My name is Elke Duerr and I am a documentary filmmaker, lover of life, lover of this earth and all of her creatures, and lover of the pristine design of life here on earth. Film is my way of being a voice for the voiceless animals and land. My work is a co-production between the animals, the land, and myself. I am an interspecies communicator, and I make my films from the perspective of the animal or element with whom I am working. I build a relationship with the animals and elements whom I am covering, so I gain their trust and the story gets deep and rich. The narrative is often in the first person, told from the animals’ and elements’ point of view.
Since I was a little child, I have been extremely connected to the natural world. It is intrinsic to me to communicate with all the other life forms around me. In my childhood and youth in the seventies and eighties, many days were spent wandering around the forests and fields near my village of 180 people in Northern Bavaria, Germany. It was of utmost importance for me to be outside, and my family took me out into nature from an early age. Later, I was granted the right to roam about on my own. The only stipulation was that I had to be home by the time the bell of the little chapel in our settlement rang at 7pm. I timed it so I could make the most of this curfew, often running home at the first stroke of the bell.
In post WWII Germany, there was no awareness for other life forms; people had barely survived two wars in just a short time, and for them, it had all been about survival from then on. Animals were commodities to be “used,” specifically: eaten, worn as garments, or sold for a gain. They were generally not very cared for beyond fattening them up for slaughter or grooming them for sale. In fact, the first insecticides and pesticides, as well as fertilizer, came on the market in the seventies in my area and were touted as the miracle cure for everything. My family did not have the money for these things, and we also did not have the stomach to see our beloved swallows die from eating contaminated insects. My father, a visionary in his own way, could foresee where this all would lead. The destruction of intact ecosystems by this aggressive kind of agriculture was imminent to him. I was determined from the get-go to protect our local fauna and flora; however, I was too little to fight the fallout from the “economic miracle” that took place in front of our eyes. There was no consideration for the earth and her creatures, even though the earth is our economy.
Early on, when I was not even in school yet, I would tell my mother in the summer that we had to follow the large herds of animals. She was puzzled. Unbeknownst to both of us, I had cellular memory of large herds roaming this earth. From where, I do not know. There were no books, and we did not have a TV. When she started talking about taking me to the zoo, I froze in my tracks! “No, not the zoo! The opposite! The free ones, the ones who are happy and are allowed to move!” I would exclaim. From that moment on, this was all I wished for when my birthday came around or Christmas was coming: to spend time with the large herds of animals like the bison and reindeer. It was not until much later that my wish was granted. One day, my grandfather was telling me the names of all of our fields, which was boring because it went something like this: “And this one here is called ‘Stoney Field,’ this one is named ‘Rennert’s Field’ after some guy who owned it before us,” and so on. My ears only perked up when he was showing me where our ancestors had killed the last wild wolf on our land. I exclaimed, “This one is called the wolf trap!” I asked him, all excited, “Where are they, where are the wolves, Grandpa?” “Oh, this is where our ancestors killed the last wolves so you and I would be safe,” he answered. But instead of feeling safe and happy about it, I got all mad and sad and told him, “I will bring him back, Grandpa!” “What would you do that for?” he asked me. “Our ancestors worked so hard on exterminating them and you want to bring them back? Why on earth would you do that?” When we finally did get a TV and I watched my first wildlife documentaries, I was appalled! For someone like me who intimately knew and communicated with (wild) animals, that approach to documentary filmmaking was horrifying! It was all ABOUT the animals, as seen from a human-centric point of view, and made to entertain. I made a promise to myself to become a new kind of animal filmmaker, one who is a true voice for the voiceless animals and works WITH them. My resolve to tell the animals’ stories from their perspective and WITH them was strong and alive from then on.
