Let’s talk about wolves. Since European settlers arrived in what would become North America, the wolf has been systematically eradicated. California, specifically, has only one known wild wolf pack since the half-dozen or so members of the Shasta Pack mysteriously disappeared this year. Whether it’s folktales calling wolves the surrogate of the devil or embellished historical accounts of wolves mercilessly slaughtering calves, these stories have circulated for centuries to justify the extermination of most of the country’s wolves. All this despite the absence of a single cited non-rabies wolf-on-human attack in North America in all that time. And yes, the battle between Liam Neeson versus wolves in The Grey is completely implausible.
Wolves, it seems, are mostly misunderstood. Equally misunderstood in American culture is the war veteran. In recent years, talk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has finally made its way to the mainstream, but there’s a gaping chasm between talk and actually understanding how and where vets fit into our society postcombat; consider that 22 vets take their own lives every day in this country.
But in Frazier Park, just a 90-minute drive up into the mountains from Los Angeles, Matthew Simmons has made the vital connection between the woes of the wolf and those of the war veteran. On the 3,000-acre wilderness property of Lockwood Animal Rescue Center (LARC), Simmons has taken in hurt, abandoned and exploited captive wolves and wolf-dog hybrids and, in doing so, realized he may have found a way to help war vets heal, too.
As caught in filmmaker Riccardo Ferraris’ new documentary The War in Between, Simmons, a Navy vet himself, uses LARC as a mutual rehabilitation center. Men and women from all over apply for this program, where they will work every day feeding and tending to the wolves while developing relationships with the animals. In the film, Ferraris shows Simmons reading through just a sampling of emails from prospective candidates — many of whom are homeless — and each letter is heartbreaking.
“Someone applying for a program like this, it’s the last chance,” Ferraris says. “They already went to a psychologist, to PTSD classes, took drugs. There’s no other reason for anyone to apply to a program like this in the middle of nowhere with extreme weather conditions unless there are no other choices.”
The film mainly follows two veterans: Jim, who’s nearing the end of his time at LARC, and Juan, who has just arrived. Ferraris says Simmons warned him that it would be very difficult to get any of the residents to open up about their trauma, let alone on camera. But Ferraris put in the time, cultivating friendships with the men. On a long car ride back to Los Angeles, Jim opened up to Ferraris about his suicide attempts and, on camera, he describes the tears streaming down his gun barrel as he was seconds away from taking his own life.
With Juan, Ferraris had to use the same techniques Simmons teaches to the vets working with the wolves: You have to be patient and let them come to you. “I spent so much time alongside Juan and he never ever even said hello to me for months,” Ferraris says. “But slowly, we started to approach each other.”
The director’s experience with Juan mirrors that of the veteran’s experience with the wolves. As Simmons says, only one wolf will bond with one of the vets. And in his first days, Juan is shown quietly attempting to initiate an affectionate friendship with the animals, searching out his “one.” It’s months before one of the creatures nuzzles his snout into Juan’s hands. Remember, these wolves also have PTSD, often from the ways humans have treated them in the past.
Ferraris says that before he began filming, he had no idea wolves were being bred in captivity for roadside attractions and hunting — basically torture. Simmons recounts one wolf he rescued that was testing IED, booby-trap bombs before her owners planned to kill her. He describes her bloodied paws and broken spirit, but the wolf we see today in Ferraris’ film is rambunctious and happy, begging for belly rubs. The director juxtaposes these uplifting beats of recovery with a difficult outing to Montana, where Jim and Juan are researching illegal wolf trapping.
Ferraris reserves judgment as he records the thoughts of wolf hunters. One swears the wolves are pure evil because he once saw them slaughter a herd of elk and move on, which is enough evidence for him to set vicious traps and murder whole packs. These justifications aren’t new. In every state where wolves live, ranchers and hunters demonize the animals, despite so much evidence to the contrary. Wolves are responsible for thinning herds of their weak so herbivores don’t overgraze on the land. Wolves often will return again and again to the same kill to feed for weeks, sometimes months, straight. What they don’t eat is offered up to the scavenging animals that depend on the wolf for their meals.
The positive side of Juan and Jim’s journey to Montana is that they also see their first wolf in the wild. The experience is almost too much for Juan to take. He peers through the tranquilizer rifle’s viewfinder at his target, who lopes across the snowscape, unaware anyone’s watching him. In a different time, Juan, a former sniper, would be shooting to kill, but on this day, he is duty bound to the wolf to help it live. It’s clear this gives Juan a new kind of confidence, a reason to be. And that’s the whole point of Simmons’ program, which proves with each new graduate to be a success — John now has a full-time job and a life he sees as worth living.
Like war veterans, wolves exist nearly everywhere on Earth. Writers like Barry Lopez, R.D. Lawrence and Rick McIntyre have long intimated that how a society treats its wolves is indicative of how it will treat its most vulnerable citizens, and in the United States, this theory holds true, especially for veterans who feel lost, forgotten or demonized. Ferraris says he wanted to avoid making any political statements in this film and simply focus on the relationship between human and animal, but the political is inherent in this tale. He tells me he’s been pitching the story of this documentary to film festivals, and he’s had a difficult time explaining it all in a single sentence.
“In the end, I decided I would tell them, ‘It’s a love story,’” he says. “Between wolves and men.”