Reality TV: A Couple's Quest to Live With Wolves

Perhaps you've heard of Shaun Ellis before. For 21 years, the British wolf expert has been living among wolves—howling, licking and snarling as one of them, both in the wild and in captivity, in the name of research. He spent seven years on an Indian reservation near Yellowstone National Park studying their distinctive howls, and ultimately publishing a book on the topic, "The Wolf Talk." Later, he was the subject of a National Geographic television special, which documented his experience of raising a trio of cubs abandoned at birth, teaching them how to howl and hunt, and ultimately integrating them into a local pack.

Today, a wild-haired Ellis lives in a tiny trailer on the edge of the Combe Martin Wildlife & Dinosaur Park in North Devon, England, home to a 20-acre wolf sanctuary where he has set up camp. He spends days at a time with the park's resident wolf pack—his "family," he calls them—and for the past two years, he has been training his fiancée, the blond and blue-eyed Helen Jeffs, to become one of them. This means giving up pastries—Jeffs's favorite—to feast on raw meat, kidneys and intestines; and hoping that playful romping with the wolves doesn't get too rough (Ellis recently suffered a concussion). It also means nights spent outside, growling and biting to earn respect, and a whole lot of broken nails (Jeffs still hasn't stopped getting them done). All along the way, the couple is being filmed as part of a new reality series, "Living With the Wolfman," which premieres this week in the United States, on Animal Planet.

Jeffs, 42, is a combination of average gal and wolf enthusiast: When she met Ellis, 44, she was working in a local nursery school, living in a three-bedroom house and volunteering at the wildlife sanctuary where Ellis is the resident wolf expert. On weekends, she did ordinary things: hanging out with friends, getting her nails done and baking her favorite pound cake—lemon drizzle. But for the first six months of their relationship, Jeffs and Ellis communicated with each other by howling—yes, howling—across a two and a half mile valley, from Jeffs's home to where Ellis was living with his wolves.

The couple knows their behavior sounds crazy, even for a couple in love. "Five years ago, the idea that I'd be infiltrating a wolf pack wouldn't have occurred to me in my wildest dreams," jokes Jeffs over coffee and pastries—a rare treat—during a recent trip to Manhattan. But both she and Ellis are as passionate about wolves as they are about each other (they were preparing Jeffs for integration long before they were approached by the Animal Planet television network) and hope their research will help show people that human and wolf can coexist peacefully. The goal, assuming Jeffs is accepted into the pack, says Ellis, is to live with the wolves virtually 24-7, with Jeffs earning her keep as caretaker to a new group of cubs—with the help of the pack's alpha female, Cheyenne—feeding and teaching them until they can care for themselves. "If you want to speak for the creature, you have to live as one," says Ellis, who is also the coauthor of the 2005 book "Spirit of the Wolf". "Helen and I are not wolves, but we're like interpreters between both worlds. It's a different way of looking at how we can learn from these animals."

Being an interpreter isn't always as easy as it may look on television, and Ellis has many a scar to prove it. His recent concussion happened when one of the "guys," as he calls his furry friends, clamped down on the back of his neck, a playful move among wolves. Another time, Ellis accidentally ate another wolf's food, and before he could swallow, he was body-slammed, his entire face ending up clenched between that wolf's jaws, with the animal applying just enough pressure to get his point across. "That experience is one of thousands," Ellis says.

For most people, the inevitable next question is, why do it? In one episode of the reality series, Jeffs must chew up raw meat and let the cubs nibble it directly from her mouth. She succeeds, but emerges from the session bloodied and shaken, with gashes to her lips and a chunk missing from her tongue. "It can be scary, and accidents do happen," she says. "But these creatures are extremely balanced. As long as you can understand how they communicate, you'll be safe."

An easy comparison for the pair is to Timothy Treadwell, the longtime bear activist who lived with Alaskan grizzlies until his ursine friends turned on him in 2003, killing and partially ingesting both him and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. (Treadwell was the subject of the 2005 Werner Herzog documentary "Grizzly Man.") Wolf attacks on humans are rare, but not unheard of: In 1996, a 24-year-old wolf caretaker died after being attacked by five wolves at an Ontario wildlife reserve. In 2006, an 8-year-old Russian boy died after reaching through a zoo fence to pet a captive wolf; the wolf clamped onto his arm, and another seized his leg. A lot can be learned from living with animals in the wild, says Charles Snowdon, a professor of psychology and zoology at the University of Wisconsin, who spent time studying monkeys in the Amazon. But, he adds, it's "always risky."

Psychologists say the drive to live among wild beasts can come from a combination of factors. For some, it's adventurism, the same thrill-seeking that compels people to jump out of planes or race cars. For others, animals provide a sense of community that's sometimes easier than contact with other humans, partly because it's lacking in judgment. Some psychologists have speculated that humans have a kind of genetically-based affinity to animals, while other people may feel a kind of spiritual connection—the idea that we, as humans, are just a small part of the vast natural landscape. "There's not just a single motivation to these types of things, and there's really not a lot of research about how this affects people," says Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and the chair of environmental studies at the College of Wooster, in Ohio. "Some people, like [Treadwell], develop an unrealistic sense of how they're special—the idea that other people don't understand the animals, but they do. But I think different people respond in different ways."

Ellis certainly understands these wolves in a way that most others don't: All you have to do is tune in to the show to see it. But his methods are unconventional, to say the least. He doesn't have a college degree, and he hasn't published any scholarly research. His training consists of a field internship with the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho; and service in the British armed forces, where he received the highest level of dog training. That may all be impressive, but doesn't amount to science, say some researchers. "I don't denigrate adventure," says Peter Suedfeld, an environmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. "But if you're having fun out in the wilderness playing with your wolf pups, that's different than scientific research. Nobody who really studies an animal is going to become one of the family."

Chuck Bartlebaugh, the founder and director of the Center for Wildlife Information, in Missoula, Mont., would go so far as to say that Ellis' methods could be downright negligent. Bartlebaugh knew Treadwell well. And though, he says, the man had a good heart, his work was "irresponsible," perpetuating the notion that humans and wild animals can coexist. His concern with Ellis lies not with his methods themselves, but whether putting them on television is meaningful for the public. "Since 'Grizzly Man,' we've seen cases in Montana of people feeding bears in their backyards, people getting out of their cars at Yellowstone and wanting to take pictures with their cell phones," Bartlebaugh says. "The real joy of our national parks is to look at these great treasures as something wild. But seeing this kind of behavior creates a false sense of security and sometimes even encourages people to duplicate it."

Neither Ellis nor Jeffs endorses anyone imitating their lifestyle, and as far as their reality show is concerned, they make an effort to show both the good and the bad. The show itself is suspenseful and fun, and the contrast between the couple's home and outdoor life is at times hilarious. (Jeffs often reminisces about how much she misses eating lemon-drizzle cake.) It also shows the more intense moments: Jeffs being overcome by emotion—a combination of pride and relief—after her first trip inside the sanctuary. It's a wild love story. With an even wilder cast.

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