Animals communicate with their feelings and in pictures. For example, one night in the Montana backcountry when I was staying in a cabin, I got an SOS call from outside in the wild. I “heard” it in my inner being without words, felt this strong distress signal coming towards me, and put on my clothing and boots to go outside. I just started walking until the signal got stronger and stronger, so to speak. When I arrived at the pole barn, the signal was the strongest. Because I could not see anybody, I investigated the area and opened up the lid of the trashcan that had just recently been emptied. Inside on the bottom were 3 pack rats, cold, wet, and looking miserable. They had chewed a hole in the lid and eaten from my neighbors’ garbage. Little did they know that the container had been emptied and that they would fall to the bottom of the trash bin and get stuck there. The temperatures were in the teens and dropping by the minute. Had I not heeded the call, they would have frozen onto the bottom of the container and died that night. I communicated in pictures that I would help them, that they would be safe, and gently tipped the large bin to the side so they could step out. I showed them mental pictures of their safe and dry nests and told them to go straight to their dens. They were dazed from the cold and two scampered off. The one who stayed climbed up the pole right next to me until she was at the same level as my face, about two inches away from it. She looked me in the eyes and silently communicated “Thank you!” to me. Then she too climbed down and went off in the direction of her den. I told them to stay out of the garbage and that I would share some compost items with them in the future. The lid was fixed and the trash secured from that day on.
There is nothing mystical about communicating with other life forms. In fact, people often try to call me a “whisperer” of some sort, but I always refute these claims. “This is full-on communication, no whispering at all. We communicate with each other like you and I would.” Having grown up in a country that killed many medicine people as “witches” during the so-called “witch-trials” because these people, mainly women, had a strong connection with the land and the animals and all life forms, I feel that the kind of shyness around it and mystification of a natural process is related to our going under the radar with our communication skills and calling it “whispering.” It is time that we owned our innate birthright of being ONE with all of life and exercising our skills of communication and connection more fully.
It took me a while to get back to my promise to the wolves. Fast forward a decade to 1988. I had moved to the US from Germany because I wanted to be around wild animals and wilderness. During my first year here, I traveled the US before settling in New Mexico. On my second day there, I was introduced to a medicine person from one of the Native pueblos. She made my life-long “job” and commitment of talking with the animals and all life forms a thing as “normal and accepted” as a sunrise, and what is more, she encouraged me to develop and trust it even more deeply.
“Of course,” she would say when I came back and told her about having just communicated with a coyote, an animal that I first became familiar with in New Mexico. This particular coyote had moved into the inner city of Albuquerque, NM because of coyote killing contests going on outside of town. He communicated via pictures and feelings that his whole pack had been killed. I picked up the images from him and put the story together. Needless to say, the accompanying feelings he transmitted to me were images of PTSD and major trauma. When he saw a car coming on the road, he did not know which direction to go and displayed symptoms of major distress.
Nowadays, I offer one-on-one sessions with people who need to communicate with their pets and with the animals who inhabit the land where they live. Furthermore, I conduct interspecies communication workshops in groups of 12 participants or fewer.
I started backpacking in the Gila Wilderness in Southwestern New Mexico in 1988 and enjoyed my encounters with bears, coyotes, elk, and bobcats immensely. But one key animal was missing: the Mexican Gray Wolf! There was talk about reintroducing them, and when they finally came home and were starting to be released into the wild again, I was ready for them.
My promise to the wolves to help bring them back to their former habitat was alive and well within me. I told stories about them in the schools, at events, and through my writing. I raised awareness about them and then finally took the dive and started on my journey of making my first documentary about the Mexican Gray Wolves, entitled: Stories of Wolves – The Lobo Returns. Almost immediately, I received a contract from the New Mexico Film Office to get me started. I was so engrossed in my project that I would write: The LOVE returns instead of lobo, the Spanish word for wolf. The whole project was a labor of love for these animals and the land that needed them to keep the herds of deer and elk healthy, running, and strong. Wolves, contrary to popular belief, only take out the old, sick, weak, and inexperienced in a herd of deer and elk. Where they are missing—which is pretty much everywhere in the lower 48 states except for NM, AZ, ID, AK, MT and a few in WA and CA—there is an increase of chronic wasting disease in their former prey animals. When I first started in 2008, it was a risky business to make a film about wolves. The Fish and Wildlife employees who had released the wolves back into the wild from captive breeding facilities had to be escorted in bulletproof vehicles. There were death threats, and I received one too. When planning a talk about wolves in wolf country, the venue that sponsored my project received a call from an irate person who did not like the idea of the wolves coming back to NM after a 25-year absence. He threatened that “something would happen to me, the presenter” if I chose to proceed with my planned talk.
