Chapter Sixteen - Pribilof Seals, Walt Disney, and the Arctic Wolves of Lois Crisler


Walt Disney, a veteran of World War I, wanted to help the United States strike back against the Japanese following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Patriotically, he put his film company at the disposal of the U.S. War Department. Working with the director Frank Capra, he made films for the Army Signal Corps’s series “Why We Fight,” which explained America’s rationale for going to war.1 When a patrol–torpedo boat squadron asked for a cartoon insignia, Disney gladly obliged without remuneration and quickly produced an image of a mosquito carrying a torpedo on its back. That morale-boosting, comical mosquito became very popular in Alaska, where the actual insect was a menace.

Other outfits in the armed forces soon wanted their own insignia, and Disney’s studio was inundated with requests. Stationed on Kodiak Island in December 1941, for example, was a forlorn naval base with only seventeen minutes’ worth of ammunition. The base was run by the Western Defense Command in San Francisco under the leadership of General Simon Buckner, tasked with protecting the Aleutians from a Japanese attack. When, in June 1942, the Japanese landed 8,600 troops on Kiska and Attu islands, Buckner’s mission to thwart them became a national security priority. This was the first occupation of U.S. soil by a foreign country since the War of 1812. Over the coming months Allied aircraft dropped more than 7.5 million pounds of bombs on these two Alaskan islands, forcing the Japanese to retreat westward. Alaska was becoming an important theater of war, though that is now widely forgotten. The Western Defense Command, however, didn’t have a logo for its Alaska Defense Command (ADC) as 1943 began.

Disney—a lifelong lover of the northern fur seals that congregated on the Pribilofs—now entered the picture. During World War II, the humans on the Pribilofs had been evacuated, but, to Disney’s consternation, the seal harvesting continued unabated.2 Disney drew a cute, frisky-looking seal, balancing the letters ADC on its nose, for the soldiers and sailors to enjoy. In the background was a bright orange-yellow midnight sun. As of late 1943, the patch became the symbol for ADC (although it was never officially approved).3

Throughout the 1950s, Walt Disney pioneered in making nature films about Alaska. What most interested the general public was distinguished naturalists who hand-reared the wild animals they were observing. The thrill for audiences, particularly children, was watching a fierce animal like a wolf or bear become a family friend. Disney had struck gold with Jiminy Cricket and Mickey Mouse in cartoon format and would also make money with the True-Life Adventure documentary series, offering wildlife up-close. Serious conservationists of the 1950s weren’t particularly fond of Disney’s domestication of wildlife as a way of attracting converts to ecology. It smacked of “nature faking.” But wolves were being exterminated in Alaska (sometimes by airborne hunters), so the Muries decided to collaborate with the husband-and-wife team of Herb and Lois Crisler, who they knew were defenders of wildlife.4 And before the Crislers, Alfred and Elma Milotte—also a married couple—had moved to the Bering Sea to document the rituals of Alaskan fur seals on the Pribilof Islands for a pioneering Disney documentary.

Ever since the young Walt Disney left Kansas City for Hollywood in the 1920s, his urge to make movies about Alaska was intense. Once Disney reinvented animation as an art form with Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo, he produced the True-Life Adventure nature documentary series, which brought in many young recruits to the modern environmental movement. Disney’s contribution to conservation was that he helped sensitize the general public to the beauty of fragile ecosystems (such as deserts, swamps, and tundra) and of animals (such as bears, cougars, and seals). A Disney comic book series, published in collaboration with Dell, featured such “charismatic” (that is, appealing) animals as flamingos and seals. Disney, in fact, had dispatched Alfred and Elma Milottein 1940 to document Alaska as the “last frontier wilderness.” When the Milottes returned to Hollywood with more than 100,000 feet of film, proud of having captured everything from climbers on Mount McKinley to lumberjacks in the Tongass, Disney balked. “Too many mines,” he complained. “Too many roads. More animals. More Eskimos.”5

