Who is the wolf? So much has been written about this magnificent animal yet do we really know the wolf? We can recite facts about them. They mate for life, they’re smart, playful, their lives are structured around family. Wolves can knock off fifteen to twenty-five miles in one clip without breaking a sweat, they can reach 40 miles an hour when chasing prey. Their wanderlust drives them to explore new places, to investigate, they are curious. Wolves love to move, they are perpetually in motion when awake.
Pack life is ordered, every wolf has a place. Usually only the alpha pair (mothers and fathers) will breed but not always. The famed Hog Heaven Pack, who was slaughtered by Wildlife Services in 2008, had twenty-seven members and TWO breeding females. The year they were killed they produced 15 pups, all gunned down with the rest of the pack, in that grim November.
The idea that wolves fight for top dog position in the pack has been disputed by wolf researchers.The term alpha is actually considered outdated in the wolf research community.
“Rather than viewing a wolf pack as a group of animals organized with a “top dog”that fought its way to the top, or a male-female pair of such aggressive wolves, science has come to understand that most wolf packs are merely family groups formed exactly the same way as human families are formed. That is, maturing male and female wolves from different packs disperse, travel around until they find each other and an area vacant of other wolves but with adequate prey, court, mate, and produce their own litter of pups.”
Basically a wolf pair mates, has puppies and the adults then become the natural leaders because pups follow their parents authority. The pack eventually becomes a large extended family. Of course there are exceptions to this, as with everything pertaining to wolves. They are not easily defined.
So how did the wolf become vilified? It all starts with the images and stories we’re exposed to as kids. Many children grow up to fear wolves because the wolf is often demonized in fairy tales. We’re all familiar with those stories. Little Red Riding Hood, on her way to grandma’s house, must walk through the woods where the Big, Bad Wolf lurks.
“A girl has been given red cap (or cloak and hood) to wear. Her mother sends her to take food to her sick grandmother. The mother tells her she must not stop on the way. A wolf sees the girl walking through the woods and makes a plan to eat her. The wolf politely asks the girl where she is going. The girl answers him, because he seems friendly. The wolf tells the girl to pick some flowers for her grandmother. While she is picking flowers, the wolf goes to grandmother’s house and eats her. He puts on the grandmother’s night-cap and gets into her bed. When the girl goes into grandmother’s house the wolf eats the girl too. A woodcutter comes and cuts opens the wolf’s body. He saves the grandmother and the girl who are still alive. Then, stones are put in the wolf’s body to kill the wolf.“
The Three Little Pigs portray the wolf as evil. The pigs are characterized as industrious, just minding their own business, when along comes the Big, Bad Wolf who wants to blow their houses down and eat them.
“The first little pig builds a house of straw, but a wolf blows it down and eats the first little pig. The second pig builds a house of sticks, but with the same ultimate result. Each exchange between wolf and pig features ringing proverbial phrases, namely:
The third pig builds a house of hard bricks. The wolf cannot huff and puff hard enough to blow the house down. He attempts to trick the little pig out of the house, but the pig outsmarts him at every turn. Finally, the wolf resolves to come down the chimney, whereupon the pig boils a pot of water into which the wolf plunges, at which point the pig quickly covers the pot and cooks the wolf for supper.“
And of course we can’t forget the werewolf. This may be the most damaging image of all because it permeates our culture with movie after movie depicting vicious, ravenous creatures, turning from man to wolf.
People are fascinated yet repelled by the idea of half wolf /half human creatures. Once again the wolf is portrayed as dangerous, something to be feared.
“The werewolf is a mythical creature that appears in European culture as far back as the times of the ancient Greeks. The culprit was believed to transform into a wolf or a ‘wolf-man’, an affliction either brought about by a curse or through the use of magic.
Ancient cultures across the world ascribed shape shifting abilities to the most dangerous animals they came in contact with; in Africa it was the lion, in India it was the snake and tiger and in Europe it was the white wolf, suggesting that the myth might have come about from mans need to invent stories.“
The truth is the wolf is not bad or evil. They are apex predators struggling to survive in an ever hostile world, trying to eek out a living and care for their families. That’s it.
For the wolf it’s all about familia. They are the ultimate role models on great parenting. Pack structure is held together by the intense loyalty they feel toward each other. Admirable traits in any species.
Why don’t we read more about wolves’ wonderful altruistic qualities in the media? Because most are too busy reporting the “party line” from fish and game agencies.
Wolves once prospered in all parts of the world.
As Barry Lopez states in “Of Wolves and Men”:
“The wolf once roamed most of the Northern Hemisphere above thirty degrees north latitude. They were found in Eastern Europe, The Balkans, the near Middle East into Arabia, Afghanistan, Northern India, throughout Russia north into Siberia, China and Japan.
