Barring some competition from whales, wolves are probably America’s most popular wild animal. Wolves are also contenders for America’s most unpopular wild animal, with perhaps some competition from coyotes. Their supporters tend to be environmentalists, and their detractors tend to be ranchers and deer and caribou hunters who see wolves as competitors and want them eliminated from the earth. This reviewer remembers rabid anti-wolf lobbyists in the late 1960s who compared wolves to the Viet Cong, and suggested that anyone who wanted to save them was a Communist.
Owing to the emotional nature of the wolf controversy, many people have become deeply involved with them, sometimes to the benefit of the wolves, more often not. Literally hundreds of organizations, large and small, have sprung up to work for wolf preservation, often to great effect. The recent reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has surely been among the most dramatic pro-wolf developments in wolf history—the discrete, personable individuals who were introduced there have by now been sighted by some two thousand delighted tourists, which should win yet more friends for wolves and also for Yellowstone Park.
It seems, however, that for each wolf saved several others are killed in wolfcontrol programs, often by people who characterize themselves as wildlife biologists. One wonders if the term “wildlife biology” is an accurate description of that branch of the profession. At one time, some of the practices now termed “wildlife biology” were known as “farming.” What else are we to call the forceful and unnatural manipulation of animal populations for financial gain? Today, in an effort to produce an exaggerated number of ungulates—in this case deer, elk, moose, and caribou—for the hunting pleasure and license fees of sportsmen, many Fish and Game departments in the United States and Canada wage a merciless war on wolves, using poison, traps, snowmobiles, and aircraft. Such purges have horrifying consequences for the wolves—a recent purge in British Columbia resulted in the deaths of approximately sixty thousand of them, reducing the wolf population to eight thousand. How is it possible that as a society we have become so polarized on the subject of wolves, and where are we getting our information about them?
In paleolithic times, when wolves and our ancestors hunted the same kinds of game around the edges of the glaciers, we surely got our information from direct experience, and if our ancestors were anything like modern hunter-gatherers such as the Kalahari Bushmen (whom I once watched accurately tracking a brown hyena over a vast ledge of bare rock) the observations they made were probably accurate. But with the dawn of agriculture, our ability to observe went into decline. When we became sedentary, lived indoors, and started to raise livestock we began to see wolves not as occasional fur-bearers or fellow hunters but as robbers. The information we would have obtained when we were huntergatherers was to be replaced by an astonishing number of inaccurate and superstitious notions, many of them still in circulation. For centuries, a certain amount of information on wolves came from the people who hunted them, but hunters’ information, while perhaps a bit better than farmers’ myths, tended to concentrate on capture techniques—traps, baits, lures, and the like.
More recently, however, wolf biology has become a subject of serious research, and some very exciting long-term studies have yielded information about wolves. These studies have resulted in an avalanche of publications ranging from Lois Crisler’s Arctic Wild, her haunting account of her life on the Alaskan tundra with her pet wolves, to more pedestrian papers by other biologists on subjects that might, to the layman, seem constricted.
My favorite such paper, presented in 1994 by no fewer than six authors at a wolf conference in Bieszczkady, Poland, discusses the micturition habits in the snow of high-ranking wolves, as distinguished from lowranking wolves; it shows how urine produced from the modest crouch of a low-ranking wolf drills a narrow, inconspicuous hole deep in the snow, a tight little chimney from which odor can scarcely emerge. In contrast the raised-leg squirting of a high-ranking wolf sprinkles the droplets far and wide, creating a highly visible signal and clouds of odor, boldly asserting its creator’s enviable status.1
The modern, scientific, phase of wolf knowledge has produced some very important books on wolf behavior that help the layperson understand these remarkable creatures. Foremost among them are those by the famous wolf biologist, L. David Mech,2 which draw on Mech’s lifetime of study. The knowledge gained by these and other scientific studies has also been made use of in a number of books by popular authors who love wolves, the most famous—and, to some, the most infamous—being Farley Mowatt’s Never Cry Wolf, in which Mowatt asserts that Arctic wolves live on mice. Mowatt made this claim in order to conceal the fact that arctic wolves actually live on caribou. He was trying to mislead the fish and game biologists and their sportsmen clients, who of course blame wolves instead of their own excesses for their quarry’s dwindling numbers. The sportsmen and their benefactors would like to eliminate the wolves and have the deer and caribou all to themselves. A wolf needs to eat about five pounds of meat a day, and therefore doesn’t bother with prey much smaller than beavers; but evidently the public was ready to believe that a 150-pound wolf could sustain itself by chasing after the occasional bite of mouse meat, or would want to, for that matter, with plenty of delicious caribou all around. Many wolf lovers consider Mowatt’s mouse fiction to be a simple social deception, all for a good cause, while many wolf biologists become angry at the very mention of Mowatt’s name. Yet Mowatt’s book was enormously popular internationally and probably won more friends for wolves than all other publications combined.
