Canis lupus: Big Minus Bad | Houston’s Zoo No. 04

When I was a sophomore in high school, I was in my first-ever play: Big Bad, by Alec Strum. The premise was that The Big Bad Wolf, of fairy tale fame, was being put on trial for his various misdeeds. I played a courtroom reporter named Sidney Grimm, who served to introduce many of the witnesses and events to the audience. The interesting thing about this particular show was that there were multiple possible endings based on audience participation. The audience, you see, was the jury, and based on applause, the jury could decide whether Mr. Wolf was found guilty or not guilty.

I was reminded of this while writing my defense of vultures last week, and wondered how a nonfiction version of that trial would play out. You know, an intrepid and *cough* ruggedly handsome reporter presenting the evidence surrounding a particularly persecuted predator, to an audience with the power to decide said creature’s fate. Too bad we can’t really make that happen.

Oh, wait…

The gray wolf (Canis lupus) has a long shared history with humanity. Most people know that early people began trying to domesticate wolves as hunting companions, which eventually gave rise to the domesticated dogs we know today. What a lot of people may not realize is that humanity’s relationship with wild wolves themselves has been rather unpredictable over the millennia. In the Bible, wolves were often used as symbols of greed or corruption (Matthew 10:16, for one good example). In Ancient Rome, wolves were seen as fierce, yet noble. Remember that the mythic founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were said to have been raised by wolves, and that wolves were sacred to their god Apollo.

From the brothers Grimm to Rudyard Kipling, and Ernest Thompson Seton to Adolf Hitler, historical figures have assigned countless alignments to wolves, ranging from lawful good to chaotic evil. The real question is: which, if any, is right?

Anthropomorphism aside, wolves are powerful and cunning animals that command any ecosystem in which they are found. The largest can be more than six feet long and weigh 175 pounds. Imagine a well-armed, endurance-trained version of a Saint Bernard, or a husky that has inexplicably grown by 300 percent. On top of their size, wolves have a whole arsenal of adaptations that allow them to be very effective hunters. Their heightened sense of smell and 1500 pound-per-square-inch bite force are just two of the traits that make them the apex predator in most of their near-global range.

There are also adaptations that we don’t necessarily think of, that nonetheless aid wolves in the hunt. For example, wolves are accomplished swimmers, and actually have a slight webbing between their toes. This allows the large beasts to swim for miles without so much as getting out of the water.

Many breeds of dogs have famously poor vision, but wolves’ eyes are fine-tuned to pick up movement, and–like many nocturnal animals–have a special, reflective layer that allows for night vision. This layer (called the tapetum lucidum) is very similar to the anatomy that makes your cat or dog’s eyes seem to “glow” at night.

It’s well-known that wolves are highly social animals, and work well together to take down their prey (which can be as large as a bison). They also are very effective communicators, vocally, visually, and chemically. A wolf’s call, expression and scent mark are complex, and can indicate many things about the individual such as age, social status, mood, sexual availability, et cetera.

There is one aspect of the wolf society that has been called into question of late: the idea of an alpha. Everyone has heard of “Alpha wolves,” basically the leaders of their packs, the “top dogs,” if you will. Modern scientists debate the idea, saying that canine dominance is more complex and nuanced than the simple alpha system previously described.

The stories of wolves attacking people are not entirely unfounded. It does happen, although I can’t stress enough how incredibly rare it is. Wolves are far more likely to go after livestock, which has made them a nuisance animal for as long as farmers have kept sheep.

Ultimately, it’s this pasture-raiding behavior that has proven the biggest problem for man’s best friend’s distant cousin. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as people spread out across America, wolf numbers plummeted. They had a bad habit of eating people’s animals, and, naturally, they got killed for it. Their numbers in Eurasia were stable enough, but by the 1960s, American gray wolves–which had once roamed the entire continent–had been all but wiped out. There were just about 300 wolves left in the lower 48 states, isolated in the northern tips of Minnesota and Michigan. Then, in 1973, the Endangered Species Act was signed into law, and the gray wolf was protected from the mass exterminations of before. Over time, the wolf has been reintroduced to parts of its former American range, but it’s an uphill climb.

Members of the “jury,” I stand before you today representing an entire species that has gotten the short end of the stick. I do not deny that they have taken the lives of millions of farm animals. That’s just what they do. But I reason that it is unjust to paint an animal that is unlikely to cause bodily harm to a person–in… most cases–as inherently “bad.” Even if they were, wouldn’t you agree that a near-extinction is more than enough (overkill, if you will) in terms of retaliation on our part?

Think on that, and in the meantime, may your ever-afters always be happy.

P.S. Honestly, some of these stories are totally ridiculous. What kind of animal has the lung capacity to blow even a straw house down with just a huff and a puff?

Actually, hold that thought. We’re going to get into something really big next Saturday, March 31st, and I truly cannot wait.

That’s all from me. If you have any questions, or would like to request an animal to be featured, comment down below and It’ll be my pleasure to help you out.

See you next weekend, and until then I am…

As I ever am.

Categories: Feature

2 replies »

  1. The reintroduction of wolves in the west in 1990 tipped the scale in their favor . How can sheep producers help both species to coexist/survive? What is the key to a ‘natural’ balance.


    • Well, Tim, there are a number of effective, non lethal strategies for deterring wolves and other predators. Livestock guardian dogs are a great option. A large dog living among the sheep or cattle can let the wolves know that they really aren’t supposed to be there. Another one is any signs of human presence. Wolves are naturally pretty skittish, and lights, loud noises, and the like are often enough to keep them away. One seven year peer reviewed study showed that areas utilizing these strategies lost 3.5 times fewer sheep than nearby areas that relied more on killing wolves. Pretty neat stuff.


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