Reflections on Takaya’s legacy on the one-year anniversary of his death.
Takaya. Photo by Cheryl Alexander
ONE YEAR AGO, on March 24, 2020, the famous sea-wolf known as Takaya was shot to death by a cougar hunter.
It would be easy to blame this individual hunter for Takaya’s death. But in reality, the blame for the death of Takaya—and thousands of wolves like him—lies with the cultural attitudes and policies that informed the hunter’s choice to pull the trigger.
Although Takaya was a famous wolf, trusting and well-loved by humans, the blame for Takaya’s death should not be attributed to this. Lots of wolves are shot to death recreationally—in BC last year, over 1200 wolves were killed by hunters. None of those wolves were as well-loved as Takaya, as far as I know (although, like Takaya, each wolf is an individual with intrinsic value and their own story). Something other than love is leading to these fatal interactions between wolves and humans with guns.
The hunter chose to kill Takaya on sight, for no reason other than that he was a wolf. Why do government policies encourage hunters to kill wolves? Upon what basis are these decisions made?
A friend of the cougar hunter who killed Takaya provided some insight into their perspective in the following Instagram comment: “I’ve spoken with the authorities and the lady shot him because it was a management choice. Hunters are encouraged to kill predators when seen.”
It is concerning that individual hunters can legally use lethal control to manipulate the delicate balance of predators and prey.
Takaya’s story drew attention to two main problems with the existing wildlife management regime in BC.
First, individual hunters and trappers have the power to kill wolves anytime, anywhere, without accountability or oversight. No special license is required to kill a wolf, and there is no limit on the number of wolves that a hunter may trap. This is problematic for scientific and ethical reasons—wolves are not only apex predators, which are essential for healthy ecosystems, but also individuals who have a right to live. Furthermore, according to the Criminal Code of Canada, people are guilty of an indictable criminal offence when they willfully cause unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal.
Second, most predators who wander into proximity with humans are killed rather than relocated. Takaya was given a chance at relocation only because of his fame. So, would he have a good chance of survival in the area where he was relocated?
Takaya. Photo by Cheryl Alexander
To explore this question, and see how wildlife management policies led to Takaya’s death, let’s go back to the two months before Takaya was shot.
After leaving his Discovery Island home in late January 2020, he had been captured in the heart of James Bay, tranquilized and relocated to the Gordon River drainage just east of Port Renfrew. The Conservation Service said that he left his small island home for a reason and therefore would not be returned to it. What reason? We will likely never know, but it is possible that it was also an accidental swim, or perhaps he intended to return after a brief foray but got disoriented in the city. Wouldn’t it have been most kind to have returned him to his home to see if that solved the issue? At least it was clear that he could survive there.
But that didn’t happen. After being sedated and kept in a barrel overnight, Takaya was released, disoriented and half-drugged, then staggered off down a logging road. As Takaya roamed the rainforest outside of Port Renfrew, he had to really adapt and fight to stay alive. He was released into an unfamiliar environment—an ancient coastal temperate rainforest rather than the semi-arid arbutus woodland, Garry oak meadows and coastal bluff ecosystems of his islands. There he had hunted marine mammals along the shoreline. In his new rainforest environment, available prey mostly consisted of large terrestrial mammals (elk and deer), but not so many seals. Hunting deer and elk would be a difficult challenge for an aging lone wolf.
Another big challenge for Takaya was to navigate the presence of at least two wolf packs in the area. A wolf pack will not easily accept an older, solitary male wolf and would likely have killed Takaya.
And then, within a couple days, a rainstorm of “biblical proportions” hit, resulting in intense flooding in the river systems on the southern island with massive trees careening down the Gordon and San Juan River drainages. Takaya had no experience with rivers or log jams in his islands and must have wondered what was happening.
Sometime during this period, Takaya had a serious accident that resulted in ten broken ribs along one side of his body (discovered upon autopsy). In speaking with the provincial wildlife veterinarian, it seemed that a likely explanation for the injury was that Takaya had been swept into some logs while trying to navigate a fast-flowing river. This injury must have been excruciating and would have made it difficult for him to hunt and fend for himself. Yet, miraculously, he survived and thrived. A necropsy performed after his death would show that his ribs were healing and that he was otherwise healthy and well-fed, as evidenced by the freshly killed beaver found in his stomach.
Although the Conservation Service had placed him into the midst of many dangers, at a particularly bad time, Takaya managed to survive and thrive—as a self-sufficient wild wolf should.
