A New Understanding
Scientists are continually debating about the emotional lives of animals. Only recently has real consideration been given to the possibility that a creature like a wolf could be capable of an emotion as complex as compassion.
For us, the insight of compassion was the gift that the Sawtooth Pack gave to us. Compassion has been an underlying theme in our films, and it is the single most important message about wolves that we can share. Wolves possess something beyond their more obvious attributes of beauty, strength, and intelligence. These animals, who have been maligned for centuries and despised as the embodiment of all that is cowardly, savage, and cruel, clearly care about one another. They show signs of what we believe are nothing less than empathy and compassion.
Observing Pack Friendships
The more time we spent with the wolves the more we realized how caring and family orientated they were.
In the Sawtooth Pack two of the wolves were especially close. Matsi, the beta wolf on the left, and Lakota, the omega, often hung out together apart from the rest of the pack.
Matsi genuinely seemed to enjoy Lakota’s company, and Lakota, normally shunned or picked upon by the rest of the pack, appeared grateful to have Matsi as a friend.
Lakota, receives a reassuring glance from Matsi. At times, Matsi would use his size and status to prevent conflicts. And often, Lakota would look to Matsi to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.
Occasionally, the pack would become aggressive with the omega. These assaults on Lakota, would concern the beta wolf, and frequently Matsi would body-check the aggressors to stop the fighting. (In this case, however), Lakota sank to the ground and worm-crawled his way out of the frenzy.
With Matsi, Lakota was free to do things he wouldn’t dare do around the others. He never would have jumped on a mid-ranking wolf’s back to instigate play. No wolf in the pack would have stood for that sort of audacity from an omega. Matsi, on the other hand, let it pass.
Not only did the two wolves sleep side by side, but when Matsi went exploring, Lakota often joined him.
One of the happiest observations that we experienced in all our time with the pack was the sight of these two frolicking together—and the look of pure joy on the face of Lakota, freed for a moment from all his burdens.
Mourning A Lost Pack Mate
During our time with the Sawtooth Pack, we feel that our most significant observation was to witness how much the wolves cared for one another.
The following is an example of what we observed in the very first year of the project with a dark female omega wolf that we named Motaki.
Motaki is the word for “shadow” in the Native American Blackfoot language. And like all omegas, she was the focus of pack aggression, forced to eat last and often picked upon.
As a result of her omega status Motaki would often go off alone and spend time by herself in a remote area of the territory.
It was during a time like this that a mountain lion climbed over the fence and killed Motaki. Now, the story I would like to share with you is not how Motaki died, but rather how the pack reacted to her death.
For the remainder of that spring and well into the following summer, their behavior changed and they appeared depressed, hanging their heads they drifted about their home in a listless manner.
As Jamie mentioned earlier, omega wolves instigate play in an effort to diffuse pack tension. Motaki was good at this, and when she died the other wolves lost the spirit to play.
Another indication of their changed behavior was the way they howled. Howling is an exciting time for wolves, they rally together to celebrate the solidarity of their family. Singing together as a group, the howl is punctuated by lively yips and whines.
After Motaki’s death their howling changed for a time. No longer gathering together, they would howl separately with very little energy. Their vocalizations had a mournful searching quality, as if they expected her to come back. These behavior changes continued for over six weeks.
This story of care is not an isolated one. While we were filming in Fairbanks, Alaska, a biologist with the Fish and Game Department took us to their necropsy room (animal autopsy) and showed us the skull of an average-size male wolf.
Examination of the skull revealed, unmistakably, that the wolf had suffered a broken jaw in his lifetime, probably the result of a kick delivered by a moose or caribou. Such an injury would have rendered the wolf unable to hunt or even tear chunks of meat from a kill.
Yet the skull indicated that the bones had mended and the wolf had continued to live for several more years. The only way he could have survived is for the other wolves of his pack to have fed him. They would have had to regurgitated food for him, nurturing him as they would a pup. They would not leave him behind to starve.
Biologists have observed similar acts of compassion in Yellowstone National Park, Idaho and Montana.