I read Ceiridwen Terrill’s book Part Wild: One Woman’s Journey with a Creature Caught Between the Worlds of Wolves and Dogs with intense interest. Her story of living with her wolfdog, Inyo, held me captive; even though it is ultimately heartbreaking, Terrill’s spirit shines through so brightly that I finished the book feeling hopeful. When I met Terrill, the same spirit shone through just as brightly. Vivacious and beautiful, with long, thick blond hair, she wore a necklace with a wolf head pendant and large silver earrings shaped like running wolves. We sat upstairs at Sisters Coffee Company for an interview. Terrill bubbled over with stories about wolves and wolfdogs and owners she’d met, and still teared up when she talked about Inyo. When I apologized for being unable to stay for her event at Paulina Springs Books because I had to go home and check on baby chicks, she exclaimed, “Oh, I want to raise baby chicks someday! That is so great!” I was somewhat surprised that a college professor who makes her own plant medicines would think raising baby chicks is such a great skill to have, but it’s just more evidence of what a delightful person she is.
Terrill teaches environmental journalism and science writing at Concordia University in Portland. She also teaches classes on wildcrafting and making plant medicines. She blogs at myurbanwild.com. Part Wild is her second book; her first, Unnatural Landscapes, focuses on invasive species. She lives in Portland with her husband and her regular dog, Argos.
How long ago did the events in the book take place? When did you lose Inyo? Seven years ago. It’s really hard for me when I do these readings because it’s like reliving it when I share the story about her, and it’s like being broken apart every time. I wake up with a broken heart every day wondering what else I could’ve done, and that’s why I had to write this story, because there are a lot of animals like Inyo that are living in this limbo land.
Part Wild is an emotionally challenging book to read, and you told me that it was also a challenging book to write.Can you talk more about the experience of writing about such a difficult time in your life? A lot of times while I was writing I had to get up and take a walk. I’m a real walker, real similar to Inyo, always on the move. I had to take lots of breaks, go hiking in the woods by my house. Especially writing about some of the mistakes I made. I didn’t want to write about some of those! But I reminded myself, ‘I’m writing this because I don’t want other people to make these same mistakes. I want people to read this and think “I’m not gonna go down that road!” ‘ People have written to me telling me they had fantasies about owning wolfdogs and now they’re not going to because of reading the book. So I thought ‘Oh, good, it’s done some good!’ I did have some fear that people would judge me, would read it and think, ‘She’s absolutely nuts!’
Have some of your fears come true? A couple of readers stopped reading at the scene where Inyo kills the neighbor’s cat—they couldn’t go on. They didn’t understand why I didn’t put her down right away. One reader said she didn’t think I felt any remorse. But there was remorse all through the book. Also, in writing you have to show, not just tell. You can’t keep saying, ‘I felt horrible’ over and over. This book sort of provides a lesson in memoir writing. In order to write a memoir, you have to change and grow until the memoir writer and the person being written about are two different people. If I hadn’t grown and changed into a different person, I couldn’t have written this book.
I admired how you wrote about your ex-husband, Ryan. Although you presented him very candidly, showing his flaws, you didn’t write about him resentfully or bitterly. In fact, I grew attached to him as a character, and feel concerned about his welfare. How were you able to write about him in this balanced way? That’s a great question. I was able to write about him in that way because I don’t believe that human beings are villains or heroes. He certainly was no villain. He had his problems, but he also had a really good spirit. He would be out at three in the morning in his boxers helping me look for Inyo! He was a complex human being, and he had his strengths where I was weak. Sometimes he was talking sense. I needed to let him have his say, as angry as I still am at him. And he suffers a lot with depression. He always meant well. He just messed up a lot. I mean, he baked me homemade chocolate chip cookies when I was in the mental institution, and he doesn’t even cook! That’s a sweetheart.
Some readers I spoke with were surprised you included things like your stay in the mental institution. Did you struggle with what to reveal about yourself? With the OCD and stuff? It was tough to decide to put it in, but it has to be in there because it happened. It was part of the story. I had to show how I ended up in there . . . I didn’t belong in there. Ryan was really sorry about jumping the gun on that. I was really angry about that, primarily because I was worried about Inyo—is she getting enough to eat? Is she going to get out?