Now we are entering a third phase in wolf literature, with books that combine scientific research and studies of popular opinion, wildlife management statistics, historical information, legend, and the like—in short, encyclopedias about wolves dealing with the many factors that affect them. One such book is Peter Steinhart’s The Company of Wolves, remarkable for its detail and comprehensiveness. Another is Robert Busch’s The Wolf Almanac, which in contrast to Steinhart’s is brief and concise, almost a kind of reference guide, although it has a splendid bibliography and over a hundred superb photographs and illustrations.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that both books cover very much the same material, both in a fairly workmanlike way. In an orderly manner they take us through a fairly predictable list of subjects—for instance, wolf evolution, wolf behavior, wolf anatomy, wolf mythology, wolf-human relationships, wolf conservation. We learn that wolves are exceptionally intelligent, with a great ability to solve problems. A captive wolf, for instance, moved her pups indoors “when the keeper hosed down the outside pen, and then shut the door behind the cubs by pulling on a pulley rope.” I remember my own experience with a wolf who bit through the ropes of a tent so that the canvas billowed down upon the heads of four wolf biologists—a deed performed for the fun of it as far as I could see. Combined with such remarkable intelligence, the acute sensory abilities of wolves make them formidable creatures. The Wolf Almanac, for instance, tells of a wolf who scented a moose more than four miles away. Busch quotes reports by L. David Mech of wolves who heard sounds made ten miles away. Wolves seem to use their different senses quite independently, and thus can concentrate on more than one thing at a time. I once observed a wolf on a hill watching the progress of a caribou in the valley below. The wolf was near a den where pups were playing but evidently didn’t want to take her eyes off the deer. Still, she felt that the pups also needed her attention, so she slowly rotated one ear until it pointed in their direction. Thus she monitored them while continuing to watch the caribou, who, perhaps not as sensitive as his would-be hunter, seemed completely unaware that he was under scrutiny.
Yet it is the social life of wolves that proves most fascinating. Both authors draw parallels between wolves and human beings, a comparison that helps us to understand wolves as individuals and to respect their wolfish way of life. Wolves tend, for instance, to be monogamous. Adults are fertile for a few days each year in late winter, and the pups are born in early spring. But in most wolf packs, as in more than a few American families, only the alpha pair, the male and his wife, are sexually active. In both kinds of families, wolf and human, the subordinate members, even though they are sexually mature, are expected to abstain. Why? Because in the case of wolves, the efforts of an entire pack are usually required to successfully raise one litter of pups. If, as sometimes happens, two litters are born, the pack cannot always feed all the pups adequately. Efforts to do so can produce two litters of undernourished youngsters, who then might not survive the first winter, the greatest threat to the lives of young wolves. Hence some successful wolf packs raise only one litter a year. However, young or subordinate wolves are not abstinent by choice. If left too much alone, or left entirely to themselves, they mate with the same alacrity as their parents. So among wolves as among human beings it is up to the alpha pair to prevent this, usually by sheer force of personality and a display of disapproval if youthful courtship starts. A dominant female wolf can, by staring, make a subordinate female sit down when males come around.
However, as is also the case with human beings, the alpha pair are not always faithful to each other. Some male wolves may consort with different females in different years. In other ways, too, wolves and people invite comparison. The bonds of love within packs resemble similar bonds between human beings, so that wolves rejoice at reunions and mourn their loved one’s deaths. Wolves love puppies, and may gather eagerly outside the den when the female goes inside to give birth. Lois Crisler described how her pet male wolf “kidnapped a dog pup, not to kill it but to care for it.” Wolves are also solicitous of each other as adults. Both books are pleasantly full of examples of wolves caring for each other—adult wolves feeding pups, young wolves feeding feeble old wolves, wolves feeding a female who had, by accident, given birth out in the open, and even of wolves burying their dead.
Lois Crisler reported the case of a wolf hovering anxiously over a dog friend who, stuck with porcupine quills, was crying. However, like us, wolves reserve their most tender feelings for their pack-mates or for other animals or people whom they know. With the affectionate behavior comes a dark side, just as it does with human beings—wolves wage war on rival groups, making deep and murderous forays into other wolves’ territories. One band of raiders came upon a resident female in her own territory, killed her, and marked her corpse heavily with urine. Why? No one knows, of course, but like human terrorists her assassins were probably claiming responsibility. They were rubbing their rivals’ noses in the fact that they’d been raided and their number reduced by one.
