Scientists tell us that humans evolved off of the chimpanzee line several million years ago. That fact has produced the habit of comparing chimps and humans in order to determine shared characteristics that might explain why both humans and chimps do some of the crazy things they do. While we are, in fact, genetically closer to chimps than any other species, that does not necessarily mean that we are burdened by many shared evolutionary idiosyncrasies.
A number of scientists have evaluated humans and the societies we have created and concluded that the animal we most closely resemble is the gray wolf
. Given that the animals we most associate with in our daily lives, our pet dogs, are all domesticated versions of the gray wolf, an intriguing element is added to this claim—Wolves, Dogs, and Humans: Who Domesticated Who?
Wolfgang M. Schleidt and Michael D. Shalter ponder over what a long period of co-evolution between humans and wolves might imply in Co-evolution of Humans and Canids
. They begin with this observation.
“The closest approximation to human morality we can find in nature is that of the gray wolf, Canis lupus. This is especially odd in view of the bad reputation wolves have in our folklore.”
“Wolves’ ability to cooperate in a variety of situations, not only in well coordinated drives in the context of attacking prey, carrying items too heavy for any one individual, provisioning not only their own young but also other pack members, baby sitting, etc., is rivaled only by that of human societies.”
Wolves were very effective hunters long before humans and other hominids emerged from Africa. It would be surprising indeed if lessons were not learned from wolf behavior.
“Wolves ability to hunt as packs, to share risk fairly among pack members, and to cooperate, unsurpassed by any of the big cats, moved them to the top of the food pyramid on the Eurasian plains.”
Whether or not we changed in a fundamental way due to interactions with wolves as we evolved is an intriguing question worthy of conjecture. What is of interest here is to consider what we can deduce about our beloved pets by learning more about their wolf ancestors. Carl Safina discusses wolves, dogs and our interactions with them (and many other wondrous things) in his book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
Wolves are powerful animals with great endurance which is used to balance a rather modest speed relative to some of their prey. Evolution seems to have designed them to attack larger, faster prey such as found in the great herds of ungulates that populated North America and Eurasia in pre-historical times. They played a valuable ecological role as a predator. Wolves would occasional attack as individuals by much more frequently as a pack of several. They would seek out the easiest prey—perhaps the slowest or the least smart—and focus on it. In this way they culled the herds of the weakest of its members. They preferred to take down animals trying to run away. A stationary animal with horns and hooves is more dangerous to a wolf because it can kick and gore more effectively than when running. Wolves would attack a running animal by tearing away their flesh from the hindquarters with powerful jaws until they bled to death. Smaller animals could be brought down quickly with a bite to the throat.
“Wolf jaws exert twelve hundred pounds per square inch, twice that of a German shepherd.”
Unfortunately for wolves, choice food for them were the domesticated animals that humans began to accumulate in tidy little herds. Although there is little to no evidence of wolves viewing humans as prey, their propensity for ravaging domestic animals made them exceedingly unpopular and generated all sorts of disparaging folk tales. The net result was that wolves were to be killed whenever encountered.
The near elimination of wolves from the lower 48 US states created some problems. Without wolves to cull herds, overpopulation and famine became a problem in some regions. In 1995 wolveswere reintroduced
(the last indigenous wolf had been killed in 1926) into Yellowstone National Park in order to control an elk population that had grown too large. This provided scientists the opportunity to observe how the population of wolves evolved and what impact they had on the overall ecology.
Observers have been studying the wolf population ever since. Some animals are fitted with collars that allow tracking. In this manner generations of wolves have been observed as they were born, matured, and died. Most of what Safina tells us of wolf life is derived from those observations.
Safina spent considerable time with wolf observers in researching his book. Here he records his impressions as he watched a wolf pack congregate in an open area.
“The wolves greet energetically, tails raised and wagging, lots of body pressing and face licking. They’re greeting one another the way our dogs greet us when we come home.”
“It’s my first glimpse of the deepest impression I’ll take away about the comparison of dogs and wolves. Wolves orient and defer to their elders the way dogs do to their human keepers. Maturing wolves, though, become captains of their own lives. Dogs remain perpetually dependent on and submissive to humans. It’s been a simple substitution, with arrested development. Dogs are wolf pups who never get to grow up to take charge of their own lives and decisions. Wolves take charge. They must.”
