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About this blog: The Raucous Caucus shares the southpaw perspectives of this Boomer on the state of the nation, the world, and, sometimes, other stuff. I enjoy crafting it to keep current, and occasionally to rant on some issue I care about deeply...  (More)

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The Big, Good Wolf

Uploaded: Jun 22, 2015

The more we learn about the fellow-traveling species with whom we share this planet, the smarter and more sophisticated they become. So it is with wolves -- yesteryear's vicious, rapacious plunderers of pig families, small children and shepherd boys.

They are renowned in our grimmest fairy tales and other mythologies as big, bad, cunning killing machines. We've even developed a caricature of their leaders to flatter our species' presumed "alpha-males." Granted, many of these tales were penned in an earlier, more agrarian era, when marauding wolfpacks might have posed a dire threat to life, limb and livestock. But recent studies, in less fraught times, reveal that the archetype of the aggressive, angry, dominant male finds little support in actual nature. Bosses, take note.

In a recent op-ed piece by Carl Safina, 20-year Yellowstone wolfpack observer and researcher Rick McIntyre is quoted as follows: "The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf is a quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance. You know what you need to do; you know what's best for your pack. You lead by example. You're very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect."

Indeed, his personal favorite alpha, named "Number 21" to match his radio collar (nobody said researchers were artistically inclined in the naming department), was fierce in defense of pack, but gentle within it ? wrestling with pups as a favorite pastime, and even seeking out a sickly straggler for extra attention. Per McIntyre again: "Strength impresses us. But kindness is what we remember best."

Somehow, Kipling understood that dynamic, one-hundred years ago. Akela, the pack alpha in the Jungle Book, led by honor, strength and courage. He takes a nearly defenseless/easy-meal toddler Mowgli into his pack and nurtures him, perhaps sensing that he might need the human someday to face down the fearsome tiger Shere Khan. When the showdown arrives, the old wolf and his young acolyte put their lives on the line to drive off and eventually kill the mighty feline. He's my kind of alpha.

It should also be noted that there are two hierarchies in the wolf pack ? male and female ? and that the females are far from deferential. As McIntyre puts it: "It's the alpha female who really runs the show."

In my own experience of canines -- hosting well over a hundred border collies (if you've ever watched their eyes, you know they're among the wolves' closest cousins) ? bears out both points. Chuchundra, my alpha throughout a decade of fostering, doesn't really do much. We've even nicknamed him Honey Badger (look it up). But he does lead, and his corrections to pups are progressive and measured. That he is deeply distrustful of people may be a further badge of honor. And I've always had to chuckle when a potential adopter would express a preference for a female, presumptively the easier-going, more docile sex. Uh, no.

Another recent op-ed examines the many costs of workplace incivility, and lays much of the blame on Type-A, domineering bosses, who demoralize their 'packs.' They might take a lesson from ol' canis lupus in the original article: "imagine two wolf packs, or two human tribes," Mr. McIntyre said. "Which is more likely to survive and reproduce? The one whose members are more cooperative, more sharing, less violent with one another; or the group whose members are beating each other up and competing with one another?"

That article concludes: "Men can learn a thing or two from real wolves: less snarl, more quiet confidence, leading by example, faithful devotion in the care and defense of families, respect for females and a sharing of responsibilities. That's really what wolfing up should mean." I'll howl to that.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by San Ramon Observer, a resident of San Ramon,
on Jun 22, 2015 at 4:29 pm

San Ramon Observer is a registered user.

The intelligence of cats,

Tom I have four cats. One of my cats is very energetic. She will come into my office and run around my desk and jump on the back of my chair. Clearly she wants attention for something, usually food. This is pretty obvious attention-getting behavior.

One of my other cats started doing something totally different that surprised me. She comes into my office, sits next to my chair, and taps my arm with her paw. She then looks at me as if to say, I need you to do something for me.

Again it usually means "feed me," but it is a much more subtle way of asking than the frisky cat. This isn't something she observed any of the others cats doing or that I taught her to do. She came up with this behavior on her own. I've never considered her particularly smart either.


Posted by Michael Austin, a resident of Pleasanton Meadows,
on Jun 22, 2015 at 5:01 pm

Michael Austin is a registered user.

The fittest will survive is a false myth.

The fittest can be the most loving and selfless, not the most aggressive and violent.

Chauvinist is a chauvinist to provide self shield for the intimidation felt from the superior gender.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Jun 23, 2015 at 8:02 am

Michael: nature seems not to be as 'red in tooth and claw' as traditionally assumed. I found this book to be a fascinating exposition of 'the moral lives of animals.' Web Link

Roz: we'll never tire of animal stories. I mentioned Chuchundra in the blog, my alpha who's inactive much of the day -- he knows when the clock strikes five. It's his dinner bell, and he's suddenly insistent that it be heeded -- and Now. Sharp barks and puppy-bows from the old boy, lest we forget to do our duty. Someday I'll post video of it. Genghis often rode shotgun with me. He never mastered the window control on his side, but he knew that if he stared hard and long enough at my left hand, I'd eventually use it to crack the window for him, from the door control on my side.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Jun 23, 2015 at 10:37 am

For awhile I've wanted a few pet turtles until I started reading about flying bots and they won me over! Web Link

duh...I'm looking for something I can manage. I'm the only one that will be allowed to fly it. Everybody else is gonna have to stand back and watch. I can hardly wait!