Reinforcing the comparison between wolves and people is Steinhart’s delightful report of a conference of wolf biologists. Here, however, it is we who seem to emulate the wolves. At the conference, rival biologists stalked stiff-legged around one another, teeth bared, sizing one another up and measuring the others’ confidence as they sorted out their rank and status. Supreme among them all, of course, was the alpha male biologist, L. David Mech, who responded with serenity born of strength to an attack on his work by a Dr. François Messier. “Mech’s gaze was unwavering, his mouth relaxed, and his voice soft and steady,” wrote Steinhart, the observer. “Messier was dogged in his attack…. His eyes glanced at Mech and veered off again, and his teeth flashed. If we had been watching wolves here, we’d have to have said the postures showed Mech to be the dominant, resisting the challenge by not barking back.”
In its discussions of the abilities of wolves, each book in its way points to the extraordinary powers of observations that these remarkable animals have at their command. They are curious about unfamiliar sights and sounds and quietly investigate them and learn from them. Steinhart, for instance, quotes from the wolf biologist Rolf Peterson, who chronicles the good judgment of a female wolf on Isle Royale. “A female alpha in the East Pack was in charge of the pack for eleven years,” he writes.
She went through four mates, and may have been in on the kills of five hundred moose, which means she probably tested more than ten thousand moose. Once the pack of eleven were walking down the lake ice. There were two moose browsing on the shore. She took one look at them, and paid no more attention.
While she recognized immediately that the moose were invulnerable, four youngsters didn’t, and they took off running after the moose. The wise old female “just sat down on the ice, waiting for all of them to have their fling, and when they came panting back, she got up and led off at the front of the line.” In another episode a captive male wolf adopts a posture intended to challenge a human visitor outside his fence. The human visitor is obtuse about the challenge, but suddenly,for no reason he can explain, grows uneasy and steps back from the fence. By this time, however, the wolf is already running away, having seen his victory so instantaneously that the moment of perception could scarcely be defined.
Steinhart rounds out his discussion of wolf sensibilities by touching upon the mysterious abilities of wolves (and dogs) to sense events that are far away and could scarcely be detected by sight, scent, or sound. This phenomenon is very well known to people who study animals, but because nobody knows what to make of it, it is virtually never mentioned. Most scientists who have observed the phenomenon are reluctant even to divulge their experiences., Who, after all, wants to spoil an otherwise scientific effort by inserting something that might seem flaky? What’s more, scientific publications are concerned to provide explanations and they tend to avoid generalized discussions of the inexplicable. Even so, a seemingly extrasensory phenomenon exists, and nothing is gained by avoiding the subject.
Besides, it’s fascinating. Steinhart recalls Elizabeth Andrews’s story of the captive wolves she worked with in a Washington State wolf park.
She lived an hour’s drive away from the wolf park, and arrived at a different time each day, but whenever she arrived the owner was standing at the door, expecting her. He told her that the wolves had begun to howl fifteen minutes before she arrived, and they would howl in such a way that he knew it was she, and not her husband, although they drove the same car.
Digressing briefly from the wolves, Steinhart also tells of a veterinarian’s dog that would go to the window exactly fifteen minutes before the veterinarian’s arrival, even though the time of his homecoming varied greatly. “The veterinarian’s wife concluded that the dog got up and started waiting at exactly the moment the veterinarian closed his clinic and started walking home.” (However, for an animal whose relatives can hear sounds ten miles away, this feat may not be quite as extrasensory as it seems at first.)
Steinhart also includes accounts of animals that are taken far from home, escape from their new lodgings, and hike back to their original places hundreds of miles distant. But here there’s a slight confusion in the discussion, as Steinhart doesn’t distinguish between homing and what has been termed “psi trailing.” Homing refers to animals’ well-known abilities to find their way back home. For example, a relocated mountain lion hiked three hundred miles to get home after having been transported by air in a closed crate.
Yet however remarkable homing may be, “psi trailing” is considerably more remarkable. If homing helps an animal to find its way back to a familiar location even under extraordinary circumstances, psi trailing is the ability of some animals to find their people after the people have moved away to a place the animal has never visited before. The differences between the two types of behaviors are sharp. Homing occurs because many animals (and some people, too) have inner, mental maps that enable them to locate themselves in time and space with relative ease. How these maps work we don’t know, but at least we know of their existence. Psi trailing at present has no explanation.
Why are wolves so delicate in their sensibilities and so quick to observe—like the wise female wolf who at a glance could evaluate the health of a moose from a vast distance? It is, after all, necessary to be very observant when, with your mouth as your only weapon, you have to hunt formidable animals much larger than yourself who kick and bite and hate you. But the ability of wolves to observe with sensitivity is also a social skill, which enables them to live together lovingly and cooperatively. The sensitivity and kindness of dogs comes straight from their wolf ancestors—dogs are kind and loving not because the wilderness has been bred out of them but because the wilderness has not been bred out of them. Dogs are kind and loving because they once were wolves.
