Stjepan “Stipe” Mesić was raised by wolves, so he learned the value of teamwork early.
Later in his famous life, after he had left the forest and learned to walk upright, he reflected on this period with unmistakable nostalgia. “Wolves are different than people,” he said wistfully in a 2006 interview at the Croatian National Castle. “My memories of those days are hazy, shrouded by half-recollected flashes of fur, mist, dew and teeth. But even so, I cannot ever forgot the esprit d’corps that existed in our pack. I was an obvious outsider. I struggled to keep up when our pack would lope through the mountains after a confused fawn or an aging buck, and I shivered through the winter nights while my siblings dozed contentedly, their twitching legs the echoes of wolfish dreams.
“But despite my clearly alien nature, the pack sheltered and protected me. And, I like to think, I served them as well, in my own small human ways. My hands were thickly calloused and bent inwards from running on all fours, but they were still superior instruments for manipulating basic tools, and allowed me to craft traps and snares for the small animals of the forest that usually evade wolves.”
Mesić does not know how he came to live among the wolves, but the entire nation can remember the day he left them. “Must I retell this well-worn yarn?” he asked the interviewer in 2006, with a twinkle in his eye that belied his reluctance. Mesić loves this tale, as do we all.
“In the late summer, my pack and I would sleep through the daytime heat and hunt at night, by starlight. One day, I was awoken by the smell of smoke. Rather than rouse my pack—and to this day, I do not know why I didn’t—I went alone to investigate the source. I followed the increasingly cloying scent to the crest of a wooded hill that lay five minutes from our den, and was riveted by a terrifying vision: a schoolhouse engulfed in flame, the front door blocked by fallen timbers, and a dozen children of my own age screaming in fear from within.
“I did not know what a schoolhouse was, or fire for that matter, but the screams of those children awoke within me a sense of consanguinity with man that I had not known until that moment. I burst down the hill, running naked and on all fours with my tangled hair streaming across my branch-scraped back, and leaped over the beam blocking the door. The children were probably more frightened of me than of the advancing flames, but I disregarded their shrieks and, one by one, seized them by the nape of their necks with my powerful jaws. My neck muscles straining at the weight, I carried them out of the building.”
The rest of the story is known to all Croatians. Mesić was adopted by the parents of one of the children he had saved, and taught to walk upright and speak. 15 years later, almost to the day, he was elected to Parliament, and from thence to the presidency.
Mesić does not regret leaving the forest to live among humans, but he cannot promise he will not one day return. “Who knows?” he responded to the interviewer when asked if he has found a permanent home among men. “Term limits will prevent me from running for a third term, and I am not sure what more there is for me to do in the cities and towns of this country. I may well return to the forest-blanketed mountains of our magnificent country, where life is simpler and cleaner.
“But if I do…,” he said, with an ambiguous emphasis on the word “if”, “I will always be close. If Croatia should need me in her hour of need, I would return.”