{Book Review} Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez

I’ve been wanting to dive into the topic of the Gray Wolf for some time now, and I’m starting by reading Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men. It is an excellently researched and thorough book on the history of the relationship between man and wolf. I want to be up front: this post is mostly a representation of what I’ve learned from the book, not necessarily a formal review, but my hope is that you’ll learn, too, and be encouraged to pick up the book to seek more.

We’ll start with some basic natural history.

Wolves are highly social creatures with refined social structures. A pack typically represents an extended family of five to eight individuals but can have as many as fifteen or twenty members. Pack size is determined by a variety of factors, such as available territory, available food, pup mortality, and even the individual disposition of its pack members. Pup mortality is high – upwards of 60% – for several reasons: pups require three times as much protein per pound as the adults, and adults will dispatch them if they appear handicapped. Diseases and predation are other factors. Packs will also breed according to the present environmental pressures: in famine time or if the populations of other packs are high, a pack may not breed at all and therefore preserve its resources for the existing members. In the wild, the alpha pair will fight to keep other wolves in their pack from mating, but it’s not known whether it is always the alpha male that fathers the pups as his aggression towards potential suitors is less than that of the alpha female’s.

Older wolves take a great general interest in the pups, allowing them to eat without interfering and enduring endless hours of chewing, nipping, and playing. (Lopez points out that in captivity, the pack behavior around a carcass is markedly different: wolves in captivity tend to become neurotic and are much more aggressive around the carcass.)

Researchers have reported that packs actually develop a collective personality, which helps researchers identify a pack by behavior alone. Lopez also points out that, contrary to popular belief, females may actually lead packs and outlast several alpha males. Even if they aren’t in charge of the pack, the alpha female strongly influences the pack’s behavior. Females decide where to den and thus where the pack will have to hunt for several months. Females are also thought to be better and faster hunters, a perception that has historically been negated by our learned image of the wolf as a macho, solitary killer.

The social structure of the Grey Wolf, until somewhat recently, has been observed in its greatest detail in captivity. Unfortunately, captive wolves do not set a good example of wolf behavior in the wild: the animals are not actively hunting for their food, they are penned in areas a tiny fraction of the territory they’re meant to roam, they suffer from a lack of adequate exercise, and they are constantly interfered with by humans. A lack of exercise and adequate space for “alone time” can make any canid neurotic and exaggerate its social displays.

Wolves in captivity. Minnesota Public Radio Photo/Dan Olson

Social displays are a foreign language that scientists have only begun to crack open. Relationships are maintained via three basic methods: vocalization, postural signaling, and scent marking.

Wolves talk to each other all the time. They howl to assemble the pack, especially before or after a hunt, to pass on an alarm, to locate each other in a storm or unfamiliar territory, and to communicate across great distances. More commonly, wolves communicate through small growls, squeaks, and whines. An outstanding sense of hearing comes to play in this form of communication as well, although to what extent we’re still not sure. Researchers theorize that a wolf’s sense of hearing may be as important as smell for hunting: since wolves can hear in the range of bats and porpoises, they’re able to locate rodents moving beneath the snow and therefore gain a quick meal.

Postural communication is more subtle and there are a variety of movements that are easy for humans to miss: the aversion of eye contact, the movement of ears and lips, lip-licking, the position of the tail and shoulders, etc. These gestures can be accentuated by the wolf’s markings, which are darker around the tip of the tail, eyes, ears, muzzle, and shoulders. There exists an intricate physical language in the canid family that humans tend to oversimplify.

Threat behavior. (No author cited – do you know? Tell me!)

Scent marking we understand the least, but it’s integral to wolf communication. It enables them to communicate over long distances as they travel, and also within their own territories. There’s evidence that wolves scent-mark items left behind by humans, potentially as a warning to others in the pack: individuals have been witnessed defecating on traps and poisoned baits.

Wolf scent-marking a tree. (Apparently no one credits wolf photos. If you can credit this photo, let me know.)

Contrary to popular belief, wolves do in fact kill each other, especially in captivity. In the wild, wolves may kill each other over territory disputes, when pups are threatened, or “strangely-behaving wolves”: epileptic pups, wolves caught in traps, wolves crippled by a moose or gunshot, have been killed by pack members. (p. 51)

A wolf’s digestive system and feeding habit are based on a feast-or-famine system, which means that they can go several days without eating. When they do eat, wolves often procure and process a massive amount of food at one time. They are able to consume as much as eighteen pounds of meat at one time! Depending on where the pack lives, wolves will eat deer, moose, elk, musk ox, Dall and Rocky Mountain sheep, caribou, beaver, buffalo, snowshoe hares, marmots, mice, squirrels, grouse, geese, rabbits, carrion, occasionally insects, and they will also fish in shallow water.