The frightened organizer was ready to call off the event, but I insisted that we proceed. “It is not a democracy if we call off an important event because of one person with a gun when 50 people have already signed up for my film outreach talk.” I was determined, and we went ahead as scheduled. The person showed up and sat with his hands crossed in the back of the room. I just knew it was him because everybody else in the room was giving off a peaceful vibe. This was my challenge of the day, and I did my very best to employ lots of humor, be unbiased in my presentation, and show both sides of the coin. My approach highlighted the importance of wolves in an intact ecosystem, and he later called the organizers back and said: “She has a point.” They relayed that message to me, and I was happy to hear about his change of heart.
It is of utmost importance in my work to keep it lighthearted and playful. Otherwise, I will not last. All the things I witness, including the assault on our earth and the war on nature, could easily take their toll on my heart if it I did not utilize playfulness and a sense of humor when I deal with particularly tough situations. We are all in this together, and we are all part of both the solution and the problem. We can laugh together during a film screening and open the door to a dialogue and mutual understanding. There is no reason to assign blame to anybody or come from an approach of “them versus us.” The times of fighting one another are over. Collaboration is what is needed. Only together can we face this world and live in a different way, a way that honors all life.
Another snag I ran into with my wolf project was the “system.” Everybody had a set idea of how wildlife documentaries had to be made. Most producers of such projects are male—male DOPs, male directors, you name it. My approach as I have outlined earlier is of a more feminine, collaborative nature, and I am not afraid to start a movement! When I was told by a possible grant-maker that I had to make changes to my doc according to “how things were being done” to receive substantial funding, I forfeited the money and instead used crowdfunding from wolf supporters and my own savings. This way, I could stay out of old (and in my way of seeing things, “outdated”) ways of doing things. Instead of the ominous male voice speaking in a British accent about the “plight of the wolves,” I went with the kind lady who does professional voiceover, and is a wolf lover, who offered her services for free in exchange for a gift certificate to a coffee shop. I knitted her a scarf I designed myself instead, and it was a very happy exchange. The film has traveled around the world in film festivals, and I have shown it extensively in the US and Europe where it found distribution and garnered awards.
People came on board from everywhere. At wolf events, when I would run into children and young people, they often asked if I could give them a voice as well and allow them to tell their truth about wolves and include it in the film project. I also met the photographer who I had asked for permission to use their picture of a dead wolf in the video. We are now friends and regularly visit each other. I had no clue how to use FinalCut and was wondering how to proceed with the editing part of the film after acquiring all this wonderful footage. Again, people came out of the woodwork when they heard about my project and learned what I needed. Someone donated the editing program to me and others patiently taught me how to use it. When we finally premiered the film in October of 2011 in Albuquerque, we had to turn people away because I had only rented a place with 300 seats, not knowing in advance how many people would attend. This was a success beyond my wildest dreams. I am still showing the film at schools and in the larger community. In fact, I just screened it at Humboldt University in California not too long ago. The response to Stories of Wolves – The Lobo Returns was incredible and still is to this day.
My story does not end here. In fact, it just started with the wolves. I published a book on humans and wolves titled Wolves and Humans – A new story of coexistence. It aims to counteract the damage that “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs” have done over hundreds of years of propagating the myth of the big bad wolf, and it was nominated for a book award. My wolf photography was acquired by the State Land Commissioner and hung in his office, which was frequently visited by ranchers. It has also been displayed in still photography exhibits around the world. When people started calling me “Wolf Woman,” I knew it was time to expand my reach. I did not want to get stuck in this one particular image of “Wolf Woman” since I love all life forms, not just the wolves. Hence, I started the non-profit Web Of Life Foundation, W.O.L.F, a 501(c)(3) to reach out to a wider array of people in different ways, inform them about our endangered animals, and help them reconnect with nature. “WE all belong in the WEb of life” is our motto. No exceptions.