Wolves organize into packs which are essentially extended families. The traditional pack is formed by a breeding male and female. The pups are raised and as they get older participate in hunting and caring for the subsequent pups. The breeding wolves are often referred to as the alpha male and the alpha female.
The males of most animal species do little more for family life than to inseminate a female and then move on. Primates exhibit a somewhat more attentive approach to raising offspring. Chimp males will try to protect an infant if they believe they may have fathered it, but they also may kill a young chimp in order to force the mother into becoming sexually receptive again. Female chimps have found it advantageous to have sex with many males in order to have as many “protectors” as possible. Human males exhibit fathering responsibilities that vary from zero to compulsive. However, society demands and usually receives from them a minimum level of care for their offspring.
Male wolves seem to be more dedicated to their role as a parent than might be expected of the average unconstrained human male.
“The wolves in an alpha pair show deep loyalty to each other in matters of defense and assistance. (Loyalty in the dogs we love—their ‘best friend’ character—is the wolf in them.) And alphas depend heavily on their children in crucial matters such as hunting, feeding and guarding pups, holding territory, and defending against attacking rivals.”
But boys will be boys.
“Like many ‘monogamous’ humans, wolves sometimes color outside the lines. Males might slip across pack borders looking for hookups. Females generally tolerate wandering males. For a male, however, being inside another pack’s territory is very dangerous. Yet males sometimes risk a nighttime tryst.”
And, as with human families, males focus on the “big” problems while the females worry about the important issues. And what are the important issues?
“That includes where to travel, when to rest, what route you’ll take, when you’re going hunting, and the pack’s most important decision: where to den.”
Other similarities between wolf packs and human families are clear.
“Extended child care is a major part of wolf society and family life. Pups stay with their parents for several years. Older children help care for the younger ones while maturing into young adulthood, creating multigenerational groups. Eventually they leave their parents to start their own families. From dens and rendezvous sites—secluded spots for stashing very young pups—adults take turns hunting, bringing back food, playing with the pups, and enduring mock ambushes and having their tails yanked by some of the world’s most playful, insistent youngsters.”
Wolves do not have the benefit of multiple meals a day. They eat one big meal—occasionally. Animals they kill are usually much bigger than they are. All that meat must not go to waste. Not only are the attackers very hungry, but food must also be provided to the pups and caretakers left behind. A large wolf can carry up to twenty pounds of food in his stomach, some of which can be regurgitated to share with others. The result is a consumption of meat and organs that looks frenzied as consumption is maximized. No second helpings will be available because there were other animals ready to pick over the remains of the carcass. If you wonder why your dog seems to “wolf down” its food, it’s because he in some way remembers that he is a wolf.
Packs try to control a territory large enough to provide enough food to support themselves. They attempt to mark these boundaries by leaving a scent. The mechanism is usually urination or defecation. Since scents dissipate over time, the boundaries must constantly be refreshed. Some of our dog species have maintained this compulsion to mark and defend territories.
The normal variations in food supplies mean there is frequent conflict with neighboring packs. Very few wolves get to die of old age.
“Wolf territorial fights resemble human tribal warfare. When packs fight, numbers count, but experience matters an awful lot. As adults of both packs beeline to or away from rivals or battle for their lives, juveniles can seem lost in the confusion. Wolf pups under a year old often seem dismayed by an attack (it seems even wolves must learn violence), and a juvenile who gets pinned by an attacker may simply give up. Wolves often target the alphas of the rival pack, as they fully understand that if they can rout or kill the experienced leaders, victory will be theirs.”
“The second-most-common cause of wolf death in the Rockies is getting killed by other wolves. (Getting killed by humans is first.)
Perhaps the firmest message Safina wishes to deliver about the animals he describes in his book is that all possess unique personalities—just as humans do. A wolf pup—or a human infant—can possess a completely different personality than that of a sibling. And that personality will make a difference in their life prospects. He suggests we should never think of an animal as an “it,” but always as a “who.”
