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gray wolfThe Wolf: The Big Bad He Who Cried Nothing
by Marjorie Dorfman

Why is the wolf so disliked in our modern culture? What is the truth that lies beyond his toothy grin? Read on whether you are big bad or otherwise.

There is probably no other animal in the history of the world that has been more misunderstood and maligned than the wolf. These creatures are found everywhere in folklore and legend, and far beyond the realm of fairy tales about full moons, grandmother’s house, boys who cry and Indians who dance with them. They are also found in proverbs and language, lurking in doorways, in office buildings and cocktail parties (particularly in elevators and other tight spaces), and in sheep’s clothing running amuck. The wolf is too weak to fight back and redeem his rightful reputation as an upstanding coward among the noblest found anywhere in animal kingdom.

wolf baying at the moonThe wolf is the quintessential wild dog and the primary ancestor of the modern beloved canine. They arose about one million years ago in the middle of the Great Ice Age in Eurasia at the same time as man’s emergence, and spread to North America via the Bering land bridge when it achieved sea level (as did their human counterparts). Each time the bridge re-emerged, a new Asian population crossed over to North America, the end result being an incomplete evolution of species. Wolves vary greatly in appearance, from lightly built and white in the Arctic to large and mostly dark in southern regions of the world.

It seems obvious that the competition for food and the need to survive must have thrown the wolf and man together. Until man assumed an agricultural and pastoral life style, which called for the extermination of the wolf, their relationship was one of mutual tolerance and respect (two hunters searching for food in an unforgiving universe). Today, the wolf symbolizes all that is wild and predatory, but people in regions where wolves predominate are recognizing a social responsibility towards their "former colleagues."

No brave hunter, the wolf always attacks the sick and weakest of the herd. Most native populations of these largest of all wild dogs have been decimated to such an extent that they are now considered an "endangered species." The wolf species includes coyotes, foxes and various sub species. The most common variety is the gray wolf, of which there are five sub-species in North America. These include: Mexican Lobo, Great Plains Buffalo, Rocky Mountain or Mackenzie Valley, the Eastern Timber and the Arctic Wolf. There is also the red wolf, which is found in the Southeastern United States and the Abyssinian wolf, native to Ethiopia.

wolf in AlaskaThe wolf is a carnivore, with a food preference for deer, moose, elk, caribou, bison, sheep and mountain goat. If none of these are available on the menu, a wolf will resort to a brunch of smaller mammals notably beaver, rabbit and even birds (pheasant under snow). A wolf can survive on two and one half pounds of food per day and one has been known to consume over 22 pounds in one meal! It is known that wolves in Minnesota kill 15-18 deer each per year.

Although the wolf has a wide range of size, shape and color, those found in the northwestern United States, Canada and Alaska are known to be larger. The males weigh from 70-115 pounds, the females 10-15 pounds lighter. Tails are long and bushy and the rounded ears are about two inches long. Their legs are longer than those of other dogs and their colors range from white to shades of black, brown or gray. Coats are thick and the hair can be as long as 6 to 7 inches in the mane. This hair can be raised and lowered and is used for communication with other wolves.

Wolves have their own particular ways of reaching out and touching each other. In addition to the hair on the mane, wolves howl, bark, whimper and growl. They howl to greet one another, announce their location, establish their territory and call the pack together. Their communication tools include scent, vocalizations, postures and rituals. Barking is usually associated with distress or surprise and the howl of a wolf is described as deep and mournful with a constant pitch. Usually a lone wolf will howl several times for about 35 seconds, and when a pack is howling it can be heard for almost a mile in the woods.

wolf's headThe lives of wolves are finely tuned to the hunt. They are travelers and it is not unusual for a pack to cover 20 miles within a 24-hour period. They maintain a steady trot, and their tracks are hallmarked by prints made by the front foot on the same side. This is due to the unique stride of the wolf whose front paws are larger than the rear and the toes are more widely spaced. Wolf tracks are sometimes mistaken for those of mountain lions and coyotes.

A pack of wolves is generally comprised of six to eight animals that use a distinct territory, which they defend against other wolves. Usually, one litter of an average of six pups is born between April and June of each year. Pups emerge from the den about a month later and by the fall, they are ready to roam freely and the pack may become nomadic. The babies vary greatly in size but generally weigh about 40 pounds by August. Dens are often used for long periods of time (several years) and are always located near water, dug into well-drained soil on a slope facing south. The average life span of a wolf in the wild is six to eight years, and in captivity they are known to live for as long as 16 years.

wolf in alaska Since 1992, Alaska has been in the forefront of organizing a wolf management team, which stresses the philosophy that wolves must be considered part of an entire ecosystem which is a part of the natural cycle of prey, predator and habitat. They must be protected against harassment and from genetic alteration through breeding with domestic dogs if they are to survive as a species of the wild. The team recommended that all of these issues be addressed through public education and that the wolf habitat must balance the needs of both wolves and people. One of the biggest conflicts arises from reindeer husbandry as these animals often fall prey to hungry wolves.

white wolfSo the next time you hear that old song about who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, remember that the wolf is much more afraid of the big bad universe, which threatens its existence every day of its tormented life. This creature so much epitomizes the spirit and energy of the primeval in nature that Jack London used its face on the cover of his most famous tale, "The Call Of The Wild."

Help the wolf even though he may not be at your door.

Did you know . . .?

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Here's a truly good book about wolves:

The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species

by L. David Mech

The Wolf

The best single source of information on wolf biology. A must read for all who have an interest in this most maligned and misunderstood creature. If you want to learn about wolves, you cannot ignore this seminal work or its author. Chapters cover wolf evolution, range, and physiology; society and pack behavior; reproduction; hunting and predator-prey relationships; and the species' uncertain future. Includes all the hard data, but presented in an engaging manner that is accessible to a broader audience, drawing heavily on anecdotes and personal experience.

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