He also maintained his customary peaceful approach towards humans and dogs. The road running along the river was frequented by locals who walked or ran their dogs there. Takaya had lived for eight years without the company or physical contact with others of his kind. It is therefore perhaps understandable that he was curious and willing to interact peacefully with some of these dogs. After all, he had learned to trust that people meant him no harm during the eight years in the islands. He had learned the art of peaceful coexistence.
By early March, it seemed that Takaya was well enough to travel. Perhaps he decided to head back to his islands, the only home he knew. The first part of his journey led him at least 50 kilometres west along the coast towards the city, getting as far as Sooke in mid-March. Then, for some reason he turned back. My guess is that he encountered the well-marked territorial boundaries of the wolves living near Sooke. A wolf, especially a lone wolf, will avoid entering areas controlled by other wolves. It is dangerous.
And so, Takaya ended up back in Port Renfrew by March 21. On March 22, Takaya again set out on the second part of his journey, this time east towards Shawnigan Lake, a direct route that might have taken him back to the islands off of Oak Bay. On March 24, after travelling 50 kilometres, he rose up out of a culverted ditch to observe cougar hunters who were putting their dogs back into the truck. Curious, Takaya stood watching about 15 metres away. An easy shot. The hunter raised a gun and fired.
Takaya was killed by a bullet from a hunter’s gun and by the culture and policies that had led the hunter to kill. Takaya was punished for being a wolf who had not learned to fear humans.
I have been accused of encroaching on the wolf’s space, teaching him to be comfortable around all humans and taking away his wildness. I adamantly deny this accusation. Although he learned to trust me, he remained a wild wolf, and avoided most of the other humans who visited his chosen territory. If people ever came too close, he would either move into the woods or he would give a clear warning howl to back off. He lived inconspicuously, and most people visiting the islands never even saw Takaya. When I saw Takaya, I always kept a respectful distance. I was generally in my boat and was simply observing and quietly witnessing the life of the wolf who had come to realize that I wasn’t a threat to him. He never exhibited discomfort or distress in my presence. I advocated for his protection when necessary. Sometimes I asked people to stay further away from him.
I have also been accused of harassing the wolf, causing him to flee the islands. I deny this accusation as well. Over time, Takaya learned that I was not a danger to him. Once or twice, Takaya approached me when I was in the islands, and sometimes he even slept and groomed himself in my presence—behaviours that he would not have displayed if he had felt harassed. These behaviours also do not suggest that he was habituated. As renowned wolf expert Dr Gordon Haber noted, “the fear wolves show toward people is a realized fear, not a natural fear—one born of persecution.”
Furthermore, when he left the islands in January 2020, I had not been to the islands for three months. He had been three months out in the islands with likely no contact with any other sentient being. Storm after winter storm would have kept all recreational boaters away. Takaya appeared on one of my trail cameras just a day before being seen in Victoria. He looked healthy and was patrolling his territory as he normally did. But maybe he just finally needed some action or some company.
Takaya. Photo by Cheryl Alexander
It should not be the animal who takes the blame for learning to live with people. In fact, a concerted effort to coexist with wolves will be required as our populations continue to grow and we eat away into the wild habitats of the wolves and their prey. Wolves may need to learn that people won’t necessarily harm them and figure out ways to exist within our midst. People may need to learn how to accept and value the presence of wild predators and seek ways to keep themselves and their domesticated animals safe through non-lethal means. It can be done.
Takaya was killed by a hunter’s decision to shoot a wolf that was not threatening nor a source of food. That decision was supported by a hunting culture that sees wolves as vermin and competition. It was also supported by current BC hunting regulations and laws. Although it may prove difficult to change the culture, we can act quickly to change policy. It is the government of BC who bears the primary responsibility for Takaya’s death. And the government must act now to stem the tide of the ongoing slaughter of significant apex predators like Takaya.
Please visit www.takayaslegacy.com to find out more about current BC wolf hunting regulations, and about our ongoing efforts to protect BC wolves.
Cheryl Alexander is a conservation photographer and naturalist who spent six years observing and documenting the life of Takaya, the lone sea-wolf who lived near Victoria, BC. She is the director of Takaya’s Legacy Project, an organization which seeks to inspire passion and action to protect wolves and the wilderness that remains on our earth. She is the executive producer of the CBC Nature of Things documentary Takaya: Lone Wolf, and the author of the book of the same name. On March 30, she will release two children’s books, Good Morning, Takaya and Takaya’s Journey.