Farley McGill Mowat, 92, collapsed and died on May 6, 2014 at his longtime home in Port Hope, Ontario, six days short of his 93rd birthday. Possibly the most widely read Canadian author ever, Mowat produced more than 40 books, mostly with pro-animal themes, which sold more than 17 million copies and were translated into 52 languages.
Inheriting an already famous name, as great-great-nephew of third Ontario prime minister Oliver Mowat (1820-1903), and the son of World War I veteran, librarian, and novelist Angus Mowat, Farley Mowat was born on May 12, 1921, in Belleville, Ontario. He began writing in his early teens, while his family lived in Windsor from 1930–1933. He attended Richmond Hill High School, but in his mid-teens relocated with his family to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
There, with his dog Mutt, memorialized in The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be (1957), Farley Mowat discovered his calling as a naturalist and nature writer. Forming the Beaver Club of Amateur Naturalists with several friends, Mowat at age 13 founded a nature newsletter, Nature Lore, and eventually sold a weekly column on birds to the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. He used the proceeds to feed nonmigratory ducks and geese, and pets including a rattlesnake, a gopher, two owls he remembered in Owls in the Family (1962), an imported Florida alligator, several cats, and a living insect collection. His great-uncle Frank Farley, an ornithologist with the Royal Ontario Museum, took him to the Arctic for the first time in 1936.
Angus Mowat was in 1937 appointed inspector of public libraries for the province of Ontario. Farley Mowat returned to Ontario with his family, but revisited Sakatchewan in 1938 to collect bird specimens for the Royal Ontario Museum.
“Almost all young children have a natural affinity for other animals,” Mowat recalled later. “When I was a boy growing up on the Saskatchewan prairies, that feeling of affinity persisted––but it became perverted. Under my father’s tutelage I was taught to be a hunter; taught that communion with nature could be achieved over the barrel of a gun; taught that killing wild animals for sport establishes a mystic bond, an ancient pact‚ between them and us.
“I learned first how to handle a BB gun, then a .22 rifle and finally a shotgun. With these I killed ‘vermin’: sparrows, gophers, crows and hawks. Having served that bloody apprenticeship, I began killing ‘game’: prairie chicken, ruffed grouse, and ducks. By the time I was fourteen, I had been fully indoctrinated with the sportsman’s view of wildlife as objects to be exploited for pleasure.
“Then I experienced a revelation,” wounding but not killing a goose, whose evident yearning to rejoin her flock as the other birds flew out of sight lastingly transformed young Farley Mowat’s perspective.
“Driving home to Saskatoon that night,” he continued, “I felt a sick repugnance for what we had done. I never hunted again.”
But Mowat did enlist in 1939 to participate in World War II. As a subaltern commanding a rifle platoon, Mowat on June 10, 1942 participated in the Allied invasion of Sicily.
“It was in Ortona, against the backdrop of German guns, that he drafted early versions of The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be and Owls in the Family,” recalled Toronto Globe & Mail obituarist Sandra Martin.
Serving with the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, Mowat rose to the rank of captain while in Italy, then was transferred with the division to the Netherlands in 1945. Becoming an intelligence operative, Mowat crossed the Nazi lines to help arrange Operation Manna, a series of food drops credited with saving thousands of Dutch lives.
In My Father’s Son (1992) Mowat recalled forming the 1st Canadian Army Museum Collection Team, which shipped to Canada captured German military equipment including a V-1 rocket-propelled “buzz bomb,” a V-2 rocket, and several armored vehicles.
“Only one item of the more than 900 tons of equipment he collected with some pals still survives: a manned V-1, which is now in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa,” according to Martin of the Globe & Mail, but other sources say some of the armored vehicles are displayed at the Canadian Forces Base Borden tank museum.
Postwar, Mowat studied biology at the University of Toronto. Encountering the Ihalmiut Inuit during a 1948-1949 study of the relationship between wolf predation and caribou population declines, Mowat became infuriated at the mistreatment of the Inuit by the Canadian government, producing People of the Deer, an award-winning novelized exposé. Published in 1952, People of the Deer led to significant reforms in the government’s Inuit policy.
Mowat’s next book, The Regiment (1955) was the first of several accounts of his wartime experiences. Mowat then turned to writing for young adults, producing Lost in the Barrens (1956), The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be (1957), and Owls in the Family (1961), as well as two nonfiction sea stories about the work of salvage tugs, The Grey Seas Under (1958) and The Serpent’s Coil (1961), and The Desperate People, a nonfiction reprise of The People of the Deer.
All three of Mowat’s stories for young adults became enduring hits. Lost in the Barrens, also published as Two Against The North, proved to be a timely exploration of cross-cultural issues, as popular in the U.S. during the racial desegregation era as it was in Canada. The story concerns the struggle of two teenaged boys, one Caucasian, the other Cree, to survive a Far North winter, after becoming lost while investigating the ruins of a possible Viking settlement. Because of a long history of mutual fear and suspicion among the Cree and the Inuit, they believe themselves to be deep within enemy territory, but eventually are found and helped by an Inuit boy of about their own ages.
Lost in the Barrens also became a 1990 film.
Mowat’s most influential and most controversial book, Never Cry Wolf, appeared in 1963. From his 1948-1949 observations, Mowat contradicted conventional belief about wolves on three key points.
First, Mowat found that trophy hunting by Caucasians, not hunting by either wolves or Native Americans, was the main reason for the falling caribou population. Mowat emphasized that wolves rarely hunt to excess.
Second, Mowat pointed out that wolves who hunt large prey usually attack the old, the sick, the injured, or the unguarded very young, all of whom are less likely to survive for long with or without predation. This constant culling tends to keep the herds of large ungulates healthy.
