Of Wolves and Men

The book Gordon gave me for my birthday last year, ‘Of Wolves and Men’ by Barry Lopez, has proved to be a most interesting read, whetting my appetite even further to find out as much as I can about this creature.

This, in the book’s introduction: “In the winter of 1976 an aerial hunter surprised ten grey wolves travelling on a ridge in the Alaska Range. There was nowhere for the animals to escape to and the gunner shot nine quickly. The tenth had broken for the tip of a spur running off the ridge. The hunter knew the spur ended at an abrupt vertical drop of about 300ft and he followed, curious to see what the wolf would do. Without hesitation the wolf sailed off the spur, fell the 300ft into a snow bank, and came up running in an explosion of powder.

I like that Mr Lopez has painted the wolf as neither sinner nor saint, but merely as an animal making its way in the world:

The wolf exerts a powerful influence on the human imagination. People want to explain the feelings that come over them … Wolf-haters want to say they are born killers, which isn’t true. Wolf-lovers want to say no healthy wolf ever killed anyone in North America, which isn’t true either. They have killed Indians and Eskimos … In the past 20 years biologists have given us a new wolf, one separated from folklore. But they have not found the whole truth. For example, wolves do not kill just the old, the weak and the injured. They also kill animals in the prime of health. And they don’t always kill just what they need; they sometimes kill in excess. And wolves kill each other. The reasons for these acts are not clear. No one – not biologists, not Eskimos, not backwoods hunters, not naturalist writers – knows why wolves do what they do.

In the first section of the book, he describes the wolf, its social structure and communication, and its hunting and territory.

I would love to share every single fascinating fact I’ve discovered but must be sensible *lol* So I’ll just mention a few but I have to include this description; it is so vivid and powerful, I can picture it with ease:

Imagine a wolf moving through the northern woods. The movement, over a trail he has traversed many times before, is distinctive … It is purposeful, deliberate movement. Occasionally the rhythm is broken by the wolf’s pause to inspect a scent mark, or a move off the trail to paw among stones where a year before he had cached meat.

The movement down the trail would seem relentless if it did not appear so effortless. The wolf’s body, from neck to hips, appears to float over the long, almost spindly legs and the flicker of wrists, a bicycling drift through the trees, reminiscent of the movement of water or of shadows.

The wolf is tied by subtle threads to the woods he moves through. His fur carries seeds that will fall off, effectively dispersed, along the trail some miles from where they first caught in his fur. And miles distant is a raven perched on the ribs of a caribou the wolf helped kill ten days ago, pecking like a chicken at the decaying scraps of meat. A smart snowshoe hare that eluded the wolf and left him exhausted when he was a pup has been dead a year now, food for an owl. The den in which he was born one April evening was home to porcupines last winter.

He moves along now at the edge of a clearing. The wind coming down-valley surrounds him with a river of odours, as if he were a migrating salmon. He can smell ptarmigan and deer droppings. He can smell willow and spruce and the fading sweetness of fireweed. Above, he sees a hawk circling, and farther south, lower on the horizon, a flock of sharp-tailed sparrows going east. He senses through the pads with each step the dryness of the moss beneath his feet, and the ridges of old tracks, some his own. He hears the sound his feet make. He hears the occasional movement of deer mice and voles. Summer food.

Towards dusk he is standing by a creek, lapping the cool water, when a wolf howls – a long wail that quickly reaches pitch and then tapers, with several harmonics, long moments to a tremolo. He recognizes his sister. He waits a few moments, then, throwing his head back and closing his eyes, he howls. The howl is shorter and it changes pitch twice in the beginning, very quickly. There is no answer.

The female is a mile away and she trots off obliquely through the trees. The other wolf stands listening, laps water again, then he too departs, moving quickly, quietly through the trees, away from the trail he had been on. In a few minutes the two wolves meet. They approach each other briskly, almost formally, tails erect and moving somewhat as deer move. When they come together they make high squeaking noises and encircle each other, rubbing and pushing, poking their noses into each other’s neck fur, backing away to stretch, chasing each other for a few steps, then standing quietly together, one putting a head over the other’s back. And then they are gone, down a vague trail, the female first. After a few hundred yards they begin, simultaneously, to wag their tails.

In the days to follow, they will meet another wolf from the pack, a second female, younger by a year, and the three of them will kill a caribou. They 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 moves on.

He describes the wolf’s coat as “ luxurious … consisting of two layers: a soft, light-coloured, dense underfur that lies beneath a covering of long guard hairs which shed moisture and keep the underfur dry … By placing muzzle and unprotected nose between the rear legs and overlapping the face with the thickly furred tail, wolves can turn their backs to the wind and sleep comfortably in the open at 40° below zero. Pound for pound a wolf’s fur provides better insulation than a dog’s fur, and, like the wolverine’s fur, it won’t collect ice when warm breath condenses against it.

In extreme cold the wolf can reduce the flow of blood near its skin and conserve even more heat. A team of biologists in Barrow, Alaska, found that the temperature of the wolf’s footpads was maintained at just above the tissue-freezing point where the pads came in contact with ice and snow. Warmth there was regulated independently of the rest of the body. This is a good example of the marvellous but nevertheless commonplace efficiency of design found in all wild creatures.

Apparently wolves are incredibly friendly toward each other, something the naturalist Adolph Murie wrote about after years studying wolves in the 1940s.

