The most beloved characteristic of dogs is surely their loyalty, their ability to seemingly overlook our poor, indifferent, or even abusive behavior and treat us well. It’s not for nothing we consider the dog our “best friend.” This loyalty we prize highly in the dog comes from the much maligned wolf.
For the wolf, a social animal, loyalty is a given. The leaders of the pack, the alpha pair, depend on their grown children in hunting, feeding, guarding pups, holding territory, and defending against attacking rivals.
As a species, wolves, just as we humans, are in a special group of predators who hunt animals larger than themselves by being organized groups with social structures and division of labor. Other mammals in this elite category are African painted dogs, lions, spotted hyenas, several dolphins, and certain killer whales. In this context, it seems a little unfair, if not downright ironic, for any human to think wolves are somehow intrinsically “bad” and not to be tolerated.
We humans, however, have zealously appropriated the term “alpha” as in “alpha wolf” to describe humans we think are dominant through fear-inducing aggressiveness. Yet what distinguishes an alpha wolf is not that, but rather what Rick McIntyre, an expert on alpha wolves, says is “quiet confidence” and “quiet self-assurance.” The alpha has a calming effect. The alpha wolf decides, for instance, what the pack will do and when; who will breed and who won’t; who will be accepted and who won’t.
Typically, a male has no need to be aggressive. The only time he might be more assertive is during mating season when the No. 2 guy might approach the breeding alpha female (who usually is the only one to breed) and the alpha male warns him off with a snarl or a showing of teeth, or simply a look. The alpha wolf communicates rank, not a desire to hurt.
As McIntyre says, “Minimal violence promotes group cohesion and cooperation. That’s what a pack needs. The alphas set the example.”
As Doug Smith, another wolf expert at Yellowstone, points out, there are two hierarchies in a pack, one for males and one for females. The alpha female is actually the one who makes the most decisions. She decides where to travel, when to rest, what route to take, when to hunt, and where to den.
The most famous alpha wolf of all time at Yellowstone National Park (according McIntyre) is a wolf named Twenty-One. Known as Superwolf, he never lost a fight. But, most significantly, he never killed a defeated opponent. One could say Twenty-One was magnanimous. By not killing, he increased his status because not killing demonstrates tremendous confidence. Look at human history’s highest-status leaders. They’re not men like Hitler and Stalin, but rather Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
We seem to be especially virulent in our fear and hatred of wolves. Certainly we’re woefully ignorant about them. For those who would like to read more about the specific wolves of Yellowstone, I recommend the ecologist Dr. Carl Safina’s latest book, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.”
To gain a more objective perspective on wolves than we typically find in American media, I recommend a film the Chinese government tried to quash called “Wolf Totem.” This film shows the wisdom of the native Mongolian sheepherders in their (mostly futile) fight to maintain the wolf population instead of driving them to extinction.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College. All facts cited above derive from Safer’s “Beyond Words.”