Wolves in the zoo – by Howard Nemerov

Wolves In The Zoo – Howard Nemerov [1920-1991]

History is one of those marvelous and necessary illusions we have to deal with. It's one of the ways of dealing with our world with impossible generalities which we couldn't live without.  - Howard Nemerov

Relevant Background

  • Howard Nemerov was born in 1920 in New York, New York.
  • He came from a wealthy Jewish family. They owned a fashionable department store in New York.
  • His family had a great interest in the Arts.
  • Nemerov went to an expensive private school and gained his university degree at Harvard 1941. He was a successful sportsman while a student.
  • Throughout World War II, he served as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
  • He married in 1944, and after the war, began a teaching and writing career.
  • Nemerov received many awards and honours, among them a Guggenheim fellowship.


  • Nemerov starts off with an unusual description of wolves he has seen at a zoo. He suggests they resemble dogs, just dogs that haven’t been drawn properly. He means they have lost their healthy and natural appearance from being imprisoned in the zoo. They are no longer wolf-like.
  • In the remaining three lines of the first stanza, Nemerov tells us the wolves are in a cage. From the information board at the cage, known technically as ‘the legend’, he informs us about wolves. He says that there is no scientific evidence that this species of wolf ever attacked a human.
  • In the next stanza, Nemerov deals with some of the legends, exaggerated stories, and fairy-tales that surround wolves. In the stories, the wolves are portrayed as dangerous to humans. Stories from Siberia in the Arctic Circle have suggested that terrified nomads used to drop babies as food for wolf packs. According to the legend, the babies were used to delay the wolves from chasing their snow sledges as they fled across the ice. This story is untrue, but it gave people everywhere a negative attitude to wolves.
  • The next point runs from the second, into the third stanza. Nemerov suggests that the real villains in the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale are the girl herself and her granny. The hidden tail of the wolf in the fairy-tale is meant to be the evil sign of the wolf. But it is the humans who hide a savage tail. Nemerov claims that the tale told by Red Riding Hood after the slaughter of the wolf is itself the beast-like tail, the source of evil. He means that this story led to the slaughter of countless innocent wolves. In fact, he says, wolves do no wait for humans with saliva on their long teeth. It is more the case that humans wait just like that for wolves.
  • As a result of fairy-tales two species of wolf are almost extinct: the grey wolf and the timber wolf.
  • In the fourth stanza, Nemerov humorously blames nannies in the nursery for turning people against an innocent creature, the wolf.
  • In a clever way, Nemerov tells us that these stories have influenced history. He uses a phrase that means energetic young children: ‘young sparks’. The ‘young sparks’ have grown up with a fear of wolves in their minds from stories told to them in the nurseries. The stories are nonsense, but they have created fears that have led to people massacring most of the wolves in the northern hemisphere. It is as if we have burned down the forests where the wolves live all because of childhood stories.
  • A run on point between the fourth and fifth stanza, concerns the money or ‘bounty’ that was offered for the heads of wolves in the past. This has reduced the wolf packs of the past to a few survivors. And these live on human terms, in an unnatural way, no longer in the wild.
  • They have surrendered and live in zoos. Nemerov calls these zoos after the first ever zoo from ancient history, ‘Babylon’.
  • In these zoos, creatures such as the peacock and tiger have lost their wild nature and purpose in living. The peacock just drags its feathers in the dust of the pathways and the tiger walks up and down in a shady area, caged in. The bars on the cage create strips of shadow that resemble the stripes of the once great tiger of the wild.


  • Captivity is wrong
    Humans have destroyed the wildness in nature. Nemerov uses wolves in a zoo to suggest that humans have ruined many species of wild creature. The captured wolves are unnatural, like badly drawn dogs. Late in the poem he also uses the example of peacocks and tigers to show how captivity destroys the true nature of an animal. Use the summary [above] to show examples of legends and fairy stories that gave a false image of wolves. As a result of hunting, there are only a few survivors, living on human terms—not like true creatures of the wild. The remaining wolves in zoos are said to exist in a happy state. The wolves are officially happy. In reality their existence is terrible. A zoo offers an unnatural existence for a wolf.
  • False Fears
    Nemerov believes that human fears spread through stories have led to the near destruction of wolves as a species. He shows us the harm done to wolves by false human fears. Because of our false fears we act aggressively to protect ourselves. We hunt our enemy, the wolf. But the enemy is only in our imagination. In the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood and the granny herself are the real villains, not a big bad wolf. Due to the hatred of wolves that this fairy tale causes, wolves as a species are nearly extinct. The idea that babies were thrown to wolves to save their families in Siberia has led to a horror of wolves. But this story is false. False stories that lead to false fears are like forest fires in the way these stories destroy wild animals by giving a very wrong impression of them.
  • Kindness
    A neighbour provides a pet parrot to a grieving mother as a replacement for her lost child. During the remainder of her life, the neighbours try to treat the woman with a mixture of pity and support. But the woman doesn’t enjoy the kindness because the neighbours act in a superior way towards her and thus patronise her.
  • The influence of childhood on how humans behave
    Nemerov claims the fairy-tales and legends of childhood have led to a fear of wolves. Nemerov humorously blames nannies in the nursery for the killing off of various species of wolf. He thinks it is wrong that we have grown up with a bad attitude to wolves. We got this wrong attitude as innocent children. We were brainwashed, he claims. Wolves became our enemy because it suited adults to use fear of a wild animal to control us and entertain us. That is why Nemerov uses the clever comparison between wolves and badly drawn dogs. It is children who draw, and it is attitudes picked up in childhood that have caused adults to slaughter wolves.


