Wolfman Russ: My Dad, The Lapsed Wolf Biologist

It’s 1993. I’m in 6th grade. I have a greasy face, a lone armpit hair and this newfound notion that every girl moves in slow motion, and there’s my dad, in front of my class, explaining with his hands and fingers how wolves meet and mate with each other.

Kids start squirming in their seats and then the old man proceeds to HOWL, in a timbre that’s more bleating lamb than wolf, while my head, covered in a hoodie is now buried in my hands.

My dad has made this lecture an annual tradition, one that has begun to feel like TMI at a time when your parents and school should be limited to the PTA. But here’s my dad, talking wolf sex in language that was on five second giggle delay as students deciphered words like coupling, prostrate and mount. A strange hobby these lessons in wolf behavior became, particularly for a guy whose day job was selling consumer electronics.

You see growing up I came to learn that before I was born, my dad was a wolf biologist, living in the wilds of rural Minnesota, tracking them, studying their mating patterns and generally sniffing a lot of their poop and pee.

While I never directly knew my dad as the field biologist — he was more the dude who sold TVs, microwaves and refrigerators with his two brothers — every so often hints of his lupine past would eke out. For instance, there was the skull room in our basement, which included taxidermied rodents, drawers of teeth and shelves of journals on the territorial behavior of timberwolves.

There were also these lectures to my elementary school class each year, as if the kids in my class were undergrads at the University of Minnesota rather than snickering 3rd, 4rd, 5th graders with ADHD.

And I remember the birds and the bees talk was literally about…the birds and the bees. More familiar female body parts were replaced with ornithological references and detailed descriptions of the stamen, the male fertilizing organ in a flower.

His path to the wolves began as a junior in college after a biology professor brought a pet wolf to class and after that moment, my old man got hooked.

He later worked on a wolf preserve that attracted an odd group of people –scientists, sure, but also people who liked the isolation, even the occasional oddball, such as the one guy who came specifically to make music out of wolf calls.

My mom, meanwhile was a flight attendant, and while they didn’t “meet cute” on a flight or anything like that, they met, they wed, I came into the picture and suddenly the romance with the wilderness gave way to more practical considerations of raising a child. The call of the wolf became the call of the mall, in a leafy Jersey suburb outside of the city.

I got a better taste of this other side of my dad when he took me to his old stomping grounds near Duluth. He said he wanted to show me something and guided me out to a field in the middle of the night. Without warning he leans back and starts howling. And because I’m 11 and this is my dad, it was as embarrassing as if we were in the middle of the goddamned Sam Goody at the Paramus Park mall.

But then a remarkable thing happened: the wolves started howling back. I freeze. I don’t know how to react. I look to my dad for a cue and he’s just nodding, listening. “A female”, he says, “and she’s in heat”.

As much as I tried to push away throughout my adolescence — become my own man! do what I want! —I began acting out in ways that harkened back to this earlier history. Weird things like a fondness for wrestling our family dogs, a predilection for biting my sisters and automatic waterworks at the end of Dances with Wolves when those monsters from the US cavalry try to shoot Two Socks, the wolf Kevin Costner befriends at his frontier post.

On my 30th birthday, my friends even wrote a song about me with several lines referencing wolf-like tendencies, both as a lone wolf and as someone who rolls with a pack and who keeps an occasional whiskery scruff.

And that guy who would record wolf noises up near my dad’s cabin in north MN? I even started listening to his music. He became a 6-time Grammy nominated new age musician Paul Winter, who puts together these annual Winter Solstice events in a cathedral space uptown, like a Pink Floyd laser light show with gigantic papier mache whales and extras from The Lion King dancing around in full animal regalia.

So last April my old man is turning 60 and I have an idea. We’re in the back room of this restaurant off Bowery and I stand up to give a toast, offering thanks to my dad and acknowledging his call of the wild. “And here to celebrate the lupine spirit”, I say, “is Mr. Paul Winter” who then bursts through a back door amid a plume of smoke playing “Howl-a-llujah”, a saxophone solo that’s Baker Street if Gerry Rafferty was replaced by a wolf.

And at the end of the song, in what was one of the purer, least ironic moments I had experienced with my family, I joined everyone in one long wolf howl, free of embarrassment and full of warmth for the man who goes by NJWolfdad@gmail.com.

This story was told at a recent event for The Moth, the acclaimed not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of live storytelling.

Co-Founder, CEO at Fatherly