When I was in the fourth grade, my best friend from Irish dance class discovered wolf role-playing games. This was 1999 and the internet was still fairly quaint — my experience with it was largely limited to repeated attempts to find and print the entire Titanic shooting script without my dad noticing (unsuccessfully—I had to ask for help). Already, though, I had been warned about chat rooms and the dangers they posed to bored little girls. So when my friend, who I’ll call April for the sake of her privacy, told me that she was into role-playing games (RPGs, for the uninitiated), I was concerned. I had read Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George the previous year, a great and depressing book that centers around a 13-year-old Inuit girl who runs away from home and ends up living with a wolf pack. I made April read it immediately, unaware that when I grew tired of playing Wolves at recess, she would continue to be a wolf on an Angelfire site. By fifth grade, she told me she had a “mate.”

Before white people showed up in North America, wolves stretched across the entire continent — an apex predator, threatened only by man. By the 1920s, we’d driven them nearly to extinction, smoking out and exterminating even backcountry wolves, which rarely if ever came into contact with humans and posed no threat to livestock. “It was a campaign unprecedented in its scope and thoroughness,” Nate Blakeslee writes in his new book, American Wolf, which details the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park through the story of the park’s most famous wolf, O-Six. Why exactly the effort to eradicate the wolf went on for so long is a mystery. Blakeslee quotes Barry Lopez, who authored Of Wolves and Men and speculated that man’s resentment of the wolf went beyond a concern for safety and was more of a frustrated rivalry. Human beings have long struggled to dominate nature, but we’re not particularly good at living with it. Wolves, Lopez says, remind us of what we lack: “The noble qualities imagined; a sense of fitting into the world. The hunter wants to be the wolf.”

I don’t remember the name of April’s RPG of choice, but I do remember that it seemed unfixed in time. It was set in an enormous primeval forest, and the site’s moderators would occasionally write in Stonehenge-like ruins, decaying cities, or a human skeleton poking through the undergrowth that suggested the role-play was taking place in a post-apocalyptic future. Living humans were entirely absent with the exception of a single, much-reviled man — run by one of the moderators — who lurked around the edge of the forest trying to shoot the wolves. I recently mentioned the forums in passing, assuming that if they still existed they would be crawling with Nazis and men’s rights activists, like every other murky corner of the modern internet. After all, wolf role-play lends itself to the kind of medievalism of which Steve Bannon and his lackeys are so fond, and the language we use to describe wolf packs (alpha, beta, etc.) has obviously been co-opted by a number of Gamergate idiots. To my surprise, I was totally wrong. The forums are almost entirely full of women, and there isn’t a neo-Nazi in sight. No one is a racist because everyone is a wolf.

The sites are essentially a collective attempt at world building, but they vary in size, genre, and intricacy. Incandescence is a post-apocalyptic RPG where wolves have developed supernatural intelligence in the wake of humanity’s self-destruction. Ruins of Wildwood is a realistic RPG, where players are required to keep their wolf characters within strict height and weight limits. White Wolf Mountain, a semirealistic RPG, is centered around its titular mountain, which is home to a godlike race of immortal wolves. Here, wolves are often described with orange or pink fur and become more realistic in appearance the farther they move away from the mountain.

The role-play takes place in a forum — what participants call “play by post.” Subpages within the forum usually act as settings — the Sequoia Woods of White Wolf Mountain are full of “immense redwoods towering over the oaks and pines,” while the Longrass Territory has “easy access to the Hunting Plains, but is badly sheltered in Winter.” Each player posts an update on their character’s action and waits for someone to respond, like a turn-based creative writing exercise. Right now, for example, a wolf named Aurelia is advancing through scrubgrass and heather toward an area of White Wolf Mountain known as the Outer Reaches. A wolf named Acribus, the beta of the evil Midnight Silence pack that controls the Outer Reaches, tries to gauge her intentions as he watches her approach.

Aurelia is actually a 14-year-old girl named Addy, who’s been a member of White Wolf Mountain for about three years and wants to be an architect. Acribus is one of the site’s moderators, a 23-year-old woman from Canada who works with animals and has been role-playing as a wolf for more than 10 years. Each forum has a different minimum length per post, usually 100 to 200 words, which forces players to develop their wolves as characters, but the rules beyond that are fairly straightforward. No abusive behavior, no sex stuff (these aren’t furry fetish sites), and no murdering other players’ characters (unless you’re given explicit permission). You just pretend to be a wolf — albeit, a wolf with a complex emotional life and an elaborate internal monologue.

Writing for The Outline in September, Rosa Lyster described AirportSmokers.com (a website that directs you to airports’ dwindling smoking areas) as the last nice place left online. “Cigs, it is true, are not for everyone,” Lyster wrote. “They are hardly for anyone, anymore, and this is perhaps the reason why everyone on cigarette internet is so nice to each other — they are bound by a shared sense of shame and persecution.” Wolf role-play isn’t entirely dissimilar, primarily because it’s such a difficult hobby to explain to anyone outside the community.

