Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

By Mollie Hogan and Shirley Gordon

moonA primary belief about wolves that many people have carried over from childhood stems from the story of Little Red Riding Hood. While the story may have been intended to carry the caution, “Don’t Speak to Strangers” it also promotes the image of wolves as bad and dangerous animals. However derived, wolves have inspired fear over the centuries.

An exception, for the most part were early primitive peoples who admired and respected the wolf for its skill as a hunter. The Plains Indians wore wolf skins while stalking buffalo and some tribes incorporated the wolf’s spirit into their ceremonies.

But when the hunting and gathering society gave way to the growing of crops and raising of cattle, the wolf—still having to feed itself and family by predation—became a feared enemy.

The European settler also brought to the New World this imagined dread of the wolf. Pieces of folklore that support this fear are a belief in werewolves from the middle ages and numerous horrific accounts of travelers being fatally attacked by ravenous packs of wolves, many elaborated in fiction.

So called “werewolves” were probably, in most instances, erratically behaving mentally ill individuals. To dispel the second myth, studies indicate that Europe’s infamous killing wolves of the 17th and 18th centuries were either hybrid wolf-dogs, or rabid, or both.

According to current statistics, there is no documented case of a wolf attack on a human in Europe in the past 150 years. Nor is there substantiated evidence of healthy wild wolves attacking humans in North America.. Rabies in the modern wolf is rare.

Yet the wolf still appears to inspire in humans as much fear as it’s ancestors.
In a respected nature reference book, “Hornaday’s American Natural History”, first printed in 1904, the wolf is described in these words: “Of all the wild creatures of North America, none is more despicable than the wolf. There is no depth of meanness, treachery, or cruelty to which wolves do not cheerfully descent.”

In contrast, scientific research experts today who have studied and lived with wolves, describe them very differently as “animals of great strength and endurance who are intelligent, loving and loyal.” The notorious wolf pack, depicted fictionally as a murderous gang, is usually a family group of a monogamous parent pair and their offspring of varying ages.

Wolves breed once a year, in February and March, producing normally from four to six pups, most of whom may not survive due to predation, disease, or starvation. The pups require as much as three times the protein per pound as their parents, and food may often be scarce.

But those wolf pups who do survive are welcomed into a strong and supportive family structure. The pups are engaging and playful, with floppy ears that finally stand erect at four weeks. The young wolf pups are often startled by the sound of their own first howls.

The howling of wolves is simply a form of communication in wolf society. As each animal joins with a different pitch, the wild harmony of the wolves’ song is one of nature’s most glorious sounds.

Over the past decades the wolf has been systematically exterminated with traps, guns and poisons from 95 percent of its former territory in the lower United States.

Now, in a more environmentally enlightened age, the wolf’s role in retaining the vital predator-prey balance of nature is being acknowledged with its reintroduction to some of its former territory.

However, strong opposition still persists from some fractions-farmers and ranchers, despite studies which show that 99 percent of all farms and ranches in wolf country will not be bothered by wolves; hunters, who protest the wolf’s decimation of the deer population although it is has been proven that the presence of a natural predator keeps a prey population healthy and long-lived; and finally those who still suffer from the human race’s centuries-old wolf phobia.

Today the howl of a wolf is often heard here in Topanga where likely “El Lobo”, the Mexican wolf, one lived. The howls come from Moondust, a gray wolf, who now resides at the Nature of Wildworks wildlife center. He arrived here as a pup, having been someone’s pet for a brief time and as he grew his brown pup coat turned a glossy white and he was christened “Moon”. “Gray wolves” actually come in different colors—gray, brown, black and white –and all colors can be found in the same litter of pups.

Being the only resident wolf at Wildworks, Moon has different howling companions than his wild counterparts: Hopi, an Australian shepherd dog and two coyote siblings, Trickster and Mesa. Trickster always starts the howl, then Moon joins in, then Mesa and finally Hopi. The communication is short and to the point—about 30 seconds—and always beautiful to hear.

As a young animal Moon served his kind in the wild through appearances as a wildlife ambassador in outreach programs to teach people about wolves. At nine years of age he’s now retired , enjoying his walks and the view from his hillside enclosure overlooking the Topanga hills where his ancestors once roamed.

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