Feeling that they had wasted the better part of a year in Alaska, and hoping to salvage the project, the Milottes wrote to Disney about possibly doing a film on saving the Pribilof Island seals. Disney seized on the offer. Theodore Roosevelt’s old friend David Starr Jordan, former president of Stanford University, had been a coauthor of The Fur Seals and Fur-Seal Islands of the North Pacific Ocean, about a legal battle of the late nineteenth century aimed at stopping the Russians and Japanese from slaughtering seals.6 (Jordan, a Darwinian scholar with a PhD from Indiana University, had been the commissioner in charge of Fur-Seal Investigations in the 1890s.) Disney hoped the Milottes could make a documentary that showed what wonderful, playful animals the Pribilof seals were. Disney was a staunch defender of seals—which had been his favorite animals ever since he watched them frolic at the Kansas City Zoo. The director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ira N. Gabrielson, who replaced Ding Darling at the Department of the Interior, had published Wildlife Refuges with the Macmillan Company in 1943, to great acclaim. The book was his counterpart to the duck stamp. Gabrielson wrote vividly of Alaska’s great seal herds: “birth and death, breeding, living, fighting,” he said; “the drama is continuous.”7

Disney loved drama. Off the Milottes went to the Bering Sea, motion picture equipment in tow, to live with fur seals on the principal Pribilof islands of Saint George and Saint Paul. The fog on the Pribilofs had caused other filmmakers to abandon working there. Seal hunting was supposed to have been banned on the islands (except that Aleuts and Indians were allowed to kill a few seals for subsistence). However, the Fouke Fur Company of Greenville, South Carolina, had contracted with the federal government to process seal pelts. The Milottes also encountered organized poachers. To Disney, the seal lover, the Pribilofs were the “Galápagos of the North,” a nirvana for naturalists. Sea urchins in tide pools of the Bering Sea interested Disney, not Aleuts removing blubber and meat from a seal pelt during the canning process. The black mound of Sea Lion Rock, about 100 yards away from Reef Point, the southernmost tip of Saint Paul, was magical to him, not Aleuts in Saint Paul boiling oosik, the penis bone of the walrus. Many of the 3 million seabirds on the Pribilofs, during migration season, came all the way from Asia to live with the seals and sea lions. When the Milottes sent back a box of film footage for Disney to look at, they received a two-word telegram back in reply: “More seals.”8

The prolific wildlife of the Pribilofs sometimes made the islands hard to protect. Sea otters, for example, were hunted to near-extinction during the nineteenth century in this far-flung part of the Bering Sea. While the lives of the approximately 150 Aleuts who lived on the Pribilofs were interesting, Disney thought their activities were too bloody for children to watch: a lot of finback whales were being sliced and diced. To Disney, the northern fur seal had the physical features and playful demeanor that kids loved. Pups were shiny black when born but soon turned an appealing silver gray. Pupping season! That is what Disney wanted to capture on film. During World War II, the Pribilofs had been evacuated by the Aleuts, who were worried about a Japanese invasion. But when they came back in 1944 they resumed slaughtering seals. With the approval of the U.S. government, more than 117,000 seals were slaughtered annually in the years after World War II.9 Disney rejected the notion that these smart, highly inquisitive mammals should be treated like fish. His documentary on the Pribilof seals would help stop the carnage.

The Milottes learned the hard way that Disney meant what he said about promoting seals. Stubbornly, they continued to include Alaskan fishermen in their film narrative. They tried dealing with the struggles the Aleuts had undergone as serfs under Russian rule in the nineteenth century. Disney had been in Ireland for a while and didn’t oversee the Pribilof project carefully. When he finally looked at a rough cut, he flew off the handle. He wanted more seals! Goddamnit! He wanted film of the seals’ drama that Gabrielson had written about in Wildlife Refuges. Taking direct control of the project, Disney had the Aleuts omitted completely from the film. Accompanied by his eleven-year-old daughter, Sharon, Disney flew to the Pribilofs himself in August 1947. Seals were the stars, not humans. Seeing these Pribilof seals would be a significant memory for millions of kids. Roy Disney, his brother, recalled that Walt wanted to see the seal herds “firsthand” and get a better “idea of Alaska,” so as to make the documentary himself.10