Posted by Eploringmark, a resident of Alamo,
on Jun 23, 2015 at 10:44 am

Having spent a lifetime as an avid outdoorsman, exploring what true wild country we have left in the Americas, from Alaskan bush, to the Bob Marshall and beyond, I can tell you from expert experience that wolves are not a freindfly creature, they are hard core predators. Domesticated hybrid is an oxymoron too. I have first hand experience of wolves up close. They are dangerous when opportunity strikes. They are intelligent and just like bears can and will lose their fear of man via conditioned assimilation, encroachment, or loss of habitat. They hunt in packs and are very smart about testing prey for weaknesses. If a wolf is allowed to think man, or children can be prey, they will test, every time. In the wilderness, women and children are most vulnerable. Keep your distance from wolves, they are not friendly. We can admire predators in nature, for what they are, but do not mistake the fact that they are not domestic dogs in the wild, they are pure killers. Romanticising the wolf is something of native american culture that is largely misunderstood due to the likes of PETA, Hollywood and naive stories. A wolf pack, or even a lone wolf (very rare) can be very dangerous, near a residence, campsight, or hiker. A border collie is nothing like a wolf, its like comparing a can of raid to an atom bomb. Genetically, Malimuts and huskies are closest, look it up. I enjoy your pieces on pets, but please be careful rendering opinion on the outdoors, it is pretty obvious you are not very experienced. This type of naivete can cause others to not offer wolves the respect they are due - - anywhere. Like the scorpion and the frog tale, killing is in its nature. Yellowstone is a parkpark, not wilderness, or even a national Forrest. This is a huge distinction and the science of studying wolves there, vs other areas is increadibly relevant.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Jun 23, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Hi Mark: Thanks for the warning about the predatory nature of wolves, and the fact that their pack may outrank our species in the food chain of the wild. They kill for a living, after all. I think the blog and article focussed primarily on the wolves' relationships within their own rich pack cultures, as distinct from what we might assume.

We'll have to part company on the comparisons of wolves with BCs, however. I agree that a collie's no predator (weapon-wise) -- they're smallish, and their weak-jawed inclinations run toward nipping for control, rather than ripping for injury. It's also true that they are a fairly recently identified 'breed,' and are not close cousins in terms of the descent of identifiable DNA lineage. That said, one well-regarded study recently linked basenjis, afghans, pekinese and shih-tsus as closer related to wolves by DNA than even the nordic breeds (I shih-tsu not).

My point goes to Behavioral similarities. 'Tis thought that the BC derived long before it was IDd as a breed, by isolating and domesticating gatherer wolves of the pack -- who stalk, stare, nip and drive their prey to situations where the stronger killers can bring it down. Those same instincts were useful in maintaining control of livestock, How that is expressed in the DNA evidence is currently unclear. What IS clear is that mankind didn't train it into the dogs -- they had a huge head start by selecting for the gatherers that nature developed over eons, and then breeding for the instinct. BCs are best identified for their instincts, rather than other characteristics that might please the dog show crowd. When you watch how they move and relate their circumstances, and how decisive and independent they tend to be, the relationship seems pretty clear.

I saw one internet report that examined which were 'smarter' -- wolves or collies. The wolf's brain is bigger (as were the brains of our recent ancestors), for one thing. The conclusion seemed to be that it depends on what you want. If it's an animal adapted to predate in the wild, it's the wolf. But if you want your livestock organized, the barn painted and your truck tuned-up -- count on the BC.

Posted by exploringmark, a resident of Alamo,
on Jun 23, 2015 at 4:09 pm

The oped piece s based on largely opinion and not real science of wolf behavior. OK, so mean neo-sociopathic bosses suck and domineering ones that are simply vicious suck too, but the reality is that wolves are vicious even in their own packs. These people rarely follow wolves in the dead of winter in sparse country. It's romanticism of the wolf in the aspect of measured management that is outright silly. Collies are wonder species, but they are nothing like wolves. They share a spirit to herd, but the hunting (aka chase and kill)trait of collies has been outbred for centuries.

Kipling told tales, he was not a scientist.

A few years back had small group of three wolves followed us for 12 miles. That is unnerving, with 50lbs on your pack, even with a 45 70 strapped to it.

Bosses can be trained and fired, a wolf, nope. Ask Donald, our next president. Collie, youbetcha. ...similarities, not much. Quiet confidence only when the belly is full and the abundant food source nearby, otherwise they go full vicious quickly. Honestly, who wants to learn, or use that as an example, it's silly when analyzed scientifically (i.e. Mussolini made the trains on time, so let's all be more like him.

Again, love the dogs, love the pet stories, but romanticism of wolves as part of any culture is naïve.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Jun 24, 2015 at 7:30 am

mark: you may choose not to look beyond the obvious menace of wolves on the prowl -- it's what they do, but it's not all they do, especially within the pack. The latter is what the underlying article is about; I don't think that has as much to do with 'romanticizing' them as it enriches our understanding of that species. (I think it also tends to support the idea that humans are not so separable from other species in terms of their essential natures -- but that's just me talking.)

I also don't see any particular reason to discount the scientific observer's claimed 20-years of field experience (I haven't audited the claim). Nor would I want to assume that wolves in the wild in Yellowstone are somehow suburbanites who couldn't cut it in Alaska. Do you have any source material for that idea?

Kipling as a teller of tales? Of course! I thought it was interesting that his tale cut against the grain of poor press that wolves then typically received.

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