First we will name him, because OR-93 is too impersonal, and there is a mythic quality to this creature’s quest for safe haven and a mate that resonates deep inside us.
We shall call him Seeker.
He should have an avatar, too—nothing too cutesy, because he is regal, this young wolf easing into his birthright as one of the continent’s alpha predators. On the other hand, this is your story, too, so you can make him big-eyed and plush and anime if you wish. Seeker is all of us. He speaks to a vanquished part of ourselves. In following his saga, we see the world through his eyes. We howl with him and run all night. We, too, are driven by inchoate urges and bewildered by this toxic landscape that threatens our extinction. We, too, have pined for the wild, snouted for a mate, longed for a pack, sought a safe place to raise our young.
Seeker holds up a mirror and reminds us of elemental truths and what matters.
And he reminds us that once upon a time, before we lost our way, we, too, were on a quest. It is a memory that is painful for us, this glow of a lost California Eden, so we put it to the side.
Such a thing is easier to do with screens.
For all but a handful of wildlife biologists, Seeker was a creature who only resided inside a screen.
There, he lives eternally.
Here is Seeker lying in a meadow, staring straight at the camera, with his long muzzle, pointed ears, skinny adolescent body, and steadfast eyes that grip ours eerily, even through the lens.
Here are paw prints, scat, small discarded carcasses.
Here are other candid wildlife poses from cameras he triggered on his one-year journey south.
We drop pins, track his progress.
We hold our breath as we google him: gray wolf California.
Is he still alive? Where is he now? Has he found a mate from a remote pack no one knew existed? Are there pups? Why did his collar stop transmitting?
Ultimately, Seeker is a creature trapped in a screen and in our imaginations as much as by the reality of modern civilization. His fate depends more on the vagaries and petty cruelties of humans than on his ample intelligence and cunning. All we can do is pray he won’t be hit by a truck, shot by hunters or ranchers, sickened by eating rodenticide traveling up the food chain.
Our fears are not unwarranted, because Seeker is not nearly as adaptive as his smaller cousin, the coyote, and has no way to level up, as the gamers say. He doesn’t reproduce as often, since usually only the dominant wolf-pack female breeds each year. His pack needs more than 50 miles of territory to roam, while coyotes need as little as 2. Most important, he hasn’t learned to live alongside humans and cars. He is bigger, more visible. More of a threat, like pumas.
But pumas are reclusive, slinky, feline, nocturnal. In another reality, Seeker might have become an icon like P-22. Remember that photo of Los Angeles’s most famous puma lit up like a movie star against the backdrop of the Hollywood sign? It was magnificent. So perfect it could have been fake. Because how could a mountain lion live in Griffith Park, in the middle of the city?
And now a gray wolf has left his pack near Mount Hood in Oregon and made his way thousands of miles, down to Southern California, the first of his kind in more than a century to do so? It’s like a reality show, these wolf sightings. Or a Blair Witch–type project in which a wandering wolf is concocted by cynical marketeers to gin up reader engagement and clicks and eventually sell us a new video game. Be the wolf! Escape the perils of modern life! Vanquish predators!
And a more subtle message: We can successfully live with nature. No species extinction here. Pat yourselves on the back, humanity. Now let’s approve some more mega-development on the last of our open lands.
For one year, Seeker roamed through real and virtual space, a saga we followed to sate our wanderlust while stuck at home during the pandemic. Seeker was Odysseus. He was a Joseph Campbell hero. On our screens, Seeker was safe, frozen by cameras in a time that was already past. In fact, it was easier to imagine him as a virtual wolf. None of those messy emotions. If he died, he’d respawn and start again.
This fall, cameras spotted Seeker near Lockwood Valley in Ventura County and near Mount Pinos in Kern County. Maybe he was headed to a wolf-dog sanctuary, drawn by the pheromones of potential mates.
If this were a different kind of story, a careless keeper would leave a cage door ajar one night, and Seeker would spring his mate loose and lead her to freedom. See them running together as the moonlight turns their fur silver. At first, Seeker’s mate wouldn’t understand how to be wild, but Seeker would teach her. They’d find some mountains and raise Southern California’s first wolf pack in 100 years.
Some wildlife advocates speculated that Seeker was headed for the almost 300,000-acre wilderness of Tejon Ranch, the largest privately owned parcel in all of California. But in 2012, the Tejon Ranch Company was fined $136,500 for illegally killing at least 11 mountain lions to prevent them from competing with the trophy hunters who visit the ranch’s private hunt club to shoot wild game.
Maybe Tejon Ranch wasn’t so safe for Seeker either.
Maybe, despite our admiration, we don’t want the actual living wolf—with his long, sharp teeth, perceived penchant for livestock, and predator nature. We want a wild symbol, but we don’t want to worry about him eating sheep, pets, children. We want him street-smart enough to dodge cars on freeways and to stay within the limits of shrinking wilderness corridors. We want him defanged and two-dimensional. A sports team logo. A cartoon. A series of pop songs and videos. Images we can manipulate for profit and ego.
But part of us also wants to hear his howls at night from the safety of our well-lit homes. We want to see him silhouetted against the distant mountains at sunset, as we reach the trailhead and climb into our cars.
We want this wild creature to accommodate us.
We’re the alpha predator, after all. Not him.
Seeker’s one-year quest ended in November when he was hit by a vehicle off I-5 in the Kern County town of Lebec, only 65 miles north of L.A.
Did the driver know he was a wild animal? Did he jump out or just shift gears and carry on?
Maybe he was a trucker, hurrying to the Port of Los Angeles to pick up a container to alleviate our supply-chain crisis.
Well, this is a crisis, too.
It’s possible Seeker didn’t die immediately. Maybe he dragged himself off to the side of the road. Or maybe someone else did. No cameras captured his last moments.
This is where the video game stutters and freezes, the screen goes blank. It’s an unrealistic ending, because no game devs would create such a downer.
But it’s the most realistic ending for us in real life, and a cautionary tale.
The odyssey of Seeker the young gray wolf stirred us. We rooted for him to succeed and dreaded the dangers he faced. Part of us died with him. The thing with feathers. Or in this case, silver-tipped fur. But we will remember you, Seeker. Your story will live with us for a very long time.•