Monday, November 28, 2016

How Wolves and Humans Are Alike

Photos public domain. Collage by Rick Lamplugh
While some people see wolves as vicious killers to be feared, hated, and eradicated, I see them as essential predators that we have much in common with. 

Some commonalities lead to conflict.

Our similar preferences in habitat encourage clashes. Wolves can live most places we do: forests, prairies, tundra, mountains, deserts, swamps. They can thrive even in Europe and Asia, areas dense with humans. 


Our similar tastes in food lead to competition. Wolves and humans both enjoy sheep, cattle, deer, and elk. Many humans would rather kill wolves than share with them.

While wolves and humans are both territorial, we string barbed wire, draw lines on maps, and kill thousands of wolves in our misguided attempt to protect “our” territory.

Other similarities--if we understand them--can forge stronger bonds between wolves and humans. 

Both species evolved in families, found strength in numbers. Members of any healthy family—human or wolf—assume specific roles. Like human parents, the alpha pair makes decisions and controls the pack. Other members contribute to the pack’s survival. In their families, wolves—like humans—play, show affection, feed and discipline their young, and mourn their dead.

Photo CC By 2.0 Bob Haarmans
Wolves, like humans, have different personalities: some are loners; some are lovers; some are leaders. 

Wolves postures and facial displays express aggression and fear, dominance and submission. In humans we call this non-verbal communication.

Wolves, as well as coyotes, red foxes, and domestic dogs, even experience “human” emotions such as joy and grief. In his book, The Emotional Lives of Animals, evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff writes that while animals may experience some emotions that humans can't understand, we can understand many of their feelings. Observing is the key. 

Bekoff observed, for example, how body language revealed the grief a pack of wolves felt after losing a low-ranking female. The grieving animals lost their spirit and playfulness. They no longer howled as a group. Instead, they sang alone in a slow mournful cry. They held their heads and tails low and walked softly and slowly when they came upon the place where a mountain lion had killed their pack mate. I’m struck by how the changes are similar to those a human family may experience after losing a loved one.

If wolves and coyotes can experience emotions that humans feel, can they also become mentally impaired? Bekoff asks this intriguing question and then concludes that since many psychological disorders have been diagnosed in dogs, "there's no reason why this couldn't be true for their wild relatives.”

The similarity between wolves and humans goes even deeper. Both are moral creatures. Not long ago most scientists believed that animals lacked a moral compass. But times and attitudes change. When Bekoff and bioethicist Jessica Pierce wrote their book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals a few years ago, they reported that the “staggering amount of information that we have about animal intelligence and animal emotions” now leads more scientists to say that animals can act with compassion, altruism, forgiveness, trust, and empathy. “In humans,” say the authors, “these behaviors form the core of what we call morality.”

Photo by NPS
I don’t always associate the words compassion and empathy with wolves and coyotes. Sometimes when I observe these animals in Yellowstone, I see a dog-eat-dog world: an alpha puts an upstart in its place, two packs battle over territory, a coyote dies trying to share in a wolf pack’s feast.

But wolves and coyotes live in tight social groups built on a network of relationships that depends on trust, reciprocity, and flexibility, just as human relationships do. Animals in such groups, say Bekoff and Pierce, live according to a code of conduct that discourages some behaviors and encourages others, that fosters cooperation and coexistence.

The ability to get along, in fact, may determine the ultimate size of a wolf pack. For a long time scientists thought that available food regulated pack size. But Bekoff and Pierce point to research by wolf expert David Mech that shows pack size may be regulated by social factors and not just food. My interpretation of Mech’s findings: pack size is governed by the number of wolves in the pack that can bond versus the number of wolves viewed as competition. When those numbers are out of balance—not enough bonders, too many competitors—packs splinter. 

Philosopher Mark Rowlands also believes that many animals—including rats, chimpanzees, and dogs—feel emotions such as love, grief, outrage, and empathy. When acting on those emotions, animals choose to be good or bad. In his book, Can Animals Be Moral?, he presents examples suggesting that animals know right from wrong. Though humans possess a more developed moral consciousness, Rowlands says that animals can act for reasons that require an awareness of and concern for others. They can act morally.

Several years ago, a group of prominent scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. The scientists declared that rapidly evolving scientific evidence shows that many animals are conscious and aware in the same way humans are. And that animals act with intention. Consciousness, awareness, and intention are keystones of morality.

photo via flickr CC BY 2.0
Because we have so much in common with wolves, we must treat them differently.

If we believe that animals can act morally, can experience emotions such as joy and grief, can even become mentally impaired, then we must make sure that our actions match our beliefs. We must, as Bekoff writes, treat these other beings with respect, appreciation, compassion, and love. “There's no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it's their emotions that should inform our actions on their behalf, and we can always do more for them.”

Yes, we can always do more for wolves. And we should do less to them. We are far too similar to wolves to fear and hate and kill them.



In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 250 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller


5 comments:



  1. Very nice; important thoughts. There are many people who need to read and think on these ideas.

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  2. Very nice; important thoughts. There are many people who need to read and think on these ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have always felt a kinship with wolves....now I understand it is our commonalty that I am connecting with. Thanks!

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  4. Man is the only animal who plots to kill based on either financial gain, jealousy, or fun. Predators like the wolf don't plot to kill; they kill only to eat, protect territory, and insure survival of the pack.

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