What Disney’s distributor, RKO, didn’t understand about Seal Island, as the documentary was called, was that the creator of Donald Duck and Goofy was an ardent conservationist. Disney was on a mission to help save Alaskan wildlife. However, RKO, standing up to him, simply refused to distribute Seal Island, insisting that without the human drama of Eskimos, hunters, and loggers struggling to survive in Alaska, the movie was sure to be a flop. Incredulous RKO executives asked, “Who wants to watch seals playing house on a bare rock?” Refusing to abandon Seal Island, the determined Disney ended up renting a theater in Pasadena on his own dollar. With a powerful musical score by Jim Algar replacing dialogue, Disney showed his film for one week. This qualified Seal Island for an Academy Award in the category “documentary short subject.” A couple of months later, to the amazement of RKO, it won an Oscar.11

For Disney, the Academy Award was a triumph. He told his brother Roy to take the statue over to RKO and whack the executives “over the head with it.” The award also persuaded RKO to distribute the film, and to concede that frolicking Alaskan seals could indeed be a box office hit. Disney was now eager to showcase Alaskan wolves and polar bears as animals worth saving. A secret to Disney’s success with nature documentaries was the music that accompanied Seal Island and other films such as The Living Desert(1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954). Disney, it seemed, was also willing to fabricate the habits of seals, bears, and wolves for entertainment value. “He had found a way,” his biographer Neal Gabler wrote, “to combine entertainment with education.”12 Some critics didn’t mind this. Certainly children loved seeing seals anthropomorphized, goofing around with each other like kids at a playground. But others, including the esteemed film critic Richard Schickel, detected fraud. “The tone of a Disney nature film is nearly always patronizing,” Schickel wrote in The Disney Version. “It is nearly always summoning us to see how very nicely the humble creatures do, considering that they lack our sophistication and know-how.”13

In any case, Seal Island—released in 1948, when Ansel Adams was photographing Alaska’s national parks—was a transformative moment in the conservation movement. Using slow-motion and time-lapse film techniques, Disney allowed moviegoers to see life from an animal’s eyes. As a rule, there were no humans in the True-Life Adventure films. Disney was on a mission to protect wildlife. In 1942 his animated film Bambi: A Life in the Woods—based on a book of 1923 by Felix Salten (pen name of the Hungarian journalist Siegmund Salzmann)—had done more than all of John Muir’s books combined to turn American popular culture against deer hunting. All the woodland animals in Disney’s Bambi—Owl, Thumper (a pink-nosed rabbit), Flower (a skunk), and so on—found a place in children’s hearts as cozy friends. The death of Bambi’s mother was described by the film critic Pauline Kael as one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in film history.14 Woodland ecology got a boost from Bambi, just as Alaskan wildlife conservation did from Seal Island.15

Never has a film done more to promote wildlife protection than Disney’s Bambi. Whittaker Chambers had been responsible for translating Salten’s original book from German into English. The seasons of nature, from showers in April to leaves falling in November to ponds freezing in January, are dealt with magically in the animated feature film. The horror of deer being chased by hunters provided Bambi with harrowing moments. Bambi was nominated for three Academy Awards—“Best Sound,” “Best Song,” and “Original Musical Score.” Deep human emotions are touched when Bambi’s mother dies. Affected by the intense music, moviegoers became angry at the snarling dog pack that created havoc in the once idyllic wild animal kingdom. But Raymond J. Brown, editor of Outdoor Life, sent a curt telegram to Walt Disney, furious that law-abiding hunters were being portrayed as “vicious destroyers of game and natural resources.”16

