The classical definition of a “tragedy” is a dramatic or literary work in which the main character is brought to great suffering or ruin as a result of a tragic flaw — a grievous misjudgment, moral failing, or inability to cope with difficult circumstances.
This book is, in every sense, a tragedy. It is beautifully written, unsparing in its honesty, and very, very sad. It is absolutely not a book that everyone will enjoy. But it’s also brilliant and important and cathartic.
Part Wild is the story of a troubled, naive young woman who purchases a wolfdog puppy after fleeing an abusive relationship. The puppy, Inyo, grows up to be what her nature dictates she must: a creature that fits uncomfortably in the space between wildness and domesticity, unable to belong fully to either world.
Inyo, like her parents, proves impossible for her people to contain safely or humanely. She is a natural predator, with lethal consequences for endangered wildlife and unlucky pets that cross her path. She is relentlessly active and relentlessly destructive, ruining her owner’s house and possessions; her constant howling and wild behavior cause her owners to lose home after home. But she is also dog enough to feel some desire to bond with people, and to be completely unable to survive without human support. Much of the story chronicles Terrill’s desperate efforts to find a place in the world where she and Inyo can live. Unsurprisingly, however, no such place seems to exist. Only while hiking in the rugged outdoors — another environment in limbo between wilderness and civilization — do either Inyo or Terrill seem to approach anything resembling happiness.
Inyo isn’t the only troubled creature in the equation. Terrill is also very candid about her own struggles with mental health and emotional stability throughout this period. She suffers from OCD, depression, and awful relationship choices. During the part of her life chronicled in this memoir, she isn’t even in a good position to own a normal dog (as is made too tragically clear).
What follows is a story that is as predictable as it is heartbreaking. All the classical elements of tragedy are there: the warnings that are not heeded until it’s too late, the misjudgments and mistakes that mire the central characters deeper in their doom, the slow inexorable inevitability of the ending, from which there is and can be no escape.
If you’re looking for an uplifting story of triumph over adversity, this ain’t it: the author’s struggles pretty much all end badly, and then she goes out and grabs some more adversity, because apparently the previous go-around wasn’t enough. If you’re prone to getting frustrated when you have to sit back and watch somebody follow bad decisions with worse ones, then Part Wild might just make your head explode. And if you’re the sort of dog lover who already has a bleak view on how animals suffer when the people who are supposed to be responsible for their lives make choices that hurt them, well, you might want to give this book a pass. (Spoiler: neither the people who breed wolfdogs nor the people who buy them are models of dog savvy or great ethics.)
Reading Part Wild felt a little like renting my soul out as a punching bag for Mike Tyson on PCP. It hurt. I had to put my Kindle down several times and walk away before I threw it out the window.
And yet, for all that, I think it’s a tremendous book.
The great virtue of Part Wild, to me, is that it is so clear that breeding and keeping wolfdogs is a tragedy. Yes, the author is painfully ignorant when she buys puppy Inyo from an equally ignorant, profoundly unethical BYB… but afterward, she does the research, she seeks out the answers, and she learns through both education and experience that it is not possible to give these creatures a safe, happy, fulfilling life. She can’t do it, and no one else who offers to take Inyo can do it, either.
While some rare few wolfdogs do live comfortably in domestic surroundings, they’re one in a hundred — and the other ninety-nine of their siblings, parents, and cousins ended badly. Terrill interviews several breeders who did their level best to develop lines that would be able to live happily among people, and found that they had gotten out of breeding wolfdogs, because there was no way to do it ethically.
The mythology that surrounds these animals leads to a lot of very real suffering, and the value of Terrill’s work is that it so compellingly documents her own journey from being lured by that mythology to being disillusioned by the reality. The very existence of wolfdogs is the source of their tragedy. These unfortunate animals exist only because of human hubris and human egocentrism: the desire to imagine that a powerful, noble, wild creature will magically be a spiritual companion to an equally powerful, noble, and wild soul.
But, of course, the truth doesn’t bear much resemblance to that.
And, as the book shows (without ever explicitly underlining the conclusion), the people who buy into the myth are frequently people who lack self-awareness or agency in other aspects of their lives, and who are looking to create a better reality by wishful thinking. They’re often in shaky life circumstances even before taking on the tremendous burden that living with a half-wild creature entails. This, too, contributes to the inevitability of the outcomes (and, on a personal note, my frustration with a lot of the people breeding these creatures. Watching the animals suffer because of the callous irresponsibility of their people hits aaaallll my Rageful Rescue Person buttons, and there’s a lot of that in this book).
Through Terrill’s candor, however, it might be possible for others to learn from her mistakes and avoid making their own. That’s why I think this book is so valuable: it shatters all those myths and magical ideas about what it means to live with a wolfdog, and it mounts an irrefutable case for why the breeding and keeping of these creatures is morally indefensible.
If that stops one person from breeding a litter of wolfdogs, or from buying a puppy that’s doomed before birth, or even from repeating and perpetuating the myths that contribute to this suffering, then that might be a silver lining to the story of Inyo’s life and her owner’s grief.
Regardless, though, this is a brilliant and wrenching memoir. It is good. It is not happy, but it’s good. It’s the kind of book that lodges splinters in your soul.