If I’m gonna reveal Ryan’s struggles, I’ve also gotta reveal my own.
Writing about the OCD—the circling and tapping—it’s a little bit scary, but you know, we all have stuff, and I think it makes it better if we can be open about our stuff and be ourselves.
The OCD seemed like part of the whole story to me because you talk about confinement stress, captivity stress, in animals, and it seemed to me that you were feeling that, too. You are absolutely right . . . I didn’t realize that until I got to the end of the book. Like I said, I’m a huge walker. I have to be out at least four times a week or I feel like I’m going crazy. We live near Forest Park in Portland, and I go out there and walk for miles. It’s the place fugitives go to hide from the police, and then they get out there and find that it’s too wild for them!
A real selling point for Part Wild for me is how you incorporated your research into the book. Most of the main body of the book is your own story of your time with Inyo, and most of your scientific research and other extra material is in the end notes in the back. I’m not a nonfiction reader; I love stories but get bogged down wading through people’s research, so this was very helpful for me (though I actually read all the end notes too!) What made you decide to separate the elements of the book this way? My readers, the people I want to reach, are people that I wanted to be able to read the book all the way through just the way you said. I think stories are as essential to humans as food. I wanted people to at least read the whole story and not have it be a slog. I tried to make the end notes as conversational as possible. I didn’t want to bog down the narrative, but I didn’t want to lose all that material because it’s so important.
Can you talk a little bit about something you touched on in Part Wild—why wolfdogs are likely to become more dangerous to other animals and to humans than either wolves or dogs? Pure wolves are far more predictable in their behavior than a wolfdog because a wolfdog has any unknown combination of the brain hormones cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone, from the wolf side, and serotonin, the chill-out, happy hormone, from the dog side. It could have a doggy moment: ‘everything’s okay, I’m fine,’ or a wolfy moment: ‘gotta be alert, watch out for new things.’ People who have wolfdogs tend to treat them more like dogs, take them out and about, put them in unpredictable situations, and they can react unpredictably. They also have the doggy pull toward people but the wolf repulsion from people, the real mix of attraction and repulsion. You corner an animal like that and you’re likely gonna get bit. A wild wolf is just gonna split, whereas a wolfdog is more likely to approach and then bite.
As I talk about Part Wild with people, I’m astonished at how many people tell me they have or had a wolfdog. I’m becoming skeptical. Are there that many wolfdogs out there, or are a lot of people mistaken about their animals? Sometimes they are—people will have what they think is a wolfdog because someone told them it has some wolf in it, and that will go beautifully. Best companion animal ever. But what they have is a lovely mixed breed dog. I met a couple who had a lovely dog for years, the best dog they ever had, and thought it was a wolfdog for its whole life. When it died they thought, ‘We’ll get another wolfdog.’ So they got one from a breeder. It’s been a complete disaster. The animal howls, paces—all the behaviors typical for wolfdogs. I’ve been helping them try to place it in a sanctuary. What they had before was a mixed breed dog that looked “wolfy.” There’s something very romantic about thinking a dog has wolf in it—people don’t want to think they have a ‘plain old dog.’
Why do you think people are attracted to owning an animal that is part wolf? I think we have so many gaping holes in our own psyche, and we yearn for a connection with wildness. We try to fix our own gaping holes by reaching out for a connection with the wild. Sometimes when we try to get close to the wild in the wrong ways to heal ourselves, we do damage. A lot of wolfdog breeders I’ve met catch people at a vulnerable time, like I was in, and use that tactic, ‘It takes a special person to raise a wolfdog.’ Who doesn’t want to be special? I was very vulnerable at that time, and that appealed to me. I wrote this book as an atonement for Inyo—I will be forever grateful to her. She taught me so much about wildness, a deep appreciation for wildness that has nothing to do with humans.
Amanda MacNaughton is a front-line bookseller and the event manager at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond. She and her husband live in a tiny house with a large garden and some chickens. She managed to wrestle her new computer into submission long enough to write up this interview.