But alas, no book on wolves would be complete without some account of the wolf-hating ranchers, the bounty hunters, the “wolf-control” experts, the thousands of meagerly educated fish and game biologists who see virtue in the eradication of wolves. Both Steinhart and Busch point out that the greatest cause of wolf mortality is human activity, usually in the form of eradication programs. Usually we measure such murderous waste by numbers of animals killed, which is certainly a reasonable procedure, yet the bitter effects on particular wolves also demand attention. In The Wolf Almanac, the photographs of still-living wolves who have fallen into the hands of their human killers are particularly poignant. Because wolves are not just mechanical toys but sensitive social creatures, each wolf is important to the group, and some are crucial to the group. When an alpha wolf is killed, for instance, the pack may scatter, the young pups may die, the group may not be able to hold its territory, and it will lose out to other wolves. The death of an alpha female can also produce inbreeding, since the alpha male may mate with his grown daughters who are pack members, a catastrophe which their mother would have averted by force of personality.
Wolves are sometimes killed to reduce the wolf population, but if one breeding female, the alpha female, is replaced by two breeding females, as often happens after her death, the population rises. Often wolves are killed for sport, although many would find the techniques highly unsporting. In Europe, for instance, hunters bait wolves, putting food in places where the animals are easily shot—a technique that is especially effective during the breeding season, when pregnant or recently delivered females desperately need food. (Here, we hunt coyotes at night by this method, especially in February when they are starving.) In the United States and Canada, so-called sportsmen use snowmobiles and also aircraft to spot wolves; and while legally they can’t always shoot from the air, the scofflaws often do anyway. The law-abiding hunters land the aircraft near the wolves and kill from very close quarters, something quite easily done on the open tundra where the wolves have nowhere to hide. Even the wolves who settled so readily into the forests of Yellowstone fell prey to an unemployed carpenter who shot and killed the alpha male of a group and took its pelt. Not knowing he was dead, the alpha female waited anxiously for his return near the place where she last saw him. She didn’t take shelter when she went into labor, and gave birth on bare ground. Luckily the park service biologists managed to gather her up with her puppies and take her to a safe place, but the death was a setback to efforts to reintroduce wolves to the park.
And Yellowstone is not the only place where lawlessness rules. In Central Europe, for instance, where wolves still cling to life in the recesses of the Tatras and the Carpathians, wolves are still hunted even though environmentalists have managed to have rather steep fines imposed for killing them. According to a story recently published in a Czech newspaper, wolf-hating farmers and sports hunters have raised enough money to pay the fine of anyone convicted of killing a wolf, and they pay a reward besides. Evidently it isn’t universally against the law to incite someone else to break a law.
Miraculously, though, wolves manage to go on. They are still plentiful in Alaska, in Canada, and in the former USSR (although human beings persecute them in all three nations). A few wolves have migrated into Finland and from there presumably through Lapland to the forests along the Swedish-Norwegian border. Today, small numbers of wolves live in the mountain regions of France as well as in the mountains of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The few wolves in Germany are probably immigrants from Poland, from whose mountains wolves also seem to have penetrated into the Czech and Slovak Republics and also into Hungary. Fairly healthy numbers of wolves still survive in Eastern Europe and also in remote areas of the Middle East.
In this country wolves, after having been almost completely decimated, have come back to the lower forty-eight states, and are now doing quite well in Minnesota. Wolves are increasing in a few other states as well—particularly those that border Canada, and most dramatically in Montana, which now has some ninety wolves. In Yellowstone National Park wolves from Canada have been introduced by the park authorities. Programs to breed wolves are helping to revive at least two southern wolf populations that have gone extinct in the wild, namely red wolves and the Mexican subspecies of grey wolves. The program for breeding red wolves is meeting with reasonable success, and a certain amount of guarded optimism persists for Mexican wolves, notwithstanding the inefficiency of the bureaucrats involved.
However, for all these efforts—the efforts of wolves to save themselves and the efforts of human beings to help them—the prognosis for the future of wolves must be guarded. Thanks to our own species, virtually all the large wild animals in the world are in some kind of trouble. In some cases entire species are endangered. In other cases, as with the species of North American deer, large numbers of animals are maintained for the benefit of human hunters, but most of them will die before their time at the hands of human beings, and they know it. These depressing thoughts are mitigated only by the splendor of the animals themselves. Only our respect can truly help them, and whatever seriously educates us about animals renders a very useful service. This, for the wolves, both Busch and Steinhart have admirably done.
November 30, 1995
The paper was entitled “Modulation of olfactory signals in wolves,” and its authors were Jenny Ryon, Paul Paquet, Fred Harrington, Richard Brown, Peter Krizan, and John Fentress. ↩
The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species (University of Minnesota Press, 1970); The Arctic Wolf: Living with the Pack (Voyageur Press, 1988); and The Way of the Wolf (Voyageur Press, 1991). ↩