(Members of the Polygon pack greet one another. One pup nuzzles the pack’s aging matriarch, White Scarf (far right). Nuzzling is a common method of greeting. A second pup is playfully biting a feather while nuzzling Slender Foot, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada | Photo by Ronan Donovan, National Geographic)
Imagine taking an intimate look into the lesser-known lives of wild wolves through the lens of a decorated National Geographic photographer. Set to debut at the High Desert Museum on Saturday, October 21, the travelling exhibition Wolves: Photography by Ronan Donovan offers Museum visitors that remarkable opportunity.
The stunning exhibition, created by the National Geographic Society and the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, will feature Donovan’s images and videos of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and on Ellesmere Island in the high Canadian Artic. Since 2014, the National Geographic Explorer and photographer has examined the relationship between wild wolves and humans to better understand the animals, our shared history and what drives the persistent human-wolf conflict.
“This exhibition is timely as the wolf population increases in the High Desert ecosystem,” says High Desert Museum Executive Director Dana Whitelaw, Ph.D. “After a decades-long absence, wolves are once again our neighbors. The work by Ronan Donovan gives us insight into how we might all coexist together.”
Wolves is the kickoff to a series of exhibitions and programs over the next year at the Museum that will explore the Endangered Species Act, which was signed into law 50 years ago.
Wolves: Photography by Ronan Donovan will introduce visitors to the daily lives of wolves in the Arctic with unparalleled intimacy — how they hunt, play, travel and rest in one of the harshest environments on Earth. By contrast, the wolves of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are fearful of humans, making it more difficult to document their daily lives. One of the distinctions made clear in the exhibit’s images is Donovan’s ability to get closer to wolf pups in the Arctic, which allowed the photographer to document behaviors he had never seen in Yellowstone. Donovan attributes these differences to the fact that Arctic wolves rarely experience negative encounters with humans or view them as a threat.
“Wolves are such a fascinating animal to me because of how complex their relationship is with humans,” Donovan says in a statement from National Geographic. “Wolves were the first animals humans domesticated some 30,000 years ago and they have lived alongside us ever since as guardians, workers and companions. Yet as humans moved to more sedentary lives, raising what amounts to easy prey in the form of livestock, wolves have found themselves in conflict with humans.”
Donovan, a field biologist turned conservation photographer and filmmaker, hopes that his photos will provide people with a better understanding of these often-misunderstood animals.
“The way that a culture views wolves can reveal a lot about how a society interacts with their environment — is there a belief of power over animals, or is there a collective shared landscape?” Donovan says. “As a visual storyteller, my goal is to portray my subjects in their most authentic way by showing the challenges they face as well as the tender moments between family members in order to evoke a shared emotion that the viewer can connect with.”
Through these emotional shared connections, Donovan hopes exhibition visitors will see wolves as they are: powerful, intelligent, social mammals that have evolved to live in family structures similar to humans.
“Our goal in exhibiting Wolves: Photography by Ronan Donovan at the High Desert Museum is to familiarize visitors with the past, present and future of gray wolves in the region,” says Museum Donald M. Kerr Curator of Natural History Hayley Brazier, Ph.D. “The recent expansion of wolf packs into their historic ranges can be a divisive issue, but it’s a timely topic that the Museum is equipped to facilitate a conversation about. We hope our visitors leave with a more nuanced understanding of wolves and their growing presence in the High Desert.”
In addition to the exhibition, the Museum will host three programs to further explore the topic of wolves. The first event, “An Evening with Ronan Donovan,” will be a talk by Donovan on Thursday, October 26 at the Museum. During this discussion, participants will spend the evening hearing the remarkable stories behind Donovan’s images and research. As a result, attendees can expect to participate in invigorating discussions surrounding this incredible species and their centuries-old relationship to humans. It begins at 7pm and tickets are available at highdesertmuseum.org/ronan-donovan.
The next event, happening at OSU-Cascades on Friday, October 27, will focus on the lives of wolves in Oregon. This thought-provoking discussion titled “Face to Face with Oregon’s’ Wolves: Expert Perspectives” will be moderated by Donovan and feature a panel of local experts: Cameron Krebs (rancher), Emily Weidner (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist), Aaron Bott (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wolf biologist) and Austin Smith Jr. (Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs natural resources manager). As the evening unfolds, the panelists will unravel the complex relationships between wolves and humans in Oregon, encouraging further discussion surrounding the species’ future as a part of the High Desert ecosystem. It starts at 7pm and tickets are available at highdesertmuseum.org/wolves-panel.
The final event, happening on Saturday, October 28 at the Museum, is one the whole family can enjoy. Together with Ronan Donovan, kids will learn about wolf pack dynamics and how to howl like a wolf. This interactive event, titled Howling Around, will act as the fun and family-friendly conclusion to the High Desert Museum’s weekend of wolves. It will take place from 10am to 1pm and is free with Museum admission.
The visuals presented throughout Wolves: Photography by Ronan Donovan were captured from Donovan’s National Geographic Society-funded work and featured in National Geographic magazine’s 2016 issue on Yellowstone and in the September 2019 issue, as well as the National Geographic WILD series Kingdom of the White Wolf in 2019, which is available on Disney+.
Wolves: Photography by Ronan Donovan is open through February 11, 2024. It’s made possible by the Visit Central Oregon Future Fund with support from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation and Tonkin Corp. Learn more at highdesertmuseum.org/wolves.
About Ronan Donovan:
A field biologist turned conservation photographer and filmmaker, Ronan Donovan has explored the human relationship to nature and wildlife on all seven continents. Donovan’s passion for conserving wild animals and wild places was ignited as a child growing up in Vermont and later during his years as a wildlife field biologist researching spotted owls and chimpanzees. He transitioned to visual storytelling as a way to amplify the wildlife researchers and conservationists that Donovan collaborated with. In addition to his National Geographic work on wolves, Donovan has documented human-chimpanzee conflicts in Uganda, and the legacy work of primatologist Dian Fossey focused on mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Donovan strives to reconnect viewers to the natural world through the lives of our fellow social mammals to highlight our shared past and interwoven future.