Thursday, May 31, 2012

Three Books about Wolves

I have recently read three fascinating books about wolves, their interactions among themselves, and the ways their lives intersect with those of humans. This post will give an overview of the three books, all of which I highly recommend, and will discuss some of the intriguing information about wolves that these books impart.


LONE WOLF by Jodi Picoult (2012)

This is a novel in which the family of the main character, Luke Warren, faces the difficult decision of whether or not to remove life support after Luke emerges from a vehicle accident with brain injuries that the doctors believe to be irreversible and that are expected to keep Luke in a perpetual coma. Luke's relationship with his family (his ex-wife, his 20-something son, and his 17-year-old daughter) is complicated by the fact that Luke seems more comfortable with wolves than with his human family. Luke spends much of his time with a wolf pack in captivity, and at one point he left his family for two years to live with wolves in the Canadian wilderness, where he succeeded in being adopted into a wild wolf pack. The novel provides much fascinating information about wolves and draws upon the experience of Shaun Ellis, a real-life man who does live and has lived with wolves.

THE MAN WHO LIVES WITH WOLVES by Shaun Ellis with Penny Junor (2009)

This nonfiction book recounts the experience of Shaun Ellis of England, who does live and has lived with wolves. Shaun spent two years in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho with no human contact so that he could study wolves on their own terms. He was eventually adopted by a wolf pack as a subordinate member within the pack's ranking system. During this time, Shaun lived, played, ate, slept, and interacted with the other members of the pack. This means that he ate raw meat (supplemented with berries and nuts) and used howls, growls, and other wolf sounds and gestures to communicate. Shaun now sees himself as a man between two worlds, the wolf world and the human world. His life task is to bridge those worlds. Shaun works with wolf packs in captivity in England, teaching them the skills needed to survive in the wild so that these captive wolves and their descendants may retain those skills should they ever be released into the wild. Shaun also works with the captive wolves as ambassadors to teach humans about wolves.

NEVER CRY WOLF by Farley Mowat (1963)

This nonfiction book recounts the experience of Farley Mowat of Canada, who was employed by the Canadian government to study wolves in the Canadian Arctic. The purpose of the study was to verify that wolves were killing large numbers of caribou, so as to justify eradicating the wolves. What Farley actually learned was that humans were the ones killing the caribou in large numbers. Wolves killed very few caribou - only what they needed to eat. In fact, wolves strengthened the caribou herds by weeding out the weaker members. Farley learned to love and appreciate the wolves, but his report to the Canadian government was disbelieved and disregarded.



Wolves are highly intelligent. Their sounds and gestures communicate very specific information. Farley Mowat learns that a pack member who has gone out alone may howl to communicate to the pack that he or she is fine but is planning to stay out longer than expected. The howl may even indicate when the pack can expect the wolf to return. Farley also observes that a wolf may howl to communicate the arrival of caribou or of Inuit people, and that this information will be sent over distances by wolves hearing and passing on this howl. The howl for approaching caribou, by the way, is different from the howl for approaching Inuit.

Jodi Picoult's main character explains that the alpha wolf will single out a specific prey animal for hunting and will indicate this to the hunters with tail gestures. The alpha, knowing of a strong rival wolf pack nearby, may even instruct the hunters to terrorize the prey animal so that the meat will be full of adrenaline. When the wolves consume this meat and then urinate around their territory, members of the nearby rival wolf pack will smell the strength in the urine and will hold that wolf pack in greater respect.

Shaun Ellis tells us that the alpha directs the wolves as to what they are to eat to produce needed characteristics. Besides the above example of a terrorized prey animal that produces strong urine in the wolves, the alpha may direct her hunters to kill a nursing calf because the alpha knows that the pack needs the milk contents of the calf's stomach to make the members more mellow after an aggressive mating season. The alpha may even direct her pack to a putrid prey corpse because the pack has contracted worms and the putrid meat will chase the worms out of the wolves' bodies.

Shaun Ellis has observed that wolves regulate their reproduction according to what is needed. If a female becomes pregnant and then determines that conditions are not good for a litter of new pups, she will absorb the pup fetuses back into her body. A female wolf can also delay her reproductive cycle until conditions are right. Shaun wanted to prevent one of his captive female wolves from becoming pregnant, and gave her some contraceptives during the mating season. This female wolf simply held back her reproductive cycle until the contraceptive had worked its way out of her body, went into delayed heat, mated, and became pregnant.


Shaun Ellis has learned that wolves are very pragmatic. They do what works for the survival of the pack. They are not sentimental and don't have emotions as we do. They will feed and nurse an ill alpha wolf, knowing that this wolf is necessary for the survival of the pack, but they will send an ill wolf of lesser rank off to die, knowing that this wolf's illness jeopardizes the pack's survival.

Shaun also explains that wolves also don't give up. They are survival oriented. When faced with an obstacle, they work to overcome or get around it. When danger or hardship arises, wolves adjust their behavior.


Through his friends among the Nez Percé in Idaho, Shaun Ellis learns that Native Americans consider wolves as brothers and sisters. Native Americans do not fear wolves. They see the wolf as a respected fellow predator and an important teacher.

On the other hand, all three authors have observed that many North Americans fear the wolf. These North Americans incorrectly believe that the wolf is a vicious killer, destroying large numbers of prey animals, including farmers' livestock, and ready to attack any human who ventures near. The wolf appears as the villain in fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. The three authors express or imply the thought that these ideas about wolves are shadow projections. North Americans have behaved destructively but are often unwilling to accept and integrate this self-knowledge; therefore, these North Americans project their own destructive characteristics onto the wolf. In their minds, the wolf is the destroyer, the wolf is to be feared, the wolf must be eradicated. What these North Americans deny in themselves, they project onto the wolf.

All three authors recognize that Native Americans understand that we need the wolf. The wolf's presence sharpens everyone else. Other animals are more alert, more fit, more protective of their young. The wolf keeps everyone on their toes, improves everyone's parenting skills, heightens everyone's awareness, increases everyone's fitness. The wolf weeds out the weaker animals. Farley Mowat explains that, in the Arctic, the wolf eliminates weaker caribou and raises the quality of the herd. The Inuit know that the wolf's presence is responsible for the Inuit's finding better quality caribou for their own needs.


These are the lessons I take from my reading about wolves.
  • Take responsibility for oneself. Look squarely at a given situation (whether or not it is ideal), decide the best course of action, and take that action. Wolves do this to survive in the wild. As humans, we can set goals beyond survival.
  • Be awake and aware. See and appreciate what or who is actually there, not one's own projection.
  • Be more pack oriented. Certainly, humans are not wolves and don't operate exactly like a wolf pack. Yet I believe that the wolf pack holds a lesson for our overly individualistic society. In the United States, we are extreme in our individualism. We would do well to give more attention to the common good. I include myself in this.

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