to achieve such a goal. These experiences formed the groundwork for all deeds that made this white wolf legend.

Tragedy struck the small wolf pack the first summer of the pups’ lives. During an outing, they happened upon a “snapping, snarling, lashing” coyote. Unfortunately, his two sisters were caught among the brawl. Within the day, they fell sick and died to the horrible disease. This was the beginning of the Custer Wolf’s long relationship with death, a relationship that would become an all to frequent visitor in his tragic life.

Lobo’s ill-relations with man began when landowner and his cattle moved onto the family’s domain. With aching stomachs and shortened tempers, the pack rejoiced in the opportunity for an easy meal of fat beef. “They took great quantities of fresh meat” and fled before morning. For on the flat lands of the American Midwest, there is little to hide those who wish to be left unseen. When cattlemen found the decaying carcass lying next to a very large distinct paw print in the mud, he cried wolf. “The word had been spoken and a thousand years of hate-- an embodied resentment against an animal that was more a fictionalized symbol of destruction than an agent of it-- flowed free as the falling rain.”

Throughout history, man has sought his revenge, even against the innocent. Usually, revenge is had in blood and death, and this occasion was no exception. By feeding on the cattle of men, this family had made their presence known, a vital mistake, and in this instance, a deadly one. In the days following the feast of beef, the pack went about their daily lives. Following all habits as they normally would. Hunters tracked their movements, and learned where they would be at what time. This is all the information they needed to ensnare their prize. The trap was set, and all man needed to do now was wait for their trophy to walk into it. Lobo’s father was the unlucky victim. As the leader of his family unit, he made the ultimate sacrifice so they could run free. “For six terrified feet he traveled before he was thrown violently on his back by the stake and chain which now marked the last measure of freedom he would ever know.” Terrified, the she-wolf and her two male pups now had to make it on their own.
By the age of two, history repeated itself in the more horrific way in the Custer Wolf’s life. On a rainy afternoon after a belly-filling meal, Lobo and his two remaining pack mates huddled under a tree attempting to shelter themselves from the cold. Before senses could give them warning, “a thousand tons of beef began pouring down on them like a sharp-hooved avalanche”. All they could do was run. At full gait, the three wolves tore away from the stampede as fast as their bodies could carry them. Despite their efforts, they were separated. After the initial surge had passed, Lobo found himself alone without a familiar face in sight. For the first time in his life, the white wolf spent the night without parent or littermate.

Only hours later did he wake from his fitful sleep. From where he lay after escaping death, he traveled southwest, opposite the direction where the herd had originally come. Before he traveled a few dozen yards, he was brought up short. Before him lay his dead mother, mangled in the mud. He understood what lay before him, and “if nature had given him the power to cry, the ability to grieve, he would have flooded the prairie with his sorrow.” Though it was not this way. Nature has given the wolf a song more powerful than any tear that hath fall from a man’s face. Lobo lifted his head to the endless Midwestern skies “and called to the world his woe of magnificent proportions.”

Three long and lonely years passed after the death of his mother and separation from his brother. Lobo had transformed into the renegade men throughout the region remembered him for. Predatory costs on cattle were estimated to be in the millions and the Custer Wolf was said to be the most costly of them all. “Traps, guns, and poison enough to wipe out every wolf that ever walked the face of the earth were stock piled” in areas where the ghostly white wolf was known to roam. Some said that Lobo was seeking his own kind of revenge, but others believed he was the devil’s incarnate himself. Despite beliefs and superstitions, the wolf remains to be a simply misunderstood creature fighting to survive in a world with innumerable obstacles.

Through the years of the Custer Wolf’s reign, he was known to kill dozens of heads of cattle and barely consume a fraction of a single cow. It was “his love for this delicacy, as much as any other single trait he had developed down through the years, that caused him to be one of the most hated individual animals this land has ever known.”

It was estimated that in his last six years, Lobo destroyed in excess of $25,000 worth of livestock in South Dakota alone. Many ranchers gave up trying to have this particular wolf killed and began estimating his age, hoping for early natural death. It seemed at the time that he was impervious to all unnatural means of extermination. At the time, the bounty on an adult wolf ran as high as fifty dollars, or twenty dollars for a pup. At the peak of Lobo’s eventful career, “the price on his head was ten times normal-- $500.” Yet, despite all odds against him, no man, no contraption or chemical could outsmart the Custer Wolf. Or so it seemed.

Towards the end, the outlaw’s range began to shrink. This reduced radius of activity made it easier for bounty hunters and trappers to predict his next move. Inevitably, one man was able to stop Lobo in his tracks. A man by the name of H.P. Williams set the final trap along the riverbed where the untamable white wolf would pass one evening before a hunt. There the jaws waited patiently for the right moment.

When Williams returned the next morning, the legendary Custer Wolf “lay quietly staring in his direction.” As he approached, Lobo “sprang to his feet with such sudden, violent force that the trap’s stake was pulled free from the ground”. Despite the agonizing pain in his leg, the white wolf made one last ditch effort towards freedom, but the wooden post that once chained him to the ground, was now denying his freedom, lodged between two tree trunks. With all the passionate fury he had, he broke free of chain and snare, and was said to run another three miles with the trap still clamped to his leg until his final passing. “The Custer Wolf, the author of a thousand useless deaths, inheritor and ignorer of an ancient and quite different animal heritage”, now finally rests in peace.

Tales of the wild always fascinate today’s urbanized culture. The Custer Wolf is no exception. Comparable to the works of Jack London, this true story immortalizes one of God’s most majestic creatures. The Times Literary Supplement (London) puts it nicely, “…a powerful, moving and beautifully written tale, fit to stand comparison with White Fang or even Tarka, to the factual historical report. The telling is utterly devoid of sentimentality, forthright yet never crude, and the feelings and instincts of the animals are explicit in their actions.” Although aimed at an audience slightly younger than adult, a truly enjoyable read for those who enjoy insight into a world rarely seen today.

Roger Caras’s The Custer Wolf was a truly remarkable look into the misunderstood lives of the family-oriented wolf. Historically and biologically accurate, this story left nothing to be desired. Bold and honest, it called the reader back to a time when greed and money blurred the line between hero and renegade.

For more information on the real Custer wolf, check out these informative links provided by Chris Kirby:

Click here to read, US DEPT OF AG actual REPORT "World's Greatest Animal Criminal" CUSTER WOLF DEAD

PICTURE of the custer wolf.  With the picture was this caption: "Just hours after trapping and shooting the Custer Wolf in October of 1920, government hunter Harry Williams poses with its stiffened remains."

*Sarah Devonshire  is a student who is working on a major in Wildlife Biology.  Ms. Devonshire  has recently returned from a year of living in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado where she enjoyed her first snowfall.  Sarah is a truly talented artist.  She paints a wonderful signature howling Wolf.  She has also painted an outstanding portrait painting of our Alpha Male, Wa-ta-chee.  Sarah spends her free time with her soulmate, Matt and a rough and tumble Siberian Husky, named Koda.

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