Conversations About Wolves: Tsa Palmer

While conducting research for my monograph on The Company of Wolves, I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with Teresa (Tsa) Palmer, the wolf-handler who worked on the film. Much of our chat was of course about her work on The Company of Wolves and those parts of the conversation are included in the first chapter of the monograph, which focuses on the background and making of the film. Tsa also reflected on experiences she’d had working with wolves on other films, her work with the UK Wolf Conservation Trust (which she founded in 1995 with her late husband Roger) and the various perceptions people have of wolves, due in part, to their depiction in horror literature and cinema.

It wasn’t possible to include all our conversation in the book, so what had to be omitted for the sake of relevance and a pesky wordcount, I have shared here.

On her early career as a wolf-handler: When I was about 18, I met my late husband, Roger Palmer, and he had a wolf cub which was incredibly charismatic. It was quite an irresistible date to have someone with a wolf cub. We had the first cub for about a year and then we got a second cub because, obviously, wolves are pack animals. And then one day in the newspapers, in the national press, we heard about a wolf that had escaped from Pinewood Studios and it had to be shot. They were making a film, I think it was called Legend of the Werewolf, and I said to Roger ‘Why can’t our wolves be in a film?’ I managed to track down the people who were making the film and we ended up taking our first two wolves to Pinewood. I quickly realised why that other wolf had escaped - in the film, the wolves had to sit in a sort of make-believe circus truck and the spaces between the bars were a bit wide, so the wolf could actually get through. We walked the wolves around all day so they were quite tired and just lay down and didn’t try to escape. So that got us into filming and I suppose in those days, the 1970s, there weren’t really any other wolves that were socialised or that you could work with; it was kind of a niche market. And we were at the stage, I was in my early 20s, of needing funds to help build the wolf enclosures. We then went on to have the wolves in various things like Dracula, with Laurence Olivier, down in Tintagel in Cornwall, and I took a wolf to Denmark. We also did things like An American Werewolf in London, any film that needed a wolf. And then The Company of Wolves came along. We had two wolves in that particular film, and obviously quite often they used dogs. They had dogs like malamutes, but for any close-up shots they needed, they used the wolves and at other times when they needed a lot of animals in a scene, they used the dogs.

Tsa Palmer and friend
In 1995, quite a long time afterwards, about 12 years afterwards, we started the Wolf Conservation Trust. After that we haven’t really taken the wolves to be used in films because we don’t really want the wolves to be bracketed with the whole werewolf thing or with any kind of ‘bad’ image. We might possibly have people come to film for documentaries or National Geographic, that sort of thing, but not really anything to do with monsters! [The Company of Wolves] is kind of a different thing altogether though, isn’t it? The whole thing is Red Riding Hood and sexual awakening and I think, originally, that’s what the story of Red Riding Hood was tied up with, and the significance of the red cloak. It’s quite a complex film, The Company of Wolves. There’s nothing too traumatic in it, is there? You don’t actually see [Rosaleen] transform. I remember there was a lot of religious imagery in it too, wolves with crosses on chains around their necks.

On working with wolves on a film set: You have to be quite firm. I’ll give you an example. When we were filming Dracula, much of which was also shot in a studio, they would try to set up a scene where they had a rain machine, and they would want the wolf to go into the rain, and I would have to say ‘Look, would any intelligent animal just jump out into the rain?’ No. Why would they want to go out in the rain? You have to sit down with the crew and talk about what’s possible and what’s not possible. Quite often, the frustrating thing is that if you’re dealing with an animal and you’ve also got, in the case of Dracula, someone like Laurence Olivier, you’re always waiting for things to be set up and the main scenes to be shot, and by that stage your wolf might be quite tired and not want to do anything. It’s also a question of maybe letting the wolf become a little bit hungry so when they are in the scene, it’s fairly fundamental when you just need them to run from A to B, you use food to try and motivate them, as you would with a dog. You’d give them a treat, a reward. It’s not very difficult. So, as I say, because they were very socialised and because they were hand-raised and comfortable with most of what was going on, they were fine. They did surprise us; instead of getting scared, they actually rather enjoyed the whole scenario.

On the reputation of wolves and their association with horror films and werewolves: That’s how wolves were perceived to be. If you go right back, when people where establishing settlements here - you know the story - wolves came and predated upon the sheep and livestock. Wolves were definitely looked down upon, they were man’s number one enemy. People who were slightly ‘freaky’ were called werewolves. I think when Roger and I were keeping wolves in the 70s, people didn’t really know that much about them. They’re actually quite shy animals, and people hadn’t really captured them on film much. Nowadays in our shop at the Wolf Conservation Trust we have children’s cuddly toy wolves for sale. That wouldn’t really have been a possibility back in the 1970s. I think we’ll always carry on with [this particular] image of the wolf because that’s what happens. Liam Neeson made a film recently [The Grey, 2011] which featured wolves savagely attacking people. We know now that wolves don’t really do that, but it’s still not going to stop people thinking that’s what happens. I’m not really against [films like that], but we know that’s not really what wolves do. They usually run away from people. I don’t think there are a lot of films which are unsympathetic to wolves these days. There are probably much less werewolf films being made today than there were 30 years ago.

Actress Sarah Patterson and Tsa's wolf, Queenie, on the set of The Company of Wolves

According to the UK Wolf Conservation Trust’s website, ‘Our relationship with wolves is complex and fascinating and the symbolism of wolves taps deep into the human psyche.’ 

We do go back a long way, us and wolves, don’t we? Wolves are the most widespread mammal/carnivore in the Northern Hemisphere that there’s ever been and ever will be. Man and wolves have been there together for a long time. Some people really looked up to wolves. Native Americans really revered them. Then suddenly there was a tipping point and we didn’t really like having them around, they were perceived as a threat. People like to have control, don’t they? And we probably thought ‘We don’t want these [wolves] around anymore.’ Now of course we’re thinking ‘We should have everything back the way it used to be.’ It’s been nearly 300 years since we’ve had wolves here in the wild.

Visit the UK Wolf Conservation Trust here, and stay tuned for further updates on my forthcoming monograph.


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