Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy is about many things but at the heart of the story and coloring so many things that happen is the reintroduction of wolves into an area in the Scottish Highlands. I remember reading something years ago about such a reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. As I recall, after a shaky start, that project has been successful, and in this novel, that project is referred to as the model these three biologists and one veterinarian are using. I was not aware of how important wolves are to the ecology of an area.
At a meeting in the school auditorium, one of the biologists tries to show a crowd of mostly sheep farmers how important wolves are. He tells them that predators are critical to the ecosystem, and it has been hundreds of years since wolves were hunted to extinction, a huge blunder. “Apex predators” like wolves are so necessary. He goes on to say, “With their return the landscape will change for the better-more habitats for wildlife will be created, soil health increased, flood waters reduced, carbon emissions captured. Animals of all shapes and sizes will return to these lands.” This information is met initially with silence with faces somewhere between “pissed off, bored and plainly confused.” But anger is not far behind. These sheep farmers immediately have visions of these wolves attacking their sheep or even attacking humans which is unlikely.
The central characters, Inti and Aggie, are twins. Aggie has suffered severe trauma leaving Inti to do a lot of caretaking. Inti has her own issues because she has an unusual neurological condition called mirror-touch synesthesia. If she sees people and sometimes even animals experiencing pain or pleasure, for just a moment she becomes them and feels what they are feeling. It’s a little like all of us who cringe when we see someone in pain because we are “hardwired for empathy.” It’s a big problem for Inti if she can’t keep her distance from the wolves.
As you can guess, the conflict escalates between the farmers and the scientists. The scientists can understand the farmers’ concern, but are convinced and try to convince others that the animals and people and sheep can coexist because they know it has been done successfully elsewhere. A fascinating part of this novel is how they are reintroducing the wolves, and the importance of tracking their movements carefully. Will they successfully form packs and breed? But it is also a human story of the ways that humans can hurt one another, sometimes being intentionally cruel.
I really enjoyed this book in spite of the fact that there were places that made my heart ache for the wolves as well as the people.