09/05/2013 11:26 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

Wolf Song

Once upon a time, when I first fell into depression, I was asked to go along to a farm out West where an animal caught in a coyote trap lay in a cage awaiting identification. He was so big, they said, too big to be a coyote or a dog. Could he be an abandoned wolf-dog pet or was he actually a wolf?

As it turned out he was a wolf. The man from the wildlife division said so immediately upon seeing him. And when it was my turn to move close to the bars to kneel in front of him, I gasped. I knew him; I would have known him anywhere. He had come to meet me from my dreams, from the place deep inside my heart that still believed in heaven; he was waiting for me across the span of countless miles and many years. I looked up above me at the sky and below me at my feet. At just this point where longitude and latitude collide, our paths had crossed.

For a long time I had been a keeper of animals at an urban zoo. Daily I beheld sinuous tigers swimming in deep pools, had been mesmerized by the russet coats of jaguars emblazoned in rosettes, spoken sign language with a silverback gorilla and later, after he died, sat like next of kin to grieve with his mate, fed spangled fish to a rare river dolphin and rubbed down the stony skins of white rhinoceros with warm oil. I had bottle-fed the fawns of does who had been hit on the highway, snuggled in a sleeping bag with a zebra foal born too soon and watched emus dancing in the rain. I had even held hours-old red wolf pups in my hands still slick from their mother's tongue, ears and eyes sealed shut, little hearts beating fast. I had been lucky and I knew it.

But I had never in all those years, studying that wide array of animals, seen anything like the effulgence emanating from that wolf's eyes. Not of this earth, ethereal, effervescent. The radiance seethed and shone, deep pulsating emerald. Like jewels in sunlight. Stained glass in a church. He never blinked. In his unwavering gaze I saw all of God's creation -- the spines and spires of mountain ranges, all the blue rivers receiving rain from the sky and rushing to the sea and the sea accepting the gifts of silt and grit. I saw snow falling slowly from smoky clouds, the skeletons of old trees spare, bare and black in winter, fields of wildflowers caught in the throes of spring winds, the conflagration that is autumn. And lightning igniting like fireworks in a summer squall.

This animal had been caught by only a toe. The man who set the trap had called authorities. The wolf offered no resistance, allowed a noose to be lowered around his neck, allowed himself to be led to the box in the back of the truck and taken to this place like a prisoner of war. Now he lay there grizzled grey, not moving, like a statue guarding a gravesite. The pads of his feet were dirty and worn like frayed fabric. He did not speak, he did not struggle. Or eat or drink. Yet I did not sense any fear festering in him nor did his breath on my arm make goose bumps as he lay there at the mercy of the whim of man. Urgent, high-level meetings were called quickly to discuss this crisis. A wolf had not been seen in this state for seventy years.

He was incarcerated; he could be executed. I understood his dire plight even as I knew the severity of my own. We were both trapped -- his body caged against the fervent freedom that he craved, against the pull of full moon and high tide, the imperatives of dusk and dawn, the cascade of seasons as the earth spins on its axis, the call of deer and elk herds to be culled. And my mind was mired in the quicksand of sorrow. When we parted ways only an hour later I was not the same person who had arrived on the scene. I saw myself reflected in those eyes, felt as though I had come home to myself. I took with me a little bit of his soul, a whole lot of that light.

After his long-distance exodus, the decision came down deeming him unwelcome there. He was tranquilized, tagged, weighed, measured and radio-collared before being released into the Yellowstone wilderness from whence he came. Some had wanted him killed, others wanted to kill him. As a biologist, I was not naive about his potential power , his hunting prowess, the strength of his jaws, the plans he might have to bring down a cow or a sheep. But I also knew that into his elemental nature was sewn a deep reserve and shyness that asked him to stay away from man and his activities.

Sometimes my sadness makes me cynical, but I cannot be cynical about the wolf. Six years after I met him on that far-away farm, he is gone, shot a few days after the delisting of his species from endangered status. That irony is not lost on me. I can't help thinking his death was born of a kind of bigotry fueled by fear and misunderstanding. What I am mourning is the magic spell that he cast, a wild magic that is ebbing away each passing year as housing developments, medical centers, strip malls and business complexes claim the land. I never got to hear him sing, but on a starry evening just after dusk, people I know told me they did hear him, just days before he died.

And as I sit here writing his eulogy, this world is a much less beautiful place.