Third, Mowat observed that wolves often hunt smaller prey, including mice, when large animals are inaccessible or the small prey are so abundant as to be relatively easily caught.
“Whenever and wherever men engage in the mindless slaughter of animals (including other men), they attempt to justify their acts by attributing the most vicious or revolting qualities to those they would destroy,” Mowat concluded. “The less reason there is for the slaughter, the greater the campaign of vilification…We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be—the mythological epitome of a savage, ruthless killer—which is, in reality, no more than the reflected image of ourself.”
Never Cry Wolf infuriated the wolf research establishment, including Frank Banfield, who as a Dominion Wildlife Service scientist had been Mowat’s supervisor, and was among the higher-ups whom Mowat accused of ignoring his findings.
Mentioning Little Red Riding Hood, Banfield wrote in 1964 for the Canadian Field-Naturalist, “I hope that readers of Never Cry Wolf will realize that both stories have about the same factual content.” Banfield also accused Mowat of plagiarizing from Banfield’s research, and from Adolph Murie‘s 1939-1941 observations of wolves eating mice, published in The Wolves of Mount McKinley (1944).
Never Cry Wolf was also decried by adventurer and anthropologist John Goddard (1924-2013), whose work came under similar criticism for fictionalizations, by wolf experts L. David Mech, Lu Carbyn, and Valerius Geist, and linguist Will Graves.
But, becoming a 1983 hit film, Never Cry Wolf reversed the formerly negative public image of wolves worldwide, and helped to bring about the 1995 restoration of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. As the numbers of people able to observe wolves in the wild rose from the dozens into the thousands and even tens of thousands, Mowat’s assessments of wolf behavior have increasingly been vindicated.
Already interested in the Viking exploration of eastern Canada between approximately 960 and 1010 CE, Mowat in West Viking(1965) sought to connect the clues in Norse sagas to specific Canadian geography, and advanced a theory that Celts from Ireland had settled in eastern Canadian even before the Vikings. Like Never Cry Wolf, West Viking has been extensively “debunked” by mainstream researchers, but may be supported by archaeological discovery, and will likely remain controversial for decades to come. The Curse of the Viking Grave (1968) reintroduced the characters of Lost in the Barrens for a further adventure.
Relocating to Burgeo, Newfoundland, Mowat favorably portrayed the traditional ways of life of his new neighbors in The Rock Within the Sea (1968), but became more critical in The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float (1969), concerning his efforts to restore and sail a leaky schooner. Mowat then furiously denounced Newfoundland attitudes toward wildlife in A Whale for the Killing (1972), made into a 1981 film starring Peter Strauss and Richard Widmark, and Sea of Slaughter (1984), tracing commercial and recreational marine life massacres in Atlantic Canada from the arrival of explorer John Cabot in 1497. A Whale for the Killing helped to make halting commercial whaling an internationally popular cause; Sea of Slaughter rejuvenated protests against the Atlantic Canada harp seal hunt, which were already underway as early as 1900.
Accepting a 1985 invitation to speak at California State University/Chico, Mowat was denied entry for reasons apparently associated with his opposition to hunting. Attributing his exclusion to the influence of the gun lobby, Mowat never again visited the U.S., detailing his reasons why in My Discovery of America, published later the same year.
Mowat meanwhile authored a biography of primatologist Dian Fossey, who was murdered at her camp in Rwanda on December 27, 1985. Based on her personal journals, the biography was published in 1987 as both Virunga: The Passion of Dian Fossey and Woman in the Mists, alluding to Fossey’s 1983 bestseller Gorillas in the Mist.
Mowat in later years revisited and updated his earlier themes in titles including Rescue the Earth: Conversations (1990); Born Naked, a 1993 memoir of his childhood; the travelogues High Latitudes: An Arctic Journey and No Man’s River, based respectively on journeys undertaken in 1966 and 1947; The Farfarers (2000), looking again at the subjects of West Viking; Mowat returned to the theme of pre-Columbian interactions between Europe and North America. His last major book was Bay of Spirits: A Love Story (2006), describing travels in Atlantic Canada in the early 1960s.
Mowat also became increasingly involved in organized advocacy for animals and nature. “For the last 25 years he was the international chair of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and I’ve been on the board of the Farley Mowat Foundation,” Sea Shephed founder Paul Watson told the Toronto Star.
In 2002 Watson renamed the then-Sea Shepherd flagship the Farley Mowat. Originally a Norwegian fisheries research and law enforcement vessel, the ship was acquired by the Sea Shepherds in August 1996. At first called the Sea Shepherd III, after two previous Sea Shepherd flagships, it later became the Ocean Warrior before being named after Mowat. In April 2008 the Farley Mowat was boarded and seized off the coast of Newfoundland by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans for allegedly approaching sealing vessels too closely.
Author Farley Mowat posted bail for captain Alex Cornelissen and first mate Peter Hammarstedt, who were jailed in Sydney, Nova Scotia.
“I will confirm now that I will use whatever resources I’ve got, monetary and otherwise, to defend them,” Mowat told CBC News, calling their arrests and the impoundment of the vessel “absolutely atrocious.”
Cornelissen and Hammarstedt were convicted in absentia. Abandoned by the Sea Shepherds, the Farley Mowat was in November 2009 sold by court order to pay docking fees. The purchaser, Green Ship LLC, of Oregon, announced that it would be refitted for use as in oceanic research. In March 2013, however, the Farley Mowat was again sold to pay docking fees, and was reportedly scrapped in June 2013.
Mowat also backed the Green Party of Canada, headed by longtime friend Elizabeth May, authoring a direct mail appeal for the Green Party in June 2007.
Also in 2007, Mowat donated 200 acres of his land in Cape Breton to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust. In addition, Mowat was an honorary director of the North American Native Plant Society.