WASHINGTON – Will Graves has hunted game in the woods of Kazakhstan, vaccinated cattle against deadly disease in Mexico and done U.S. intelligence work in Germany.
Now the former National Security Agency linguist, whose lanky, six-foot-plus, broad-shouldered frame and thick shock of white hair make him look at least a decade younger than his 81 years, is on another mission — from his home in Millersville.
A 40-plus-year interest in wolves and their impact on cattle health led the Ladonia, Texas, native to pen a book on these topics last year. “Wolves in Russia: Anxiety Through the Ages” has sold 1,000 copies to date and been translated into Finnish.
“(Wolves) are beautiful but their numbers need to be controlled,” said Graves on a recent weekday afternoon, clad in a gray sweat suit and glasses. “The real threat is the parasites. I’m about the only one who’s ever brought that up.”
Graves, whose cozy, pastel home belies a fascination with weaponry and wolves, could be called something of an expert on “neospora caninum,” a parasite that causes miscarriage in pregnant cattle — and which Graves says wolves carry and pass in their feces.
Wolves are not native to Maryland.
A lifelong hunter whose interest in the sport led him to start reading about wolves in the 1950s, Graves recently received a written response to a letter he wrote in September to the U.S. Agriculture Department about wolves as carriers of the parasite. The agency said it would look into his concerns.
The status of wolves as an endangered species in parts of the U.S. has led to an explosion in wolf population in recent decades, Graves said. Cattle track wolf feces through pasture grass, ingest the parasite eggs present in the feces and become permanently unable to bear calves.
“‘Neospora caninum’ is a threat to the U.S. cattle industry,” said Graves, who is now working on a second letter to the federal government about the need to delist wolves in order to ameliorate the parasite problem.
Eric Koens, an acquaintance of Graves’ who raises cattle in northern Wisconsin, said the parasite has long been a problem for him and other farmers in the Great Lakes region.
“We have cattle that are losing their calves at five to seven months (in their pregnancies), so we don’t have any income from those cows,” Koens said, adding that he lost about 70 percent of his calf production to the parasite during the 1970s. “I think (Graves’) book is pretty important because he talks about wolves and what their impact has been.”
Graves’ interest in cattle goes back more than a half-century. In 1950, while studying Spanish at the University of Mexico in Mexico City, foot and mouth disease broke out among Mexican cattle. Wanting an “exciting, important job,” Graves applied and was accepted to become a member of a USDA cattle-vaccinating team that would travel by horseback through the Mexican countryside.
The disease affects cloven-hoofed animals, and, while not usually fatal, it causes painful blisters in the mouth and on the feet and can lead to heart conditions.
“I spoke Spanish and I knew how to ride,” Graves said. “When they called and said ‘When can you start?’ that was like heaven on Earth.”
Though he enjoyed the job, it didn’t last long. Several months after he started, the Korean War broke out and Graves was called up.
Having already demonstrated his ability to learn a foreign language, Graves was told he was eligible to study intensive Russian at Syracuse University if he joined the U.S. Air Force. He joined.
“As soon as I learned the (Russian) alphabet, I looked up the word for foot and mouth disease,” Graves remembered with a laugh. “I knew that word when I could hardly say ‘Mama’ or ‘Papa.'”
His interest in wolves was soon piqued by all the Russian wildlife and hunting articles he was reading to improve his grasp of the language.
“I started putting information about wolves on index cards, and every time I met a Russian I would ask if they knew anything about wolves,” Graves said.
After a year of Russian classes, the Air Force sent Graves to Germany — where he learned German — for a two-and-a-half year tour. In 1955, the National Security Agency hired the then-quadrilingual Graves as a linguist.
For the next 10 years, Graves continued to jet-set, living in locations throughout Germany and for several years in Cheltenham, England.
But Graves’ fascination with wolves and the animals’ impact on the health of livestock and humans never waned – even as he was courting the Norwegian-born Randi Graves, now his wife of 48 years.
The two met at a ball in Washington, D.C., in 1959.
“I said no when he asked me for a dance but I liked him a lot,” Randi Graves recalled with a laugh. “I can’t remember why. But he’s a super-nice man. I think his work (with wolves) is great. They’re such beautiful animals.”
In 1965, the Graves family, which by then included children Erick and Tina, moved to Millersville for Graves’ job.
It was about that time that Graves was inspired to write what would later become “Wolves in Russia: Anxiety Through the Ages.” In a book about wolves borrowed from his local library, Graves read that wolves were not a threat to humans.
“It was just this complete point of view that wolves are beneficial to nature,” Graves said. “People have to be taught that wolves are predators and under certain circumstances can be very dangerous. They need to be hunted to instill in them that natural fear of humans.”
In the 1990s, during a two-year stint as an assistant consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Graves befriended a Kazakh scientist who invited him to go wolf hunting in Kazakhstan.
While on that trip and several others, Graves learned that wolves in Kazakhstan, allowed for many years to thrive without population control due to rural ranchers’ lack of gun ammunition, were often unafraid of humans and sometimes killed them and other animals for sport.
Over the next decade, Graves continued to research and write material for his treatise about wolves. Detselig Enterprises Ltd. published the book last year and will print another 1,000 copies in coming months, Graves said.
Longtime neighbor Frank Taylor called Graves “a great American” for his character, career and tenacity in writing his book.
“He’s a very trustworthy, wonderful guy,” said Taylor, who has known Graves since 1965. “He’s very patriotic and he’s had an amazing career. He’s a great American, as far as I’m concerned.”