“’Who’ animals know whothey are; they know who their family and friends are. They make strategic alliances and cope with chronic rivalries. They aspire to higher rank and wait for their chance to challenge the existing order. Their status affects their offspring’s prospects. Their life follows the arc of a career. Personal relationships define them. Sound familiar? Of course. ‘They’ includes us. But a vivid, familiar life is not the domain of humans alone.”
Wolves are as capable of producing, within their physical and societal constraints, as exceptional and as heroic individuals as humans are within theirs.
Safina provides the story of a male wolf known to human observers as “Twenty-one,” as told by Rick McIntyre.
“’If there ever was a perfect wolf,’ Rick says, ‘It was Twenty-one. He was like a fictional character. But he was real.”
At age two and a half Twenty-one left his home pack to make a life for himself. He was extremely fortunate to come across a pack whose alpha male had just been killed. Being an impressive specimen, the females took to him immediately and the young pups as well. His new life as an alpha male had begun. Twenty-one was among the first litter of pups born in Yellowstone after reintroduction. This was a time when food was plentiful and his pack thrived reaching “a hard to believe thirty-seven wolves, the largest ever documented.” Other wolves were thriving as well and there were plenty of opportunities for conflicts.
“Even from a distance, twenty-one’s big shouldered profile was recognizable. Utterly fearless in defense of his family, Twenty-one had the size, strength, and agility to win against overwhelming odds. ‘On two occasions, I saw Twenty-one take on six attacking wolves—and rout them all,’ Rick says. ‘Watching him felt like seeing something that looked supernatural. Like watching Bruce Lee fighting, but in real life’.”
But Twenty-one was unique not just because of his physical prowess, but also because of his magnanimity.
“He never lost a fight. And he never killed any defeated opponent.”
Allowing someone who tried to kill you live, did not seem to be the wolf way. It seemed the option of someone with such self confidence that he could say “I don’t have to kill you now. I defeated you now and I can defeat you any time in the future if necessary.”
Twenty-one was unique as a fighter, but he was also unique as a pack leader.
“One of Twenty-one’s favorite things was to wrestle with little pups. ‘And what he really loved to do,’ Rick adds, ‘was to pretend to lose. He just got a huge kick out of it.’ Here was this great big male wolf. And he’d let some little wolf jump on him and bite his fur. ‘He’d just fall on his back with his paws in the air,’ Rick half-mimes. ‘And the triumphant-looking little one would be standing over him with his tail wagging’.”
“’The ability to pretend,’ Rick adds, ‘shows that you understand how your actions are perceived by others. It indicates high intelligence. I’m sure the pups knew what was going on, but it was a way for them to learn how it feels to conquer something much bigger than you. And that kind of confidence is what wolves need every day of their hunting lives’.”
Twenty-one also exhibited kindness, an attribute rare in wolves.
“Early on, when Twenty-one was young and still living with his mother and adoptive father, one of their new pups was not acting normal. The other pups were a bit afraid of him and wouldn’t play with him. One day, Twenty-one brought back some food for the small pups, and after feeding them he just stood there, looking around for something. Soon he started wagging his tail. ‘He’d been looking for that sickly little pup,’ Rick says, ‘and finding him, he just went over to hang out with him for a while’.”
“Rick suddenly seems to be searching inside himself for something deeper he wants to express. Then he looks at me, saying simply, ‘Of all the stories I have about Twenty-one, that’s my favorite.’ Strength impresses us. But what we remember is kindness.”
The great wolf followed an exceptional life with an exceptional death.
“The last day, it seems, Twenty-one knew his time had come. He used the last of his energy to go up to the very top of a high mountain. In a favorite family rendezvous site, where he’d been with his pups year after year, amid high summer grass and mountain wildflowers, Twenty-one curled up in the shade of a big tree. And on his own terms, he went to sleep for the last time.”
If Twenty-one had been a human, he might have been considered the basis for a cult, or perhaps a religion—or at least an epic poem.
Don’t underestimate your pet dogs. They have within them the potential for heroic deeds; it comes from the wolf that remains within them.
The interested reader might find these articles informative:
You can learn a little about a lot of things or you can learn a lot about a very few things. Guess which is the most fun.