  • Form This poem is a lyric in five stanzas of four lines each.
  • Rhyme Nemerov doesn’t use end of line rhyming, but he uses a lot of repetitions to create a musical effect [see poetic sound effects below]
  • Language The language is straight-forward, everyday English mostly.
  • Diction See Pun, below, for examples of Nemerov’s cleverness with words. The poet uses an unusual phrase ‘done out of being’ instead of ‘slaughtered’. This phrase gets across the idea that humans have cheated wolves of their existence.
  • Full Stops and Commas Full stops do not coincide with the end of stanzas for the most part. Many of the stanzas are run-on stanzas.
  • Comparison The poem opens with an unusual comparison between wolves and drawings of dogs.
  • Imagery The poem has interesting images of animals in a zoo and images from legend and fairytales.
  • Metaphor The evil influence of fairy-tale figures on wolves is compared to a ‘tail’. The destruction of wolves by bounty hunting is compared to a forest fire. He uses a few words associated with fire in that stanza. Find them.
  • Simile The comparison of wolves to badly drawn dogs is a simile due to the use of the word ‘like’.
  • Contrast [difference] The poet contrasts lies told about wolves to the facts.
  • Mood The poet creates a strange mood with his comparison of zoo wolves to badly drawn dogs. The strange mood continues when he attacks the fairytale and reverses its meaning. His claim that humans have recklessly destroyed wolves creates a disturbing and uncomfortable atmosphere for the reader. But the mood is also humorous in the unusual way Nemerov looks at creatures in the zoo. His word plays create a humorous atmosphere. The mood is funny and enjoyable when the poet blames nannies in the nursery for wolves being extinct.
  • Hyperbole [Exaggeration] The stories of babies being sacrificed to wolves are exaggerated. This is an example of hyperbole based on human fears.
  • Paradox [apparent contradiction] Stories told to protect children destroyed a species of wolves. The so-called innocent victims of a wolf in the fairy tale are the real villains with the fangs.
  • Pun [A play on words Nemerov uses ‘legend’ cleverly in the first stanza to mean two opposite things. It refers first to the scientific statement on their cage. The legend states that wolves are harmless. Legend is also used in the poem to indicate falsehoods or fairy-tales that have no factual evidence to support them. These legends suggested wolves are harmful. The poem is all about the harm done to wolves by legends in that sense. There is a brilliant pun on ‘tales’ and ‘tails’ in line ten. There is a very clever word trick used when the poet calls the children that later burned out the wolves ‘young sparks’.
  • AllusionThe poem contains allusions or references to a well-known fairy tale.
  • Tone The poet is full of sympathy for wolves. He sees them as a wronged species. There is an accusing and yet funny tone in the way he says zoo wolves are ‘drawn wrong’. The tone contains regret when the poet writes ‘so late’. The tone is bitter when Nemerov claims that the heroes of the fairy tale were the ‘real aggressors’. The tone mocks our fear of wolves. The tone is funny when the poet blames nannies. The tone is ironic when the poet plays on the meaning of words like ‘legend’ and ‘tale’. The poet is very ironic when he uses the word ‘happy’ as he means the opposite.
  • Repetition Note how the poet repeats the word ‘drawn’ in the first line. This helps to create rhyming within the line and emphasises how unlike true wolves the zoo wolves really are. It emphasises that wolves in zoos are like wolves that children would design. Notice how the poet creates music with repetitions like ‘ac’ in line five, known as internal rhyme. Note the cross-rhyme between ‘sled’ and ‘red’ in lines seven and eight. Find more of these yourself if you can.
  • Assonance [similar vowel sound repetition] Note the repeated ‘a’ sounds in line nine. They emphasise ‘fangs’.
  • Consonance [similar consonant sound repetition] Note the frequent ‘r’ sounds in line fourteen and fifteen. This repetition emphasises the word ‘fires’ and the destruction of wolves.
  • Alliteration [repetition of consonant sounds at the start of nearby words] There are many examples that are worth finding as they make the poem musical e.g. three examples of words that begin with ‘d’ in the first line. Find some more examples yourself.
  • Sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sound] Note the frequent ‘s’ sounds in lines five to seven. This sibilance emphasise the word ‘sacrifice’.

H/t  Wolves in the Zoo – Howard Nemerov – skoool.ie :: exam centre

More Howard Nemerov quotes

Read more at http://izquotes.com/quote/134757


Nemerov, Howard (1920-1991) To “see in a thinking way” has been Howard Nemerov’s ambition. The variety of his work defeats easy classification. His darkly witty or sardonic poems stand beside searchingly romantic ones. Lyrical, observant metaphors give way to ironic, intellectual brooding. Above all, like Robert Frost or W.H. Auden, Nemerov is a contemplative poet, taking long, often skeptical views of modern society and traditional values. He wants both to display and to test the power of the mind as it threads a way through the maze of experience: “to make some mind of what was only sense.” Nemerov was born in New York City and graduated from Harvard in 1941. During World War II he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and then the U.S. Army Air Force. He began teaching in 1946. His first volume of poetry, “The Image and the Law”, was published the next year. He taught at Bennington, Brandeis, and since 1969 at Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to 13 volumes of poetry, his works include novels, stories and a notable body of criticism. He was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1978 his “Collected Poems” was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; in 1981 he received the Bollingen Prize. In 1988 he was named the nation’s third poet laureate.

© J.D. McClatchy in “The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry”, and other sources.

H/t Return to Nemerov Menu


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