Requiem for Lobo, the misunderstood killer wolf of Bemidji
Lobo the wolf has seen better days.
Displayed for decades in a glass box outside Morrell's Chippewa Trading Post, Lobo's snarling, stuffed remains once terrified small children and fed his legend as a North Woods monster.
These days, though, Lobo seems to kindle more pity than fear. His hide, preserved by borax and arsenic, is falling off the plaster cast. His lips shrink back from sun bleached teeth. Fallen hair lines the bottom of his display case.
He's not the wolf he used to be, and that's OK. Public attitudes toward wolves have shifted dramatically over the years. Wolves are widely seen as creatures to be protected not exterminated, and now some in town say it's time to give Lobo and his misunderstood history a proper burial.
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A monster story, but not a monster
Lobo is a legend in Bemidji. The sign in his display case says "Lobo, the great deer killer of the north country."
A few paragraphs lay out the basics. Farmers in the early 1930s found giant wolf prints in the woods, and mangled deer carcasses, and they were terrified. Witnesses said he was twice the size of any wolf they'd ever seen.
They said he could carry a fawn in his teeth without the legs touching the ground.
Newspapers gave the big wolf his name, and theorized he'd come down from Canada to wreak havoc in Minnesota's more plentiful deer herds. For a while, it caught the nation's attention.
Authorities raised a $500 bounty. But the more Lobo was hunted, the more deer he killed. He ranged from Itasca State Park to the Canadian border, killing as many as three deer a day.
Finally, in 1937, a farmer near Bagley, Minn., trapped and shot Lobo, and dragged his body to town to collect the bounty. It's been told as something of a monster story ever since. One with a happy ending. Man triumphs over nature.
But there's a problem with the old monster story, said Tree Foster, the store manager inside Morell's trading post.
Two years before the farmer shot and killed Lobo, he was able to catch the wolf in a snare, she said. Lobo broke free, but the wire stayed around his neck. It squeezed his throat. All he could swallow was blood and deer guts. That's why he killed so many deer.
This detail is an accepted part of the legend, but for decades it was glossed over. People focused on the description of Lobo's behavior as "vicious, wanton killing."
'I run into Lobo again'
The culture that once believed the only good wolf is a dead wolf has shifted over the decades.
Even as the federal government removed wolves from the Endangered Species Act, Minnesota approved a state ban on wolf hunting.
With climate change and pipeline protests, man conquering nature isn't as compelling of a narrative structure anymore. Lobo's life has started to look different.
"People were terrified of anything they saw as wild," Foster said as she burned some sage at the store counter. "This is a sad story. It's a story of subjugation."
Foster is a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin. For her, Lobo's remains are a constant reminder of what her own people endured, of the wildness that was beaten out of them.
"I started to get the sense that Lobo was still around," she said. "That he was tired of being in a box."
That's why she was relieved one day a few months ago when Eric Nelson walked into Morell's offering to remove the wolf, and the store owner agreed to let Lobo go.
Nelson only recently moved to Bemidji, but Lobo was immediately compelling to him. His mother was a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.
She used to read him a story about a different wolf named Lobo, who roamed the Currumpaw Valley in New Mexico in the late 19th century. That legendary wolf was also hunted down and killed.
"That story was a tragedy to me," Nelson said.. "It's one of my first memories. And all these years later I run into Lobo again."
It didn't seem right to just leave Lobo to be gawked at by pedestrians, he said.
He was also no longer good for business, Foster said.
"He looks like death," she said of Lobo. "This is a shopping establishment. Nobody wants to confront their own mortality, and then come in here and buy a mood ring."
Lobo won't go quietly
Nelson brought a trailer and some hired muscle at the end of June to cart Lobo away.
"I brought all the tools I could think of," he said. "Sawzall. Crowbar. I'm not sure how the box is anchored down."
Nelson and his hired man Jake Reynolds pulled a few rusty screws and tried to lift the box, but they weren't strong enough. Lobo is heavier than they thought. Reynolds went to round up a few more guys.
Nelson paced, and looked in at Lobo. "He's been here a long time," he said. "He can handle a few more hours."
An hour after their first failed attempt, Reynolds returned to Morell's with two more guys and some scrap lumber to reinforce the box.
Nelson counted to three and they all heaved at once. Plaster rained down from the holes in Lobo's disintegrating hide. Even the best taxidermy won't last 80 years in direct sunlight.
They carried the box to Nelson's trailer and strapped it down.
Nelson isn't totally sure yet what to do with Lobo. He wants to bury what's left of the wolf on the White Earth Reservation, or maybe Red Lake. Either one would do. He's working with tribal elders.
Until all the plans are nailed down, Lobo will be in Nelson's backyard, overlooking the Mississippi River.
"There are raccoons and deer," Nelson said. "There's a river instead of this busy street. It's a good place for him, for now."