While finishing dinner and looking out at the open ocean from a remote beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Isabelle Groc was hoping to photograph sea otters when another keystone species quietly appeared.
As it suddenly and silently made the shoreline trot into her view, it felt like a magical experience as the writer, photographer and filmmaker got her first-ever glimpse of a coastal wolf.
“We looked at each other for a brief moment and then the wolf left,” Groc said. “They’re really these ghosts of the landscape.”
The calmness the animal had around people, and other stories she heard of wolves interacting with people and their dogs on a Tofino beach, made her curious about modern wolf-human encounters – why some were peaceful and others weren’t.
Years later, Groc and co-director Mike McKinlay’s film Part of Pack explores that coexistence and is set to air at the Victoria Film Festival on Feb. 10.
The film was mostly shot on the Island and follows three B.C. subjects who have developed unique relationships with wolves as it seeks to examine the implications of intimacy with the wild – for people, animals and nature.
As the long-persecuted species are now starting to return, Groc said their comeback has been challenged by an expanded human footprint encroaching into their wild territory, leading to more interactions. Those complex and evolving relationships led her to people’s fascination with wolves, and the struggles that can come from that.
Part of the Pack follows a Victoria photographer who documented the life of a wolf and more extreme cases where people wanted to domesticate wolf-dogs, with the latter bringing her to Nanaimo man and others.
“As we see in the film, there’s a fairytale of living close and establishing a connection to an animal that reminds you of the wild,” she said. “But once you bring an animal that is part dog and part wolf into a domesticated environment, there are a lot of trade-offs and challenges.”
As the documentary follows the multiple stories over four years, it aimed to not or take any point of view – which Groc said helped lead to experiences of the subjects unfolding in unsuspecting ways. While that non-judgemental perspective from the filmmakers looked to allow audiences to make their own conclusions, Groc said the film also brings in a range of experts, like wolf researchers, behaviorists and an animal rights lawyer.
However, the film does hope to invite viewers to think deeply about their own interactions with nature.
“We live in a world today where more habitat is being destroyed, more natural spaces are shrinking,” Groc said.
That means wild animals – like bears, cougars and coyotes – are increasingly having to share spaces with people, which they’ve been able to do despite harmful human efforts. Wolves in B.C. still face threats from government-sanctioned hunting and culls while case studies like Yellowstone National Park showed its vegetation and other species began to thrive after wolves were reintroduced.
“How can we position ourselves on the landscape to provide space to these animals to survive and remain wild? This is the question this film is asking,” Groc said.
“When we recognize the importance of wolves on the ecosystem the question becomes how can we learn to live with them and give them a chance to survive in this world.”