He goes on: “In North America the wolf reached a southern limit north of Mexico City and ranged north as far as Cape Morris Jessup, Greenland, less than four hundred miles from the North Pole. Outside of Iceland and North Africa, and such places as the Gobi Desert. Wolves had adapted to virtually every habitat available to them.”
Historic US Gray Wolf Range. Map: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
“Native Americans were awed by the power and stealth of the wolf, while European settlers — who brought over their folk tales of the “big bad wolf” — feared the animal. This fear, combined with the belief that wolves caused widespread livestock losses, led to their near extinction in the lower 48 states in the early half of the 20th century.”
Wolves were hated by the first Europeans that landed on this continent and they brought their wolf exterminating ways with them. Europe had been sanitized of most of their wolves to clear the land for ranching and farming. They carried their wolf prejudice to America and within four hundred years wolves were extirpated from the lower forty-eight. An epic tragedy.
The impetus that started the wolf carnage in America was the early European settler’s slaughter of bison and other ungulates. They literally killed everything with four hooves from bison to moose, deer and elk. They robbed wolves of their prey base.
As Rick Bass states in The Ninemile Wolves, “In the absence of bison, there was the bison’s replacement: cattle. The wolves preyed upon these new intruders, without question but the ranchers and the government overreacted just a tad. Until very recently, the score stood at Cows, 99,200,000; Wolves, O.“
Of the men that took part in the pogrom, what can we say of them? What wolves were dwelling in their heads while they poisoned, shot, set wolves on fire, fed them ground glass and other tortures too gruesome to mention? What were they thinking of the wolf as they laid their strychnine laden meat trap-lines? What was their image of the wolf? A pest, a bounty to be collected, did they feel anything about this animal that had done them no harm? We can never know but we can guess.
Today there are pockets of wolves scattered throughout Europe. Russia still has wolves, although they have virtually no protection and can be shot on sight. The largest population of wolves reside in Alaska and Canada. Of the twenty-three subspecies that existed, seven are now extinct.
Mankind did a very good job of decimating wolf populations. But in the 1980’s a few wolves returned to their western habitat in Glacier National Park, long before their official reintroduction to Yellowstone and Central Idaho in 1995. Wolves today inhabit a tiny fraction of their historic range and are still fighting the same persecution they faced a hundred years ago.
The image of the wolf has taken on almost mythical proportions. Does anyone truly see the wolf for who it really is? For a few they are evil, hunting machines and possess no redeeming qualities. I receive comments from angry people who rail against wolves and how they kill their prey, as if there’s a polite way for predators to kill. Wolves are held to a different standard. No predator kills nicely, not African lions, not grizzly bears, not Great White sharks, not mountain lions, and definitely NOT HUMANS. I don’t know of a single case of wolves shooting their prey from helicopters with twelve gauge shotguns, or using leghold traps. That kind of killing is the domain of the deadliest predator on earth, man!
Wolves kill to survive. They were put on this earth to keep ungulate herds healthy.
Every time wolves hunt they risk broken ribs or cracked skulls by a well placed kick. Wolves’ lives are hard. Yet they are demonized for being predators. What about the gut shot deer wandering the forests during hunting season, leaving blood trails? Take a trip through the thousands of YouTube videos that depict disgusting canned hunts or document the glee with which some hunters display brutal killing methods of our wildlife. Who’s responsible for the torture of animals in factory farms, it’s not the wolf?
It all goes back to the image one has of the wolf. If people grow up believing the myths and half-truths about wolves, they’ll carry those biases into adulthood. I believe those who hate wolves have projected their fears about themselves onto the wolf.
“Throughout the centuries we have projected on to the wolf the qualities we most despise and fear in ourselves.” -Barry Lopez
For most the wolf is an icon of freedom and beauty, a symbol of untamed wildness. As Barry Lopez described them so beautifully in Of Wolves and Men.
The wolves will “travel together ten or twenty miles a day, through the country where they live, eating and sleeping, birthing, playing with sticks, chasing ravens, growing old, barking at bears, scent marking trails, killing moose and staring at the way water in a creek breaks around their legs and flows on.”
That’s the wolf in my head. Who’s the wolf in yours?
Coastal British Columbia wolves love salmon!
There’s always something new to learn about wolves!
Repost: Original posting February 26,2010
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Cartoon: A Puritan Thanksgiving….Dan Beard
Posted in: gray wolf/canis lupus, howling for justice, biodiversity
Tags: wolf enigma, canis lupus, wolf myths, fairy tales, little red riding hood, family