Another common misconception is that wolves only hunt the young, old, and the sick. In reality, wolves are opportunistic and will take whatever individual presents itself at a disadvantage. The very young, the old, and the ill present the most obvious disadvantages, but there are exceptions. If wolves have set up an ambush and the healthiest, strongest buck is the first through the line, he is what’s for dinner. There are other factors that make prey choice more complex: prey scarcity, the intensity of the winter, a pack’s range deterioration, pressure from humans and other packs, etc. As usual, it’s not a simple, linear pattern. Lopez says that wolves have also been observed practicing a type of fallow-field farming by allowing certain groups of prey in their territory to recover for a few years before hitting that group again.

Even the hunting behavior of the Grey Wolf is still shrouded in mystery: wolves do not always pursue readily available prey and they do not always take an animal that would be an easy target. Lopez writes, “Wolves and moose, for example, may stare intently at each other and then the moose may simply walk off. During a chase a moose may be surrounded, seemingly doomed, when suddenly one wolf will break the chase in mid-stride and snap at the other wolves to drive off – as though they had selected the wrong moose.”

Researcher L. David Mech made some interesting observations of wolves hunting moose during his studies, as recorded in Lopez’s book. Out of 160 moose within range of hunting wolves:

29 were ignored

11 discovered the wolves first and eluded detection

24 refused to run when confronted and were left alone

Of the 96 that ran:

  • 43 got away immediately
  • 34 were surrounded but not harmed
  • 12 made successful defensive stands
  • 7 were attacked
  • 6 were killed
  • 1 was wounded and abandoned

Really, all this tells us is that there is an intimate relationship between prey and predator that we’ve never had an inkling about. It’s not as simple as “wolf hungry –> wolf hunt –> wolf eat”; it very much appears that the prey takes an active part in the hunting process, rather than just succumbing. Lopez calls this the ‘death conversation’ and insists that there’s some invisible dialogue happening between both parties. Some animals, even if disabled, have been observed standing their ground and watching a perfectly capable pack of wolves retreat.

As a super-cool side note, there appears to be a fascinating relationship between wolves and ravens in certain areas where ravens will follow wolves or their tracks and scavenge what’s leftover from a kill. Mech writes in The Wolf that he’d witnessed a sort of tag game between members of the two species, whereby ravens would land near napping wolves and nip at their tails until the wolves popped up and gave chase. The ravens would land only a few feet away and alight when the wolves got close enough, landing again to entice the chase. Mech suggests that since both species are highly social, there may exist psychological mechanisms that allow for socializing between the species.

Phenomenal photo by Max Waugh. (Click to see his gallery.)

Religion played a larger role in the early American perception of the wolf than most people realize. Anything to do with wilderness was bound to be full of temptation and evil, as wilderness in any form was thought to be godless. The vast expanse of the American landscape was rife with mystery, and was surely hard enough to navigate in this mindset without the threat of a masterful killer lurking in the darkness. A man was a righteous, God-loving man if he could conquer the wilderness – scrape it away and build small square houses on small square fields. The wolf, however, was a threat that came out of the forest beyond his ordered life to snap at the heels of his livestock; which, much to the advantage of a predator, had been bred for docility. And so the wolf became the devil: irrational, bloodthirsty, unpredictable. The wolf’s motives were no greater than a bloodlust and a desire to foil the hard-working American.

Nothing, naturally, could be farther from the truth.

Lopez maintains that the long campaign against wolves has its roots here, in theriophobia, or a fear of the beast. The beast is an animal we can’t understand: it is violent, it answers to no being, it lacks inhibition, modesty, and compassion. It is a direct reflection of the darkest parts of mankind, and so to kill it in ourselves we designated a scapegoat that we could kill without reprimand.

The campaign has never been a gentle one. Thousands of acres were set on fire in early colonial America to drive wolves out, and men were so stupid with bloodlust that they ended up burning down their own homes and fields. They poisoned the wolves and tortured them, breaking their jaws and cutting their tendons and setting them to run against domesticated dogs. Theodore Roosevelt called the wolf “the beast of waste and desolation.”

