How is the wolf perceived?
The wolf appears in our imagination, throughout history and in cultural representations from around the world as everything from savage hell-dog to benevolent spirit. Preconceptions inform people rightly or wrongly about the nature of wolves. Not surprisingly, we’ve found peoples preconceptions of the animal guides their position, perspective and opinion of the wolf. For many people, their understanding of wolves is a mixture of fact, fiction and half-truths. In our many years of studying wolves, we found four common perceptions of wolves that tend to fall into one of the following categories.
The Wolf of Nightmares
This perception, having very little to do with real wolves, paints the wolf as an ancient beast of fables, fears, and superstitions. Since medieval times, wolves have often been depicted as ferocious red-eyed demons. European settlers brought this idea of the wolf as a deceitful and sinister creature with them to the New World and it continues today to permeate our psychology and define our relationship with wolves.
Tales that villainize the wolf, like “Little Red Riding Hood,” have been passed down through generations, stoking these fears. Horror films and Halloween stories continue to perpetuate the myths of werewolves and wolfmen who turn fanged and bloodthirsty by the light of the full moon.
Without even being aware of it, generations of parents have passed along the archetype of the “big bad wolf.” Walt Disney’s “Three Little Pigs” reminds us of the lovable, carefree piglets and the ravenous wolf, lurking in the shadows and ready to take advantage of their careless home construction techniques. These stories turn the wolf’s intelligence and native pack hunting talents—social planning, coordination, and surprise—into undesirable human characteristics such as deception and trickery.
These age-old misleading stereotypes continue to resurface in popular culture and media today, with wolves constantly depicted as ominous and dangerous threats or even ruthless killers out to exact revenge on humans. Such damaging misrepresentations can be seen in films like The Grey, where a group of oil pipeline workers are unrealistically stalked and eventually killed by a pack of gray wolves, as well as in more subtle and surreptitious ways, like in the Disney animation, Frozen, where the heroes are chased by a pack of snarling wolves through a dark forest, barely escaping with their lives.
These misrepresentations do real damage. They seep into our collective unconscious and imagination, shaping our understanding of wolves. Because we are unconsciously taught to fear the wolf, many people consider it a dangerous species and still believe that wolves pose a perpetual threat to human life, despite much evidence to the contrary. Misunderstanding breeds fear and fear can breed hatred.
The Spirit Wolf
The second perception we call the “Spirit Wolf.” This perception of the wolf as a symbol has its origin in the culture of many Native American Tribes, but has been borrowed and often distorted by modern wolf enthusiasts. This wolf is an animal of great wisdom to be revered as a spiritual guide. Although this view holds the wolf in great esteem, it often does so at the expense of science.
The Wolf of Science
This next perception is the carefully monitored “Wolf of Science,” studied by scientists such as biologists, ecologists, and zoologists. These researchers record valuable information on wolf breeding, predation, physiology, pack structure, diet, habitat and much more. They also study how humans affect wolves and vice versa, which is very important for the conservation of this species. But scientists can’t get too close to the wild animals without dramatically influencing and altering natural pack behavior. Much research is therefore conducted remotely with the use of technology such as camera traps, “howl boxes” and tracking devices such as radio collars and telemetry, or by collecting DNA from scat, fur and tissue samples. Data indicating health, age, diet, gender, and reproductive history are also collected from wolves that are darted and temporarily sedated.
The body of knowledge produced by scientists continues to expand and enrich our understanding of wolves. But studying wild wolves remotely or from a great distance has limitations in what can be observed with regard to behavioral research, making it very difficult to develop an understanding of the nuances of the wolf’s character, social bonds, individuality, devotion to its family, and capacity for emotion.
The Social Wolf
Finally, there is the wolf that we have come to know – the social wolf. In our years of living with and observing these animals, we learned to see them as individuals, each with their own distinct personality. Each personality lends itself to a different role within the family and allows for unique relationships and bonds to develop between individuals. These relationships define the structure of the pack. Wolves are intensely social creatures, extremely devoted to their pack—their family. They are thus deeply vulnerable to management practices that destroy their social structure.
Social animals around the world have complex communication skills. Wolves frequently communicate, regularly employing a complex mix of vocal and physical communications to express their needs and emotions. For example, a pup may solicit adults for regurgitated food by licking their muzzles. If there is food around, the adult male and female may growl at pack members to keep them away until they are finished eating. Mistakenly, people often interpret this language as being vicious and evil, but it is simply one of the many ways wolves communicate.
Within the dynamics of the Sawtooth Pack, we witnessed countless moments of affection and were touched by the care they demonstrate for one another. Certain wolves would choose to spend time together, appearing to simply enjoy each other’s company. Reinforcing bonds was routine. Rarely did two wolves pass each other without playfully rubbing shoulders or exchanging a brief lick. Wolves release tension by playing, while also keeping their physical skills well-tuned and reinforcing their bonds within the pack.
Wolves are capable of not only emotion but also real compassion. This is the view of the wolf that we want to share—a wolf that is neither saint nor sinner. Instead, they are intelligent and highly sensitive animals that are at once both individualistic and social. They care for their injured, protect their family, and instinctively need to be part of something bigger than themselves—their family, the pack.