The wild wolf has always been the stuff of legends: the villain of Red Riding Hood, the imminent danger of Aesop’s fables, and one of the planet’s deadliest predators. It is rare that we are presented with a view of these animals that does not automatically buy into these well-worn tropes. The central conceit of Snow Wolf Family and Me, presented by wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan, is to challenge these pre-conceived ideas. Although he has filmed these animals in the past, Buchanan claims to have always been fascinated by wolves. As a child I too was borderline obsessed with the creatures – I read about them, drew pictures of them, watched many documentaries much like Buchanan’s – but I also remember the deep sense of fear instilled in me when one particularly large alpha male directed his steely gaze my way at a safari park. In this vein I was as equally ‘unnerved’ as Buchanan was when the rather hungry Arctic wolf pack he was studying started to circle his camp.
The concept of the series is the same as Buchanan’s previous outings featuring black bears and polar bears. Buchanan arrives on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic for the spring season and camps opposite a pack of Arctic wolves who have never seen people before with the hope of getting as close to them as possible. This in itself adds an element of danger to Buchanan’s mission from the very beginning (he is the first to admit that “they might think I’m their next meal”), but luckily his curiosity leads him to venture outside his small camp almost from day one. The pace of the show picks up immediately when Buchanan is faced by a large female wolf, who seems unthreatened by his presence before stalking away. From then on we get a pretty much day-by-day account of Buchanan’s three-week stay with the pack, charting his various attempts to win their trust.
The characterisation of each pack member is not only endearing but also appropriate for the tone of the show. By introducing us to alpha female and new mother ‘Luna’, alpha male ‘Romulus’ and the “troublesome teen” ‘Scruffy’, Buchanan provides us with a basic insight into how the pack functions, allowing for some general education that balances nicely with the show’s varied cute, terrifying, and funny moments. The footage of the yearling wolves cleverly dismantling Buchanan’s electric fence and stealing his equipment was enjoyable to see, as was the moment that Buchanan realised he had been accepted into the wolves’ circle – when they had urinated on all of his belongings.
Of course, in recent years viewers have been almost spoilt for choice when it comes to beautifully-filmed wildlife shows. The BBC has set expectations high following their own successes in this field, but Buchanan’s offering does not disappoint. The footage taken by the rock-crawler of the four-week-old pups emerging from the den was quite simply breath-taking, whilst the later scene which saw Buchanan stuck in the middle of a musk-ox and wolf pack showdown was immensely gripping to watch. Another highlight is Buchanan’s fraught tête-à-tête with ‘Scruffy’ over a stolen camping stool. Interspersed with these scenes are brief but well-shot filler sequences featuring the Arctic’s other inhabitants, from foxes to hare. It is to the programme’s credit that the bleak landscape comes across so beautifully on screen.
This is a very authentic, interesting, and at times exciting hour of television. Buchanan has so far succeeded in proving that wolves do deserve better press than they generally get. Now the introductions are out of the way the next episodes will hopefully include more of the educational sections that worked so well in this first hour (it would be nice to see more of Buchanan’s attempts to communicate with the pack, for instance). Overall this episode is a strong introduction to what looks to be an intriguing series of programmes.