Sounding the Old Wolf-Cry

This image is found in Record Unit 74 - National Zoological Park, Records, 1887-1966 - Box 287, SmitWhile researching my last blog post on the "mad wolf" who escaped from the National Zoo, I came across an old black-and-white photograph in the Smithsonian Institution Archives that caught my eye.  The image is grainy, but appears to show a man and a wolf, separated by a chain-link fence, holding each other's rapt attention while the man operates some sort of recorder. Unable to shake the curious image from my mind, I decided to dig through the city's various archives to see if I could learn more. 

It turns out the photograph was taken at the National Zoo around mid-afternoon on Wednesday, September 22, 1908. The man in the photograph was an employee at Droop & Sons, a musical supply store on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Several representatives from Belasco's Theater stood nearby, just outside the frame, impatiently puffing cigars. A reporter in attendance explained that they had all come "to collect sundry the howls of timber wolves on a phonograph record" (Record Unit 74, Box 287 - National Zoological Park, Records, 1887-1966)

Poster advertising The managers of the Belasco planned to use the recorded howls in their production of "The Wolf," a new melodrama scheduled to open in less than a week. Set in the remote Canadian frontier, the play had just completed a successful run at the Lyric Theater in New York City, where the show's creator, Eugene Walter, had devised an ingenious gimmick. He carried a phonograph machine to the Bronx Zoo, where he recorded the cries of seven hungry wolves, and then replayed the "blood-curdling wolf howls" during the most dramatic moment of the third act. By all accounts, the howls struck a chilling cord. "The effect is so realistic that the audience are said to hold their breath, expecting the animals to rush upon the stage," the trade literature gushed ("Real Wolf Howls," Edison Phonograph Monthly, June 1908, p. 11).

Cast bill of the Now that "The Wolf" was scheduled to play the Belasco in Washington, DC, Walter sought to repeat the same gimmick using wolves from the National Zoo. Although it required several trips to the Zoo's home at Rock Creek Park, managers from the Belasco eventually got a "true record of the howling of timber wolves." Local critics were suitably impressed, marveling that "audiences witnessing 'The Wolf' will have the satisfaction of knowing that the atmosphere of the Canadian backwoods is really something more than mechanical, and that the blood-curdling howls emanate from the throat of real wolves, transported to the stage via the record of the talking machine" ("Howl of Wolves via Phonograph," Washington Times, September 27, 1908, p. 2). Audiences ate it up, and so the same gimmick was repeated each time the production traveled to a new city.

Although it might not seem like it, the play's use of cutting-edge technology to augment the American theatergoing experience places "The Wolf" in the same grand tradition as other cultural milestones, like The Jazz Singer, The Wizard of Oz, and Toy Story.  In the case of "The Wolf," however, it wasn't just the technology that was significant. After all, the Edison Phonograph Machine had been around for more than 30 years, and had already reached millions of Americans thanks to the increasingly ubiquitous nickelodeon theater.

Instead, "The Wolf" signaled change of a different sort. For the first time in human history, hearing the wolf's howl did not portend immediate danger. Although wolves had once roamed all of North America, they had been largely extirpated from the eastern half of the United States by the time Walter's play debuted, and were quickly disappearing from the western half as well. Humanity might have lost the wolf's howl altogether had technology not intervened at just the right moment. The phonograph allowed us to salvage the animal's haunting lamentation, if not the animal itself, and redistribute its disembodied wail across its former range.

More than a century has passed since Eugene Walter's special effects first echoed through the Belasco Theater, and the wolf's howl is now more remote than ever. Speaking from my own experience, I've heard wolves howl in countless movies, but never in real life, never with my own two ears. Determined to change this fact, I recently paid several visits to the National Zoo in search of the genuine article. For weeks, my efforts proved futile. It turns out wolves are no more willing to howl on command today than they were in 1908.   

I had almost decided to give up when one of the zookeepers informed me that the wolves sometimes howl when they hear police sirens in the distance. I decided to give it one last shot. With the zookeepers' assistance (thanks Rebecca Miller and Christina Castiglioni!), I played recorded police sirens over the park's public address system early one morning, and documented the wolves' reactions on my own piece of cutting-edge technology (an iPhone 4). One of the wolves on the Zoo's American Trail paid us no mind, but the other, a nine-year-old female named Crystal, was immediately curious.

You can watch her response in this video.

The quality is not great, but if you ignore the ambient static and the canned sirens, you can clearly discern the same sonorous howl that first thrilled theatergoers more than a century ago (particularly around the 0:50 mark). What's less clear is whether a howl that emanates from a hand-raised wolf behind a chain-link fence in a concrete jungle still counts as the "call of the wild" in any sense of the phrase. But that's for another blog post.

Related Resources

  • Since 1887, the Smithsonian has hosted more than a hundred gray wolves, including the two currently on display at the Rock Creek Campus. 
  • Check out Luis Jiménez's beautiful painting, Howl, in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which captures the wolf's emotive cry better than most photographs.
  • Biologist Gudrun Pflueger has spent a lifetime studying gray wolves and is now among the world's foremost authorities. Later this month, the Smithsonian Channel will air a new documentary about her remarkable life.  If you can't wait that long, you can always head over to the Smithsonian's YouTube channel, where Dr. Pflueger will teach you how to howl like a wolf.
  • Some of you may have noticed that the title of my blog is drawn from Jack London's remarkable classic, The Call of the Wild (1903). Fans of the author can check out this portrait held at the National Portrait Gallery to see what he looked like just before he made it big.

Related Collections

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.