During the coming decades, hunters would object to the “Bambi complex,” “Bambi factor,” and “Bambi syndrome.” But advocates of protecting wildlife, such as the Crislers and the Milottes, approved of the cartoon creatures. Disney had Americanized Bambi as a whitetail for an American audience; in Salten’s novel the characters were roe deer. Deer ecology was an important philosophical premise in the film. To present forest life realistically, Disney had dispatched his artists to Maine’s Baxter State Park for six months. They lived among the animals in order to properly sketch head movements and sleeping patterns.17 The columnist George Reiger of Field and Stream said that, overnight, Disney had turned hunting into a grim endeavor: “once Bambi is raised in status from mere deer to Jesus Whitetail Superstar, man’s hunting of deer becomes a crime comparable to the prosecution of Christ.”18


Disney also became associated with Lois and Herb Crisler. They were going to help the “save the wolf” movement, which Adolph Murie had long promoted at Mount McKinley, much as the Milottes had helped with the Pribilof Island seals. The Crislers had lived for months at a time in the Olympic Mountains. Herb once spent thirty days in the Olympics without food or a gun; he was hard-core. Together they worked to save the Roosevelt elk, the larger “kings” of the Olympics. By vocation, Herb, a native of Georgia, was a motion picture photographer, and Lois was an English instructor at the University of Washington. (Her master of arts thesis had been on “Santayana’s Definition of Beauty.”19) After the Crislers got married, the Olympics became their living room. Both were excellent skiers. The Crislers’ homestead was Hume’s Ranch, a ranger station on the Elwha River. They were hired by the U.S. government to build isolated fire lookouts and hunting shelters. During the winter of 1942–1943, the Crislers served as Aircraft Warning Service lookouts on Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics. Wherever the Crislers went in the Olympics, they took photographs of the gorgeous backcountry. In the winter—following even the worst snowstorms—the Crislers would go skiing. Eventually they traveled around the country showing home movies and slides of their adventures in Washington state’s high country. To supplement their income, Lois wrote articles about wildlife for the Port Angeles Evening News, the paper of the Olympics region in Washington. She also worked on a memoir, “Gift from the Wilderness” (still unpublished).

The Crislers’ big break came in 1949, when Walt Disney decided to purchase film footage of Roosevelt elk playing in the Olympics for his company’s nationally televised show. The public loved the segment, filmed entirely by Herb Crisler and titled “The Olympic Elk.” Building on that success, Walt Disney Productions hired the couple to film bighorn sheep at Colorado’s Tarryall Peak and grizzly bears in Alaska. Herb’s thirty-five-millimeter motion picture of Colorado rams charging each other in gladiatorial combat was stunning. In pursuit of photographic quarry in Alaska, the Crislers traveled by dogsled, whale boat, canoe, and bush plane, and on snowshoes.

“Your film, which you presented at the Annual Meeting of the Wilderness Society Council on the Olympic Peninsula, was an inspiration to us all,” Olaus Murie, director of The Wilderness Society, wrote from Moose, Wyoming. “The photography was of course excellent, and you have a happy choice of subject matter. The artistry and warmth of feeling which permeates the whole film presented the wilderness quality of Olympic National Park in a manner that can hardly be excelled. You are doing a great service for the American people in showing this film and I only wish it were possible for all the millions of Americans to have the privilege of seeing and experiencing its inspiration.”20

The Crislers were on their way to becoming stars. Herb would spend time with Walt Disney, regaling him with folk songs and poems and pioneer tales like a backwoods bard. No longer did Herb and Lois have to sleep in flophouses. In Detroit they stayed at the Statler, and in New York at the Waldorf-Astoria. At one studio meeting in Hollywood, Disney told the Crislers about a coyote den in his backyard; he found coyotes charming. Lois recognized that in Disney, an Eisenhower Republican, the wildlife protection movement had a stalwart ally. “We could see that to a lot of people in the United States, the wilderness that we take for granted up in the Olympics,” Lois wrote, “was becoming one of the choicest things they could contact.”21

