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“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.