Creature feature: SEWE champions the wild

“... wolves care about each other,” Jim Dutcher says about the captive pack he lived with for six years with his wife, Jamie Dutcher.

Here’s the key to the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition this coming weekend: Critters. They will be everywhere.

Parking, on the other hand, won’t. Neither will dinner reservations, or space at the bar. Get yours early.

Tens of thousands of people will descend on the Charleston peninsula from the world over, and the numbers of animals are too many to guess.

Among those waiting in the wings are the DockDogs who will be leaping into the water in competition and snakes for the kids to touch at Brittlebank Park, raptors doing demo flights through Marion Square and alligators taking the stage at Charleston Music Hall.

Then there’s the animal art, collectibles, crafts, scrimshaw, jewelry, furnishings — well, you get the idea.

A few creatures that won’t be here are the gray wolves studied and championed by Jamie and Jim Dutcher, who have made a lifelong nonprofit educational enterprise out of a 1990s odyssey.

They lived for six years with a captive pack of wolves in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, in a tent.

The Dutchers come back to SEWE this year with a revamped and improved multimedia program of film and images that includes looks at how wild wolves improve the ecosystem.

The captive pack will be featured in those, but the Dutchers would rather you see wolves in the wild.

Besides, there’s a rule about wolves, even when you live among them and bottle-feed the pups.

“They’re wild animals with big teeth. You don’t play with them,” Jamie Dutcher says.

What the Dutchers learned about these alpha predators was remarkable.

Wolves won’t attack people; they are afraid of them, Jim Dutcher says.

But living in a 25-acre enclosure with wild animals, even habituated, is edgy enough that out of caution a crew member was kept out after breaking an ankle.

Even a wolf’s playful nip wounds, and predators will seize on the lame as game. Pack wolves, in fact, will pick on the omega member, the weakest one. But early on, the omega member of the pack was taken by a mountain lion which came over the enclosure fence.

“The rest of the pack stopped playing for about six months,” Dutcher recalls.

The wolves would pass the spot where the kill took place almost forlornly, tails down and ears pinned back. Instead of the usual pack howling, they howled individually.

Their compassion stirred the Dutchers.

“We shouldn’t be surprised, but wolves care about each other,” Dutcher says.

Studying the wolf pack, “it’s easy to see not only the dog (behavior) in them, but people, how early humans developed a camaraderie,” Jamie Dutcher says.

The Dutchers’ presentation is part of an underlying vein of conservation education that pulses through the exhibition.

SEWE is a well-stirred cocktail of high-brow art galas and hunting animal showmanship.

But for every soiree there’s a mess of spectacles and exhibits at little cost beyond an admission ticket, mixed with precision arts and crafts that can be breathtaking.

Table after table features custom work largely by regional artisans, items like carved canoe paddles and duck calls, coppersmithed turtle shell ornaments, iron fire kettles and exotic knives.

Some of it is rare and pricey, some not. All of it as extraordinary as it is useful.

That’s the message of conservation itself. The Dutchers will be back again.

“If we can help people to understand wolves a little better, that’s what we want,” Jamie Dutcher says.