Monday, December 17, 2018

How Wolves and Humans Are Alike

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 leads to competition. Wolves and humans both enjoy sheep, cattle, deer, and elk. Many humans would rather kill wolves than share with them.

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.

But some similarities don't necessarily create conflict. If we understand these other ways we are similar to wolves, we might feel a stronger bond with these essential predators. 

Both species evolved in similar ways, 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 and humans exhibit a range of different personalities: some are loners; some are lovers; some are leaders. 

Wolves and humans both use non-verbal communication. A wolf's postures and facial displays express aggression and fear, dominance and submission without words.

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 both 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?, Rowlands presents examples suggesting that animals know right from wrong. Though humans possess a more developed moral consciousness, he 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

If we accept that we have 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.

Rick Lamplugh lives in Gardiner, Montana, and writes to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands. His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves and the award-winning sequel, Deep into Yellowstone, are available signed from Rick or unsigned on Amazon.

Rick's new book, The Wilds of Aging, is the prequel to In the Temple of Wolves and is available signed or on Amazon.

Photo of man and wolf via public domain. Collage by Rick Lamplugh.


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

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

  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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  6. Kill based Man is the only animal who plots to kill based on either financial gain, jealousy, or I understand it is our commonalty that I am connecting with. Thanks!

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. a wolf is my fav animals in the world i don't understand how humans are so mean to kill a wolf they are the animals not wolf they are more human then we are they know better and humans don't but if you love animals I will respect you

  9. Very well written. We have made a mistake in separating humans from nature around us. Simple logic will state hat all mammals will have a similar approach to seeing and feeling the world around them.