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  • By Kara Newcastle

Myth Monday: The Shunka Warak’in, Native American Monster Wolf

Myth Monday: The Shunka Warak’in, Native American Monster Wolf

Black Wolf By Oshrihadad14 from Wikimedia Commons

In keeping with the theme of cryptids in the news, I came across an interesting little tidbit; in May 2018, a farmer in Montana shot and killed a strange, wolf-like animal on his property. The pictures that went along with the article showed a very large, shaggy-furred animal with a canine-head, somewhat small, pointed ears, and front legs and paws that appeared almost bear-like.

What the hell was this thing?

wolf creature, credit to Montana Fish & Wildlife & DailyMail

Sorry to spoil it for you, but DNA proved that the creature was nothing more than a common gray wolf frequently seen in Montana. The critter in the pictures certainly doesn’t look like a wolf, and, given the area where it was killed, people can be forgiven for thinking it was something … unworldly.

For hundreds of years, the Ioway tribe of Montana, along with tribes in Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas and other nearby states bordering Canada were quite familiar with a beast they called a shunka warak’in, a term that translates to “carries off dogs.” The shunka warak’in was said to be a very big, dog-like animal that frequently appeared at night, often stalking through Native American villages, unintimidated by anything. These things were known for attacking, killing and dragging off the villagers’ dogs—hence the name—and the Native Americans were absolutely certain that the shunka warak’in weren’t wolves. They knew what wolves looked like, and these things were too big, too aggressive … too strange.

By Mariomassone, NASA, compiled by FunkMonk via Wikimedia Commons

In time white people began to press further and further into North America’s plains, and the resident Native Americans frequently warned ranchers and journeying cowboys to watch out for the shunka warak’in, as it would go after their dogs, their livestock, and even them. Of course, the whites scoffed at the idea of a monstrous dog (they tended to scoff at all Native American legends, often to their regret later on), and went on to raise herds of sheep, cows and horses throughout the northern Midwest.

And then the shunka warak’in came.

The first few times the things were just glimpsed on the horizon, skulking at the edge of the ranchers’ property or a ways’ off from the cowboys’ herds. They might have just been big wolves, but they were certainly weird-looking, with sloped backs, blue-black fur, snub-nosed faces and yellow eyes. The witnesses likely fired a few shots in the air to scare the things off, but the animals would just come back, moving closer in every time, watching the people with a terrifyingly bizarre sort of intelligence and a very un-wolflike sense of boldness.

Soon after the sightings came stories of the shunka warak’in stealing livestock and dogs, menacing people in their homes or out in the fields. Their snarls and howls could be heard for miles off, and packs of them had no qualms about trotting through a person’s farm, often in full view of witnesses. Horrified ranchers would take shots at the huge things, but the dog-beasts would scatter with incredible swiftness, and many men claimed that they hit the things dead on—and these were cowboys, having grown up with guns and hunting and fighting, so they were likely good aims—only to see the monster barely stumble with the impact and then race off. What the hell were these things? Were they invulnerable?

Dire wolf size comparison

As it turns out, as fearsome as the shunka warak’in was, it wasn’t immune to bullets, and one day in 1886 a rancher named Israel Hutchins finally managed to shoot and kill one on his property in Montana after discovering it chasing his wife’s geese. With likely a combination of satisfaction at killing the thing and wanting to prove it to the world, the Hutchins sent the weird carcass to a taxidermist and general store manager named Joseph Sherwood and had it stuffed. The taxidermist had never seen such a frightening—and ugly—animal like this before, so after examining and stuffing it, the taxidermist-turned-biologist gave it a scientific name: Ringdocus.

shunka warak'in mount old

The Ringdocus mount

The newly christened Ringdocus mount was kept on display in the taxidermist’s general store in Henry’s Lake, Idaho, for many years before being donated to the Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocatello. The stuffed whatever-it-was was on display for another many years before it inexplicably vanished. Nobody knew what happened to it, but luckily, somebody had the foresight to take pictures of the thing before it was lost. The black and white photos were taken from different angles, all showing a snarling, shaggy canine-like animal that no one could readily identify.

By Amboseli_Spotted_Hyena.jpg via Wikimedia Commons

Some researchers maintained it was nothing more than an unusual wolf. Others have suggested that it was a hyena, a wolf-dog or wolf-coyote hybrid, or maybe even a surviving member of the prehistoric dire wolf species (not to be confused with the Game of Thrones dire wolves, but they were about as big.) In 1995 cryptozoologist (a scientist who studies animals largely believed to be mythological but may actual be real) Mark Hall suggested that perhaps this thing was an actual shunka warak’in. Debate continued for decades over what the shunka warak’in/Ringdocus was, but the general consensus was that without the body to examine and test, no one would ever know for certain what it was.

Then—surprise!—in December 2007 the Ringdocus mount was discovered in the museum’s storage facility by no less than Israel Hutchins’s grandson, naturalist Jack Kirby (not the legendary comic book artist). Apparently, it was packed away to make room for a new display and was simply forgotten about, but has now been moved and put back on display at the Madison Valley Historical Museum in Ennis, Montana. Annoyingly, no scientists have attempted to test the Ringdocus’s remains yet because it still belongs to the Idaho Museum of Natural History and is on loan to the Madison Valley Historical Museum, which means Madison Valley doesn’t have the legal authority to authorize any DNA testing. From what I’ve read about it so far, the Idaho Museum isn’t ready or willing to give approval to a test, possibly because they’re afraid that it’ll prove to be an normal animal and the paying public will lose interest.

Shunka warak'in mount new credit to Loren Coleman

Sightings of the shunka warak’in continue to this day in the upper Midwest and in Alberta, Canada. Several of the animals have been killed, and while they have unusual characteristics (such as reddish fur), thus far they’ve all been proven to be ordinary wolves. Even so, people are still reporting sightings of a big, black-furred, hyena-looking dog running around. The story is becoming increasingly popular, with various TV shows such as History Channel’s Monsterquest, Destination America’s Monsters and Mysteries in America, Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum, and Jack Osbourne’s short-lived Paranormal Highway searching for the beast.

Personally, if the shunka warak’in is as fierce as people claim, I think it might be better to let sleeping monster dogs lie. But that’s just me.

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