“Wolf role-play is nerdy,” said Amanda, a high school student from New England who’s been a member of White Wolf Mountain for about a year. “You can look at a post-apocalyptic role-play or an urban fantasy role-play or a dystopian role-play and say, ‘That’s nerdy.’ But when it comes to colorful wolves in a whimsical fairy-tale world, it’s laughable.”

Originally founded in 2003 by a user named Sock, White Wolf Mountain has been through five iterations and stretches of inactivity. Sara Eagan, who founded the current version and brought the site back from the dead, joined in 2004 when she was just 11 and eventually met her best friend through the site. “Play-by-post RPGs are too tight-knit to get away with being a jerk,” Eagan said. “If you scream abuse in a video game, there’s nothing about the game that actually changes, but in an RP, if you are antisocial, people will refuse to play with you and there will essentially be no game left for you to play. The structure of the game itself weeds out abusive behavior.”

Wolves are a natural choice for role-play because of their own nature: pack animals with complex social structures that are forced to develop a kind of animal empathy to survive within their pack. While the wolves’ personal lives on White Wolf Mountain or Ruins of Wildwood can seem absurd to an outside observer — love triangles and elaborate family feuds — many of the plotlines aren’t that far removed from what professionals have observed in Yellowstone National Park. O-Six, the wolf at the center of Blakeslee’s book, first captured the attention of wolf watchers both for her preternatural ability as a hunter and her odd behavior — despite the risks, she spent an unusual amount of time as a lone wolf. When O-Six did choose a mate, he was inexperienced and comparatively pathetic. Anthropomorphizing animals is akin to a sin among biologists, but O-Six was an easy character to root for — an exceptionally gifted underdog. No one was quite sure why she had saddled herself with this incompetent idiot, and throughout Blakeslee’s book, as they watch O-Six and her mate grow up, even professionals struggle not to use words like “love.”

I work at a bookstore, and I’m often put in the position of convincing parents that it’s not just okay for their kids to read something slightly scary—it’s important that they do. There are a lot monsters in the world, and books are the least traumatizing way for kids to learn how to be brave. When my friend April got into wolf role-playing, her older brother had started running away from home regularly. He was thrown into rehab a couple times, although April was still too young to be told why. April was generally the more cautious of the two of us, and, especially after she told me about her mate, her interest in the wolf RPGs struck me as uncharacteristically reckless. It seemed like nothing more than an early and very weird foray into online dating, and I assumed it was a cry for help. Reading through the sites today, it’s clear it was probably more like therapy.

If Red Riding Hood is the Western world’s formative sexual harassment story, wolf role-playing is a digital fairy tale that inverts the narrative. On these forums, women are the wolves, not the victims — they run nearly 40 mph, they have inch-long teeth, they can rip your throat out in a second. As one Yellowstone wolf watcher pointed out, O-Six was “rarely ‘cuddly.’” No one was interested in turning O-Six into their pet; it was her independence and ability that fascinated them. “Fans know they are supposed to appreciate the overachieving striver who improves through constant practice, the type celebrated in a million Horatio Alger stories,” Blakeslee writes, “but nobody has to be told to love the natural, for whom excellence seems to be a birthright.”

The wolf RPG community is obviously very small, but it’s a reminder of what the internet used to be or could have been — weird and sweet and funny. Out of character, on message boards and chat rooms, players give each other writing and life advice; they are uniformly supportive, and they put a lot of effort into the sites themselves. “One former staff[er] even ended up going to college for graphic design,” Eagen told me. “Wanting to make a prettier website to role-play wolves literally altered the course of our lives and careers.” As for why it’s mostly women, Eagen said she doesn’t think there’s anything about wolf role-play that excludes men, but the fact that the community is predominantly women was definitely part of its appeal. “I like [video games],” said Eagen, “but hearing ‘get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich’ from male teammates gets old.”

When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, they triggered what’s called a trophic cascade — a drastic change in the ecosystem that tumbles down the food chain based on either the introduction or removal of a predator. The elk, which had reached unsustainable levels despite human efforts to control them, saw their population level off when the wolves showed up. The remaining elk became more wary, no longer grazing idly, which meant more vegetation and less erosion along the riverbanks. Beavers had more material for building their dams, and bears and eagles fed off carrion the wolves left behind. We’re currently in the midst of a well-documented sixth mass extinction, and biologists rarely get good news these days, so the reintroduction of wolves was a rare victory — an ecosystem regenerating even as the world around it collapsed.

On most of the wolf role-playing forums, there’s a small weather update at the top of the page, telling players what season they’re operating within and what the conditions are like. On Incandescence, it’s already spring and pups are being born. On Ruins of Wildwood, it’s a mild winter—55 degrees and overcast. Much of the actual United States has spent the past few weeks gripped by record cold, but on White Wolf Mountain it is still, somehow, summer. “The days are long and warm,” says the weather report, “and prey is abundant.”