It seems I’ve always been fascinated by wolves. One of the earliest stories told me as a child was the Three Little Pigs, defending themselves from the big bad wolf at their door. I can still see my father’s cheeks, distended and whiskery, as he huffed and puffed his way through the tale. I feared the villainous wolf stalking Little Red Riding Hood, too, and was grateful to the brave woodsman who dispatched it.
My mother would tell me stories of visits to her grandparents’ farm when she was a young girl, and of the fearsome wolves that roamed the area. I could see them in my mind’s eye as clearly as if I had been there with her. I laugh now when I remember her trying to recreate their howls, but I never laughed then.
When I could read on my own, a story I went back to time and again—my first ‘favourite book’—was The Wolf King, by Joseph Wharton Lippincott, of the famed publishing firm, J.B. Lippincott Company, founded by his paternal grandfather. As an aside, his maternal grandfather was Joseph Wharton, founder of the Wharton School of Business.
I, of course, knew nothing of those matters, but avidly devoured the story of a giant black wolf who became a legend in the Alberta wilderness he called home. The illustrations, by Paul Bransom, contributed greatly to my enjoyment. It was this book that changed my perception of wolves forever, and I regret that it is out of print.
On many a camping trip over the years since, some with my own two daughters, I sat in on ‘wolf howls’, group attempts to attract roaming packs of wolves by howling into the night sky. On the rare occasions when we were successful, the shivers in my spine were as real as the eerie, floating ululations borne to us on the night breeze.
A sadder experience was visiting a wildlife zoo in the near north of Ontario, where two wolves—looking scraggly and worn, not at all as majestic as the Wolf King—paced endlessly around their enclosed compound. The clear amber irises of their eyes, staring accusingly as if I were to blame for their captivity, haunt me still. It mattered not that I knew they’d been rescued as orphan pups, and would likely die if released into the wild. They were animals born to be free.
On the internet recently, I came across a picture of a large wolf pack (a photo taken by Chadden Hunter of the BBC), following a looping trail through the snow in Wood Buffalo National Park.
The accompanying description told me—
…the first three are the old or sick, they give the pace to the entire pack. If it was the other way round, they would be left behind, losing contact with the pack. In case of an ambush they would be sacrificed. Then come five strong ones, the front line. In the center are the rest of the pack members, then the five strongest following. Last is alone, the alpha. He controls everything from the rear. In that position he can see everything, decide the direction. He sees all of the pack. The pack moves according to the elders’ pace and help each other, watch each other.
The picture and brief story fit perfectly with my boyhood memories of the alpha wolf in Lippincott’s book. Unfortunately, the explanation seems not to be true. I found a more accurate account on the Snopes website—
…the pack, led by the alpha female, travel single-file through the deep snow to save energy. The size of the pack is a sign of how rich their prey base is during winter when the bison are more restricted by poor feeding and deep snow.
…some researchers would nonetheless dispute the use of the term “alpha.” In David Mech’s 1999 paper “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs,” he posited that the concept of an “alpha” wolf who asserts his or her dominance over other pack members doesn’t actually exist in the wild:
“Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack…
“Thus, calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so “alpha” adds no information…Such a designation emphasizes not the animal’s dominant status, which is trivial information, but its role as pack progenitor, which is critical information.
“…the pack is not being led by the three oldest members and trailed by an “alpha” wolf, [but by] one of the stronger animals…in order to create a path through the snow for them.”
As a storyteller, I confess that I prefer the first explanation over the more accurate one. It corresponds more closely to my mythologized (and avowedly romantic) opinion of wolves, one I am loath to surrender. Nevertheless, even factual descriptions of wolves’ pack-behaviour acknowledge the deep commitment they have to one another, and the social cohesion we might sometimes wish for in our own communities.
This is, perhaps, my favourite description of wolves and the effect they have always had on me. It was penned by a former poet laureate of Alaska, John Haines, in his book The Stars, The Snow, The Fire—
Far across the tanana, a mile or two to the south of us, a group of wolves were singing. I call it singing, not howling, for that is what it was like. We could distinguish three, perhaps four voices – wavering, ascending in pitch, each one following the other, until they all broke off in a confused chorus. Their voices sank into distant echoes on the frozen river, and began again. A light and uncertain wind was blowing out there, and the sound grew and faded as the air brought it toward us or carried it away southward. It might have come across a thousand years of ice and wind-packed snow, traveling as the light of the stars from a source no longer there.
For me, the noble wolves will always be there.