But “most systems of human description of animal behaviour fall abysmally short in this area … Even as adults, wolves play tag with each other or romp with the pups, running about a clearing or on a snowbank with a rocking-horse gait. They scare each other by pouncing on sleeping wolves and by jumping in front of one another from hiding places. They bring things to each other, especially bits of food. They prance and parade about with sticks or bones in their mouths … I once saw a wolf on the tundra winging a piece of caribou hide around like a Frisbee for an hour by himself.

They have three systems of communication – vocal, postural, and olfactory. Their pelages range from slate blue to almost pure white, through chocolate brown, ocher, cinnamon, grey and blond. And, like primates, they spend a good part of their time with their young.

The wolf’s howl… typically consists of a single note, rising sharply at the beginning or breaking abruptly at the end as the animal strains for volume. It can contain as many as 12 related harmonics. When wolves howl together they harmonize, rather than chorus on the same note, creating an impression of more animals howling than there actually are.

This I find to be ever so cute – when pups howl for the first time, usually around 4 weeks, the sudden sound startles them.

The wolf seems to take pleasure in the company of ravens:

The raven … commonly follows hunting wolves to feed on the remains of a kill … but the relationship … is deeper than this. A travelling pack stopped to rest and 4 or 5 ravens who were tagging along began to pester them. As David Mech [wildlife biologis] writes in ‘The Wolf’: ‘The birds would dive at a wolf’s head or tail and the wolf would duck and then leap at them. Sometimes the ravens chased the wolves … and once, a raven waddled to a resting wolf, pecked at its tail, and jumped aside as the wolf snapped at it. When the wolf retaliated by stalking the raven, the bird allowed it within a foot before rising. Then it landed a few feet beyond the wolf, and repeated the prank.’

    I found this further thought most fascinating: ‘Both species are extremely social, so they must possess the psychological mechanisms necessary for forming social attachments. Perhaps in some way individuals of each species have included members of the other in their social group and have formed bonds with them.

    “The wolf may have similar relationships with other creatures. People have heard loons and barred owls responding to wolf howls, and vice versa.

Without a doubt, the wolf’s most dangerous relationship must be with man.

I think it would be foolish to maintain that no healthy wolf ever [preyed on human being] … The problem is one of setting things in perspective. How many tens of thousands of encounters between wolves and unarmed individuals have passed without incident? While the wolf preyed rarely on man, man clearly preyed excessively on the wolf.

    When Murie was carrying out his work in Mount McKinley National Park in the 1940s, outside pressure was being brought to destroy the wolves inside the boundaries to protect game herds. He alludes to instances when wolves were killed and makes reference to wolf dens that were raided for pups … and the young destroyed … This in a national park where the wildlife was supposedly protected.

    30 years later, L. David Mech … was confronted with similar problems. 17 of his radio-collared wolves were killed by humans … Erkki Pulliainen’s research in Finland reached a state of limbo in 1975 when the last wolf was killed. In 1976, Alaska, under pressure from hunters to reduce its wolf population, deliberately shot the radio-collared wolves in one of its own studies.

    The miracle is that in such a climate of human hatred, misunderstanding, and harassment wildlife biologists have managed to bring the wolf out of the darkness of superstition at all.

In the second part of the book, Mr Lopez brings in observations made by Eskimos who live in the Arctic among wolves, and by Native Americans who lived alongside the wolves, including their myths and legends.

One thing he says about the Nunamiut Eskimo: “For the Nunamiut, there is no ‘ultimate wolf reality’. The animal is observed as part of the universe. Some things are known, other things are hidden. Some of the wolf is known, some is not. But it is not a thing to be anxious over … Studying the wolf, [the Nunamiu] gets closer to the physical world in which he lives. The lack of separation from its elements distinguishes him from the biologist.

Actually, I’d better not lose myself here as I honestly do not know which parts to include and which to leave out; suffice it to say, I found it THE most interesting part of the book.

The hardest section to read was the third one – the part that deals with men “who saw nothing wrong with killing wolves, who felt it was basically a good thing to be doing.

I won’t say much, not because I don’t think it’s worth saying, but because it is so unpleasant … People have always killed predators but “the history of killing wolves shows far less restraint and far more perversity. A lot of people didn’t just kill wolves; they tortured them … they poisoned them … on such a scale that millions of other animals – raccoons, black-footed ferrets, red foxes, ravens, red-tailed hawks, eagles, ground squirrels, wolverines – were killed incidentally in the process … they even poisoned themselves, and burned down their own property torching the woods to get rid of wolf havens.

They killed wolves with “almost pathological dedication” from the 1860s right through to the 1970s. At the end of it, I wasn’t really any closer to understanding why they killed the wolves like they did …

The fourth and final section concentrates on the wolf of myth, legend and fairy tales, which I found to be quite thought-provoking.

I’ve managed to find a copy of Adolph Murie’s book, which is waiting in my ever-growing pile of books-to-read, and Wolfie has recommended ‘Never Cry Wolf’ by Farley Mowat, which I shall be treating myself to next month.

GHM mentioned ‘Lone Wolf’ by Jodi Picoult, an author I have not read before but, according to the reviews she did a lot of wolf research for it, so should be an interesting read, and I found an extremely affordable copy on ebay.

I'd like to share this passage from Henry Beston’s ‘The Outermost House’:

Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.