Wildlife documentaries were coming into vogue, and the Crislers were leading the filmmakers. Unlike a Hollywood set production, the great outdoors offered a wildlife photographer plenty of elbow room. But lugging a ninety-pound camera up hills and switchbacks was physically draining work. Capitalizing on their growing fame, Lois started writing scripts; these had an overdrawn, dramatic narrative and seemed more like Dashiell Hammett than like John Burroughs. Lois could make a bluebird feeding its chick an insect into an event of grand importance. “The fawn got itself somehow down the steep bank and onto the lake,” she wrote in a typical passage; the style is exhilarating yet clipped. “It crossed the flat whiteness, now hurrying, now seeming very tired and standing still. But it drove itself on.”22

When the opportunity presented itself, Lois wrote serious articles—one was about a rare marmot (Marmota olympus) in the Olympics—for Natural History.23

With regard to wolves, Herb and Lois Crisler were walking, talking zoological encyclopedias. Lois was fascinated that in 20,000 B.C. southern Europeans were drawing wolves on cave walls. Besides the mandatory books of wolf biology in her library, she had underlined references to wolves in such literary classics as the epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad. According to Lois, Jesus Christ used wolves in parables to emphasize moral principles; Pliny the Elder gave a pseudoscientific account of wolves in Natural History; Beowulf—the oldest important narrative poem in English—had a wolf as the heroic protagonist who kills the monster Grendel; and Shakespeare also mentioned wolves in his plays with noticeable regularity. Lois Crisler liked to point out to people that wolves used to be beloved animals, part of the wild kingdom, not beasts to be exterminated. It infuriated her that the average American mistakenly thought a wolf’s howl was menacing. “Like a community song, a howl is a happy occasion,” she explained to the general public. “Wolves love to howl. When it is started, they instantly seek contact with one another, troop together, fur-to-fur. Some wolves . . . will run from any distance, panting and bright-eyed, to join in, uttering, as they near, fervent little wow, jaws wide, hardly able to wait to sing.”24

For eighteen months, the Crislers holed up in a rustic plywood cabin called the “Crackerbox” along a forlorn rivulet in the Brooks Range, sometimes in driving snow, encircled by a curtain of mountains, befriending one of Alaska’s thirty-two caribou herds. Lois wrote a memoir about the experience among the Central Arctic caribou herd on the North Slope along the Killik River (a tributary of the Colville River that is the eastern boundary of the National Petroleum Reserve). The memoir, Arctic Wild, was published in 1956 and was dedicated to the “Wolves of the Arctic Tundra and to Those People Who Will Act to Preserve Life and Habitat for Them.” Justice William O. Douglas deemed Arctic Wild “one of the most exciting wilderness books in the English language.”25 Ansel Adams, Mardy Murie, Margaret Mead, and many other prominent conservationists considered Arctic Wild a historic breakthrough in the wildlife protection movement. The Crislers had formed a bond with a wolf family. Every morning wolf pups would jump on the Crislers, lick their faces, and howl for an hour.26 Lois’s chiseled, elongated face and her braided hair tied in a bun were shown in photos throughout the autobiography, and the book made her a celebrity. “What do I want?” she asked herself. The answer: “To be where the people that walk on four legs are.”

Crisler’s Arctic Wild certainly wasn’t the first serious book about Alaska’s wolves—it had been preceded by Adolph Murie’s The Wolves of Mount McKinley and Stanley P. Young and Edward A. Goldman’s The Wolves of North America (both published in 1944). But Crisler, by using the first-person narrative style, brought the family life of wolves to a general readership in a touching, loving, and respectful way. Eight years later, the Canadian biologist Farley Mowat would publish Never Cry Wolf, to great acclaim; it clearly superseded Arctic Wild as literature. But during those crucial years of 1956 to 1960, when the fight to save the Arctic was particularly intense, it was Lois Crisler who most troubled the anticonservationists in Alaska.

