The florescent light bulbs flickered in the back alley of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, night market. Small animal cages lined the perimeter of the restaurant. Snakes lived in the cages, mostly. In front of the cafe, if you could call it that, was a fresh meat selection with little signs full of Chinese words I could only guess the meaning of. At this type of cafe, you hand select the food you want to eat and then the kitchen cooks it.
The meat rack was covered in intestines of some sort, what looked like brains, a liver, a pile of ground meat and a multitude of small fish and bivalves. With my translator close at hand, I asked what each item was. My instincts served me well but my heart stopped when we got to the ground meat.
"Dog meat ... the sign says it is dog meat," my translator informed me.
"I want to eat that," I said.
Even my translator seemed stunned. "No, Americans don't eat dog," he said.
True. Americans, for the most part, don't eat dogs. But they hunt and kill them. Coyotes and wolves are shot with great regularity in Idaho but never put on the table like deer or elk.
As a person who eats what I kill, it made me wonder if anyone was actually eating wolf in Idaho. With the total reported kill at about 341 as of press time and the average weight of a wolf at near 80 pounds, that is more than 13 tons of meat on the ground. Probably all of it rotting or possibly being eaten by other wolves.
Idaho has laws that say hunters can't just shoot and run on wild game. Hunters are required to make "all reasonable attempts" at recovering game meat. And when the game is recovered, hunters have to follow wanton waste laws that apply to the meat. The laws establish a baseline for what the Idaho Department of Fish and Game considers harvestable meat.
In the 2011 Idaho Fish and Game Big Game rule book, there is the following rule for big game meat: "Hunters are required to remove and care for the edible meat of big game animals, except black bears, mountain lions and gray wolves."
A hunter can literally just shoot and run with lions and wolves and bears (oh my).
If they're not required to cart off the meat, does anyone eat wolf? I called a few wolf-hunting guide companies to see if anyone had eaten the wolves they had shot. The reaction I got was a mixture of revulsion and incredulity.
"Have you ever smelled a dead wolf? Do you know what they eat? Any animal that eats rotten meat, smells like death and looks like a dog is not all that popular on our dinner table around here ... so no, we don't eat wolf," explained Inga Cabral with Russell Pond & B Bar C Outfitters out of St. Maries.
I pleaded with her that all I wanted was some meat to try.
"If someone shoots a pup, I'll try and send you some meat," she said. "I don't think you want to eat an adult. Most of our hunters go for the biggest one in the group so I don't know if I can help you. Fish and Game even asked us to use gloves when skinning and gutting wolves because they are so nasty and full of parasites and things. They smell rotten. ... That is what they eat, rotten meat."
After repeated, unreturned calls to Idaho Fish and Game, I got the hint that "eating wolf" is not a topic that the department would like to go on record about.
Idaho is not the only area with wolf issues, pro or con. The Montana Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife group is taking aggressive moves to encourage wolf hunting. It is offering a $100 reward to sportsmen who send in photos of killed wolves. The president of the group, Keith Kubista, noted: "You have to encourage people to do it [wolf hunt]. ... You can't eat a wolf. There's no food value."
But that's not exactly true. According to the National Wildlife Health Center, "Fortunately, the meat from wildlife generally is safe to eat when properly harvested and prepared. ... Unfortunately, no matter how much we know about the meat being considered for consumption, there always will be some degree of risk."
So wolf is an "eat at your own risk" sort of meat. But there are famous cases of wolf eating. Probably the most famous involves Lewis and Clark. They shot 18 on their trip but ate only one--and only in desperation. But they ate the hell out of dog meat. The expedition ate 190 dogs total, according to the Natural History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Recently, Jedi knight Liam Neeson made headlines for eating wolf in preparation for his survival film The Grey. According to an interview with Neeson in Outdoor Life:
"A few guys did upchuck. We all knew what we were eating. All I can say is, it was very gamey," explained Neeson.
But long before the hoopla about Neeson, there was the Seattle-area restaurant How to Cook a Wolf. To be clear, the name is not an homage to barbarism but the title of a book by famous food writer M.F.K. Fisher. But that's not to say that people haven't been confused by the name.
"We had one person repeatedly egg the restaurant every few months. We ended up setting up security cameras and caught him hammering in a window and egging the inside of the restaurant," said chef-owner Ethan Stowell. "When we caught him, we asked why he was doing the egging. He said 'Cuz you can't serve wolf.' We showed him the menu and explained that we have never served wolf. ... He cut us a check for the damages."
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, Americans have a distaste for meat that is not chicken, pork or beef. Each culture seems to choose the animals that it is comfortable eating. Hindus don't eat cows. Americans consume huge amounts of beef. Portuguese eat horse. Americans closed the last horse glue and meat factory a few years back. Rabbit is a French staple and Americans keep them as pets. Wolf meat is not inherently a bad meat, but as wildlife reporter Perry Backus said: "In this country, we just don't eat dog, that's all."
At the Taiwanese night market I explained to my translator that I wanted to try the dog, some snake and "those little clams."
With a slight shrug, my translator gave the order to a lady at the counter. She smiled a little when the dog meat was ordered and then gathered up small amounts of each for the kitchen to cook.
The dog meat was fine--virtually indistinguishable from the many other ground meats that I've eaten in my life. It was mild and not in the least bit gamey, like some of the other exotics I have eaten. But then I thought back to my dog Miley at home in Idaho, and eating dog meat seemed like a terrible thing.
The whole experience made me wonder about the selective eating habits of a culture. To some extent, meat is meat, as long as it doesn't walk on two legs. Right?
So I did some follow-up questions with chef Stowell. I was curious how he would cook a wolf.
"I would spit roast him over wood, nice and slow. Then I would pull the meat and serve it with roasted jalapenos, tomatillo salsa, fresh cilantro and tortillas. Oh, and a good beer," he said. "You can't eat dog without beer."