Can we make a place for wildness?
It’s hours before daylight, and I make my way down the slick front stairs, batting away spiderwebs with my umbrella. My front yard is a dark enclosure of dripping, twisted shapes…my own private forest. I pause and scan the shadows. Just to make sure.
It’s just a quick excursion into the urban wild—in ten seconds, I’m back in my warm kitchen with the newspaper, brushing off raindrops and spiders and reading about last nights’ Presidential Debate.
It’s the last face-off for who gets to be Top Dog.
The front-page photo of the candidates catches my attention. It reminds me of something…but, what? I examine the body language of the two men. Much of modern elections seems to come down to body language. It’s all about subtlety and nuance: a national sizing-up of a leader based not on ideas, but on interpretations of expression and posture.
Of course, non-verbal communication is important—especially if you’re a wildlife biologist. Animals can’t tell you what they think, after all. I squint at the photo and imagine interpreting it as a biologist would…both men have eyes narrowed and teeth bared, and one has his forelimb upon the other in one of those half bro-hugs. Probably not really an embrace—more like a warning. Feel my weight, buddy. Feel my power. You’re going down.
Ah, that’s it…that’s what I was reminded of: something I saw in this month’s National Geographic. It was a photo of two wolves locked in a classic Alpha Male tussle, the challenger with his jaws spread full around the Alpha’s head as if he would crush his skull in a single bite. The Alpha was clearly not impressed—his lip curled in an irritated snarl, as if to say, “Okay, little fella. So ya got a big mouth. What else ya got?”
Wild or Captive? It makes a difference
Wildlife biologists no longer favor the term “Alpha” in describing wolf behavior. Even the idea of a “pack” is somewhat outmoded. These old ideas were originally made popular by biologist L. David Mech in 1970. As he explains on his website, his original research was done on captive wolves, and has since been updated with field research on wolves in the wild—with quite different results.
While captive wolves do behave in the alpha-dominance model, it is not common in the wild. I’ve heard it likened to how humans behave when forced into captivity, like prisons or concentration camps. Social norms break down. Things get savage.
In contrast, wild wolves live in family groups of related individuals: the parents, called the breeding pair, and their offspring, which include the current years’ pups and possibly older siblings from one or two previous seasons. The breeding pair are the leaders, not because they fought their way into their high status position through force and dominance, but simply because they are the parents. Parents know best, right?
It makes a subtle but important difference in how we view wolves. Their social behavior is not centered on dominance, but on family. Wolves live and work together cooperatively based on age and experience, with the older ones teaching the younger ones how to be wolves. When they’re ready, the youths leave the family to find a mate, establish a territory, and make a family—their own pack.
What does it mean to be wild?
I flip open my ipad and check my Google alert on wolves. The top article is from Wisconsin, where the first wolf hunting season in 38 years started a few days ago. A father-son team of trophy hunters snared the first wolf, a young female, in a legtrap. They had seen her struggling as they approached with their rifles, finally shooting her in the head to complete the hunt. Her pelt would be their trophy, hanging on their wall to remind them of their proud accomplishment. They get to be the alpha dudes, the true top predators, thanks to superior hunting skills—and a little help from modern technology.
The next article tells of a college girl who takes her wolfdog (85-90% wolf, 10-15% dog) to campus with her. The photo shows her and the muzzled wolfdog gazing into each others’ eyes, and the girl receiving a huge juicy-looking tongue kiss. The caption says she majors in wildlife science and occasionally sleeps with the wolfdog.
These two cases really run the gamut. The first is about dominance through violence, and the second, well, it is a form of trophy-ism, too, just on the other extreme. A little too Fifty Shades of Graywolf, from the look of it.
I wonder why we need to treat wild animals in these ways, either to prove our own supremacy, or as proxies for decent relationship-material? (Or worse, for cheap entertainment, as in some circuses and creepy You-Tube videos.) I’m not saying that trophy hunters—or college girls who love wolves—should be kicked out of America. But what about simply appreciating wildness? Do we have a place for that, as well?
It’s only recently we’ve learned how important top predators—like wolves—are in natural ecosystems. When they are gone, they are missed—not just by us tree-huggers, but by other living things like trees and plants and pollinating insects, and birds and even the prey species, eventually. Living with wildness is messy and complicated and will take serious cooperation and effort and money from all of us, but it will be worth it in the long run… if we want to leave something decent behind us when we are gone. A habitable planet, for example.
I do a quick Google search to check on Journey, the lone wolf that crossed into California last year. He was the only one left from the scattered—or poached—Imnaha pack in eastern Oregon, and the first wild wolf in California in nearly a century. He’s on his own now, probably looking for a mate and scouting out his territory. Being alone, he probably has a harder time hunting larger prey like elk and is living on smaller animals like deer or rodents. Or whatever he can find.
I hope Journey finds his mate and gets his family. Most of all, I hope he learns to hunt wild prey, rather than sheep or cattle—a sure death sentence, as we’ve recently seen in Washington with the Wedge pack. I hope we can love wildlife for being themselves rather than as trophies, or entertainment, or pets. I hope we will make a place for wildness.
To learn more about wolves and conservation in the Northwest: http://www.conservationnw.org/
To keep on Journey and his latest doings: http://www.oregonwild.org/fish_wildlife/bringing_wolves_back/the-journey-of-or7
To see the wolf photo from National Geographic. (note these are captive wolves) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/your-shot/top-shot
To read an article about top predators and their effect on ecosystems: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203630604578072693046060834.html
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