Nothing, in fact, infuriated her opponents more than the fact that Lois Crisler was teaching wolves to cuddle, nurse, and howl. To the average Alaskan, wolves were useful only for their pelts. “Lois’s accounts of the wolves’ howling and using their incisors to finely lift her eyelids while she slept truly portrays the remarkable abilities of wolves,” the wolf ecologist David Mech later recalled. “No doubt such descriptions helped recruit a large number of people into the ranks of wolf admirers.”27

The biologist Rachel Carson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was elated with Crisler’s Arctic Wild. A warmhearted correspondence ensued between the two women throughout the late 1950s. Carson’s articles of the 1930s and 1940s about marine ecosystems—which had appeared in theBaltimore Sun, the New Yorker, Field and Stream, and Yale Review—encouraged Crisler to write about wolves. When Carson’s The Sea Around Us was published by Oxford University Press in 1951, Crisler sat mesmerized, reading it over and over again. Whenever Lois felt lonely or depressed in the Olympics, Alaska, or Colorado between 1955 and 1963, she wrote to Carson. “We live in a [Silver Spring, Maryland] house that is too large for us, especially since my mother’s death, and it would be a joy to entertain you,” Carson wrote to Crisler. “We can promise you the song of mockingbirds and cardinals, and by mid-March we might even manage the beginnings of our frog chorus.”28

Although wolves were the stars of Arctic Wild, the 50,000-head Central Arctic caribou herd (so named in the 1970s) came in a close second. In Alaska every caribou herd on the North Slope claimed its own calving area, which was a fair distance from other calving areas. Because the caribou had large concave hooves, which made wide imprints in the tundra soil, they were relatively easy for a Disney camera crew to track. Newborn calves weighed only thirteen pounds. With their pretty suede-soft gray coats, these caribou were as appealing as Bambi. The crush-crush of Arctic caribou on frozen tundra, clumsy calves clinging to their mothers’ protective sides, captivated Crisler, who wrote that the mass migrations “beat like a pulse through our time.”

At first, the Arctic seemed to the Crislers barren of wildlife—an almost empty land. There were no throngs of caribou or packs of wolves. The Dall sheep came down to the rivers only during the winter months. Although the Crislers were well-known wildlife photographers, regularly giving slide shows on college campuses and at corporate retreats, they had assumed that the Brooks Range was like the Rockies, only colder. But once the Crislers sat still, didn’t look so hard, and actually lessened their expectations, a kingdom of wildlife appeared before them. Little voles were burrowing in the sedges. Asian bluetooths fluttered along the rivulets. Ptarmigans flushed put-p-p-p from the willows, turning from white to brown as the seasons dictated. Grizzlies patrolled streams, waddling away only when they picked up the scent of man. Perky eider duck mothers were followed by a single-file parade of youngsters. “There was a miraculous fact about this deadly white wilderness: it was alive!” Lois Crisler wrote. “Animals lived here and found food.”29

Ostensibly, the Crislers were going to follow the caribou’s migratory trail north of the Arctic Circle throughout the deep summer of 1955, as Charles Sheldon had tracked Dall sheep; but Disney had another idea. Why not adopt wolf cubs and raise them? As entertainment, tracking caribou in the golden Arctic light—despite the cute newborns—was boring. Raising wolves, by contrast, had immediate box office appeal. So, with money from Walt Disney Productions, two cubs were purchased from an Eskimo—a male, Trigger; and a female, Lady. (The names conjured up both Roy Rogers’s horse and Disney’s cartoon feature film Lady and the Tramp.) By day, Lois would observe wolverines—capable of bringing down prey five times their size—wading along sinuous creeks and gorging on caribou meat. At night, with willow bushes crackling away in the cabin fireplace, Lois would cuddle with the adorable wolf cubs. In her journal, Lois described being a mother to the wolf pack. She claimed that wolves, an extremely sociable wild species, “smiled” and “talked” and “read my eyes!” The concept was anthropomorphic, the film was filled with embarrassing hyperbole, and the raising of wolves was morally questionable. Nevertheless, the Crislers succeeded in their quest to make wolves more beloved the world over. “Wolves are not a menace to the wilds but orgies of wolf hate are,” Crisler wrote in Arctic Wild. “Wolves themselves are a balance wheel of nature.”30