Man came into the wilderness willingly and then cursed the wilderness for his hardship. Few men learned to coexist alongside the hard winters and abundant predators, but even fewer realized the bounty of the land in its fullest. Eventually, those that turned to romantic ideals of the wilderness as refuge away from the industrial sin of cities began to speak for the nobleness of the wolf. Twentieth century environmentalists blinked open the argument of conservation, and a true American dispute was born.

Via westernwolves.org

In 1955, an aerial hunter named Jay Hammond wrote that if he’d not been killing 300 wolves a month, the local Eskimos surely would have starved. Whether this was an intentional lie or a shockingly sad delusion is irrelevant because so many other people bought into it. (And how had the natives survived so long without Mr. Hammond, one wonders?) Not all of them were bad men, but few of them appeared to have the ability or courage for independent thought processes. As is true with many religious concepts, standing apart against the belief of the mob was making oneself a walking target.

Lopez points out that others responsible for the genocide were less visible. Tourists willing to pay nearly $500 for a wolf pelt encouraged trappers to take as many lives as they could. Cultural mentalities of the time also played a role. People perceived livestock and animals like deer to be “innocent,” even defenseless, and thus viewed the wolves that preyed on them to be vile. Man became the protector of the innocent, and since man ruled supreme over the lower beasts, he incurred no moral responsibility in his indiscriminate killing. Further, the wolf was akin to the Native American in early American history. That is to say, there was a general sense of mistrust, mystery, and a perceived affinity for the occult between both. Killing wolves and killing Indians fell under the same savage concept of protecting one’s hard-earned living and sanctity of soul.

These mentalities, even if diluted, are still present today. Just as there is a nearly genetically inherited hatred for coyotes, there exists a similar hatred for wolves. It’s fed by misinformation, a feeling of entitlement, and the need to blame something other than the society one supports for one’s poor hand in life.

Not long ago, a school group came to the nature center to visit, and the bus driver wandered around making conversation with me. Here’s how it went:

Driver: I sure hope we don’t have wolves up in the mountains. What do you think about that?

Me: What do you mean, what do I think about it?

D: Do you think we should let them live?

M: As opposed to killing them all?

D: Yes. They kill a lot of wildlife. (the implication here, I felt, was “innocent wildlife”)

M: So do we.

D: But they kill lots of wildlife. How many elk do they take every week? They’re competing with us hunters.

M: (here I deliver what I think is a relatively neutral review of the current science that suggests wolves don’t really compete with humans because they’re more likely to pick out weak members of a herd, whereas humans prefer to take the big, virile individuals, and that removing predators from an ecosystem has dire effects all the way down the line)

D: Well, science made a big deal about global warming, and that’s not turning out to be as bad as they made it sound.

That’s where the conversation fizzled out. Unfortunately, you can’t argue with 1) legitimate ignorance of the topic being discussed, 2) generationally inherited hatred of something misunderstood, and 3) an unwillingness to actually discuss an issue rather than be expected to hear anger opinions. There is a perceived injustice that the wolf represents, but it is not the wolf. It is in the choosing of a difficult way of life, in the reality that, sometimes, hard work does not repay a man the way that it should – the way the American Dream says it will.

Lopez’s tome is a great dive into the history of how men and wolves evolved alongside each other after the advent of agriculture. There’s also a great section that discusses the relationship between wolves and Native Americans, which, as you could imagine, looks a lot different than the relationship between wolves and white men. Understanding the history of the wolf goes a long way in understand its future, especially when “the facts,” as I’ve now learned from personal experience, are essentially meaningless. I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from the book.

We create wolves. The methodology of science creates a wolf just as surely as does the metaphysical vision of a native American, or the enmity of a cattle baron of the nineteenth century. It is only by convention that the first is considered enlightened observation, the second fanciful anthropomorphism, and the third agricultural necessity. Each of these visions flows, historically, from man’s never-ending struggle to come to grips with the nature of the universe.

Thanks for reading! :) Happy new year.

(Again, no credit info for this image.)

For more info on predator controversy or on wolves, check out this one on coyotes or this one on the Canidae family.

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Posted on January 2, 2011, in Book Reviews, Fauna and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi,
    A very interesting read, and a lot of good information. Really enjoyed the post.

  2. Joanne Favazza

    Really enjoyed this! “Of Wolves and Men” is a great book, and Lopez is a terrific writer. Lots of good info, and the section in the book about how traditional American Indians related to the wolf (and still do) is fantastic. Thanks for posting this!

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