The historian Vera Norwood has written insightfully about Lois Crisler in Made from This Earth: American Women and Nature. While admiring the Crislers for their advocacy for wolves, Norwood nevertheless raised smart questions about the ethics of the Disney film. Was this proper holistic ecology? To Norwood these habituated wolves were no better off than those behind bars at a zoo. Scenes of the Crislers releasing the wolves back into the wild only to have them scratch at the cabin door, seeking hearth and home, seemed cruel. One follow-up episode was unambiguously wrong. When Herb Crisler realized that two pet wolves weren’t generating enough entertainment value, Disney’s cameramen raided a den and swiped five more pups for Lady and Trigger to raise. The Crislers justified this raid by saying that bounty hunters would soon have slaughtered the pups.31 For real biologists, the Crislers were hard to take. But Arctic Wild, the memoir by Lois Crisler of their experiences in the Brooks Range, did make people think about the north country and about wolves. William O. Douglas (grumpy about the Disney film), the New York Times, and Rachel Carson all praised it as an educational work ideal for young people—and their approval alone was worth a lifetime of accolades for Lois Crisler. Disney ended up marketing the documentary as the feature film White Wilderness and also produced educational shorts from the footage, such as Large Animals in the Arctic and The Lemmings and Arctic Bird Life.

After filming White Wilderness for Disney in 1956, the Crislers took their four wolf pups home with them to Tarryall Peak in Colorado. They had no other choice. Because these wolves had been domesticated, they had never learned to hunt. Releasing them into the wild would have meant certain death. Killing them wasn’t an option. So the Crislers got government permits to keep them in Colorado as pets. Harper and Brothers advanced Crisler money to write a follow-up memoir—Captive Wild—about raising and breeding wolves at Crag Cabin, their ranch.32

Never known for holding his tongue, William O. Douglas lambasted Disney for the irresponsible nature-faking stunts in White Wilderness, though he was careful not to hold Lois and Herb Crisler responsible for the staged material: “In my time Walt Disney did more than anyone to distort and depreciate our wildlife,” Douglas wrote. “He had a wolverine fight a bear to death. Animals, other than men, do not follow that course. They have conflicts but soon withdraw. Disney got the wolverine to fight the bear by starving both animals for weeks in a Los Angeles zoo. The battle actually took place in a movie set in the city.”

In his memoir Go East, Young Man Douglas intensified his criticism: “Disney showed rams of the mountain-sheep family charging each other, their foreheads clashing to the tune of the ‘Anvil Chorus,’ ” he scoffed. “They charge, of course, but in between charges they rest, walk around, paw the earth, and the like. They do not follow the pattern of a Hollywood dancing troupe.”33

While the Crislers were raising wolves in Colorado, Frank Glaser, the wolf hunter, was still using his “coyote getter” from Seward to Nome. On most mornings he loaded cyanide into his “coyote getter” (which was set off by animals attracted to a bait station) and headed out into the wild. He was also given access to a plane, making it easier for him to slaughter wolves far and wide. But a change was occurring in Alaska. Glaser, once considered an Alaskan hero, was starting to be viewed by the general public as a menace. Glaser’s idea of success was discovering a wolf den and slaughtering the pups: this practice was now frowned upon by an increasing number of Americans. Still, Eisenhower’s secretary of the interior, Douglas McKay, presented Glaser with a Meritorious Service Award for controlling predatory animals. Glaser moved around Idaho, California, and Oregon for a while in the 1950s. But there weren’t enough wolves to slaughter in other states, so he moved back to Anchorage. One night Glaser heard wolf howls in the distance. He seethed with rage. “They don’t belong in town,” he fumed. “They’ll kill dogs, and a lot of kids are running around too. I’m worried about them. Those wolves have to be killed.” Upset by the fear that wolves were going to lay siege to Anchorage, Glaser telephoned Dr. Louis Mayer for psychological help. “Mayer made a house-call,” Jim Rearden recalled in Alaska’s Wolf Man, “talked with Frank, gave him a sedative.”34


By a happy coincidence, 1956 brought another milestone publication that to many Arctic conservationists transcended Lois Crisler’s writings. The brother of The Wilderness Society’s cofounder Bob Marshall brought out, with the University of California Press, a posthumous work by Marshall, Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range. Whereas Bob Marshall’s Arctic Village had dealt with the citizens of Wiseman, Alaska Wilderness offered meditations about the Upper Koyukuk drainage system to the Gates of the Arctic wilderness. Every page offered wisdom and enlightenment. Suddenly Marshall’s voice was alive again, nearly two decades after his death in 1939. He described battling Squaw Rapids below the mouth of the Glacier River and recounted “a furious blizzard” swooping down upon him and freezing his party’s “cheeks and necks.” It all made for riveting outdoors reading. Alaska Wilderness included scientific data and drainage maps, and it had a revivifying effect on Adolph, Olaus, and Mardy Murie. There were also twenty-two photos taken by Marshall in the Arctic. Alaska Wilderness was a welcome reminder of what was at stake in saving the Arctic Range from road construction and industrialization.

Hoping to arouse the Arctic preservation movement, Justice Douglas jumped at the opportunity to review Alaska Wilderness in The Wilderness Society’s periodical Living Wilderness. “This is America’s last frontier, as yet untouched by man,” Douglas wrote. “Bob Marshall saw them by plane, by foot, by dogsled. His account is an enduring one. It tells why this great area should be preserved in perpetuity as a wilderness area.”35

Alaska Wilderness particularly advocated roadless areas, and Douglas absolutely agreed. “This is a book for every man and woman who loves the wilderness,” Douglas said. “While it will bring back some echoes of one’s own experiences, it will remind even the expert that he yet has much to learn about the wilderness on our frontier. And it will help marshal public opinion to preserve the Brooks Range as a Wilderness, keeping it forever free of roads, lodges, and filling stations.”36

Disney’s movie Winter Wilderness, based on the Crislers’ experiences in the Arctic, wouldn’t come out until 1958. But before even a single frame was seen, conservationists knew it would put the Frank Glasers out of business. Bambi and Seal Island had already convinced conservationists that Walt Disney was the best publicist the wildlife protection movement had had since Theodore Roosevelt. Having Justice William O. Douglas as an advocate for the wilderness, ready to protect Arctic Alaska, was also good, with Robert Marshall gone. Help for wild Alaska also came from the pioneer Arctic archaeologist J. Louis Giddings, whose forte was the prehistory of northwestern Alaska. For the first time First Nation tribal history was being treated seriously: Giddings’s research made the notion of populations crossing the Bering Land Bridge respectable.37

Throughout the 1950s Disney was a die-hard supporter of both President Eisenhower and the wildlife protection movement. While America was going through the processes of suburbanization, bureaucratization, and the emergence of what William Whyte called the “organization man,” Disney’s Alaskan adventures were a journey back to the frontier. Eisenhower, for his part, considered himself a “Disney man,” and with good reason—Disney solicited campaign contributions and held fund-raisers for the Republican Party. According to his biographer Neal Gabler, the conservative Disney also put bumper stickers on the car he used on his Hollywood lot, endorsing Richard M. Nixon for president in 1960 over John F. Kennedy.38 It might very well be that Disney’s steadfast support of Arctic preservation and the Pribilofs influenced President Eisenhower’s Alaskan land policies. If the extremely popular Walt Disney thought that families might someday want to see polar bears and seal herds in Alaska, then who was Eisenhower to question his intuition?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!