Book: Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez

The truth is we know little about the wolf. What we know a good deal more about is what we imagine the wolf to be.

This was a very sad book to read. Humanity has dealt the wolves great injustice, blaming them for everything under the sun (and the moon), and then some more. Barry Lopez shares some context on how wolves actually behave and why they were so vilified.

We tend to compare the to humans, either presenting as the opposite, or a friend. But wolves are proudly themselves. They do exhibit some behaviour we understand, and some that we don’t They are alive, and have the very right to.

Wolves vary their hunting techniques, share food with the old who do not hunt, and give gifts to each other.

The wolf seems to have few relationships with other animals that could be termed purely social, though he apparently takes pleasure in the company of ravens. 

Nature was for the most part cruel and dangerous to humans (more on that in Sapiens), so taming it was a sign of virtue, progress, and hope for prosperity. From Factfulness:

There was a balance. It wasn’t because humans lived in balance with nature. Humans died in balance with nature. It was utterly brutal and tragic. (Location 1066)

For most of the civilization, nature was the enemy, and the wolf – the ambassador of the wild.

In a hunter society, like that of the Cheyenne, traits that were universally admired—courage, hunting skill, endurance—placed the wolf in a pantheon of respected animals; but when man turned to agriculture and husbandry, to cities, the very same wolf was hated as cowardly, stupid, and rapacious.

To kill a wolf was to tame the wilderness, to prove the mighty man’s strength can win with the claws and the teeth of the primeval. And men had a lot to prove.

Part of the tragedy—and it was a tragedy—was that wolves who bothered no cattle were hunted down by men who largely wanted to prove to other men that they were no fools.

There is something deep-seated in men that makes them want to “take on” the outdoors, as though it were something to be whipped, and to kill wolves because killing a wolf stands for real triumph.

Barry Lopez lists countless examples of cruelty the wolves received from men. The most gruesome were the “brave hunters” who would shoot machine guns from an airplane to kill hundreds of alaskan wolves per day.

Thanks to the book I understood a little more about my own dog, but the author warns against extrapolating wolf behaviour onto their domesticated brethren.

The habit dogs have of rolling in putrid substances is also found in wolves. It seems possible that odors picked up in this way and carried to other pack members have some communicative function.

Related Books

Recommended on the Tim Ferriss show – somebody said it’s a book similar to The Overstory. I still prefer the Overstory.

My Kindle Highlights

  • The truth is we know little about the wolf. What we know a good deal more about is what we imagine the wolf to be.
  • If someone says big males always lead the pack and do the killing, the Eskimo shrug and say, “Maybe. Sometimes.” (Location 85)
  • Wolves vary their hunting techniques, share food with the old who do not hunt, and give gifts to each other.
  • once saw a wolf on the tundra winging a piece of caribou hide around like a Frisbee for an hour by himself. (Location 89)
  • For example, wolves do not kill just the old, the weak, and the injured. They also kill animals in the prime of health. And they don’t always kill just what they need; they sometimes kill in excess. And wolves kill each other. The reasons for these acts are not clear. No one—not biologists, not Eskimos, not backwoods hunters, not naturalist writers—knows why wolves do what they do. (Location 94)
  • they once roamed most of the Northern Hemisphere above thirty degrees north latitude. (Location 167)
  • Irremotus (Northern Rocky Mountain wolf) means something like “the wolf who is always showing up there.” (Location 197)
  • By placing muzzle and unprotected nose between the rear legs and overlapping the face with the thickly furred tail, wolves can turn their backs to the wind and sleep comfortably in the open at forty degrees below zero. (Location 278)
  • One observer followed two wolves who broke trail through five feet of snow for 22 miles in British Columbia. The animals paused in their tracks but never lay down to rest. Taking wolves on Isle Royale as an example, they average 30 miles of travel a day in winter. (Location 337)
  • The animal can develop a crushing pressure of perhaps 1,500 lbs./in2 compared to 750 lbs./in2 for a German shepherd. (Location 345)
  • As a rule, only one female becomes pregnant. The pups are born sixty-three days later. (Location 360)
  • The social bond between them is so obvious that in 1576, in an age when people believed the worst of wolves, a sportsman wrote in a book on hunting: “If the pups chance to meet their sire or dam anytime after they leave the pack they will fawn upon them and seem in their kind greatly to rejoice.” (Location 384)
  • With respect to females, who have largely a subordinate standing in Western human societies, the analogy, I think, is poor. Female wolves may not only lead packs but outlast a succession of male alpha animals. It is females, moreover, who decide where to den and thus where the pack will have to hunt for five or six weeks. (Location 423)
  • The male hunter-male leader image of the wolf pack is misleading but, unconsciously, I am sure, it is perpetuated by males, who dominate this field of study. (Location 428)
  • Social structure in a wolf pack has been observed in greatest detail among captive wolves, which makes extrapolating to wild wolves risky. (Location 432)
  • Alpha animals do not always lead the hunt, break trail in snow, or eat before the others do. An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason, and, it should be noted, is alpha at the deference of the other wolves in the pack. (Location 446)
  • Human beings, particularly in recent years, have grown accustomed to speaking of “dominance hierarchies” in business corporations and elsewhere, and the tendency has been to want wolf packs (or troops of chimpanzees) to conform to similar molds. The social structure of a wolf pack is dynamic—subject to change, especially during the breeding season—and may be completely reversed during periods of play. (Location 449)
  • To place a heavy emphasis on such supposed facets of behavior as “intimidation,” “pulling rank,” and games of psychological cruelty based on social structures, however, is simply to confuse the tools of human analysis with the actual behavior of wolves. (Location 454)
  • Daily activities center around the mouth of the den until the pups are about eight weeks old, at which time the adults move them to the first of a series of rendezvous sites where they remain while the others hunt. (Location 469)
  • Adolph Murie wrote that the strongest impression he was left with was of the wolves’ friendliness toward each other. (Location 493)
  • Even as adults, wolves play tag with each other or romp with the pups, running about a clearing or on a snowbank with a rocking-horse gait. They scare each other by pouncing on sleeping wolves and by jumping in front of one another from hiding places. They bring things to each other, especially bits of food. They prance and parade about with sticks or bones in their mouths. (Location 495)
  • They can howl lying down or sitting on their haunches. I’ve even seen a wolf, with an air of not wanting to miss out, howl while defecating. (Location 507)
  • In chorus like this, each wolf chooses a different pitch. The production of harmonics (see chart, page 42) may create the impression of fifteen or twenty wolves where there are in fact only three or four. (Location 539)
  • The habit dogs have of rolling in putrid substances is also found in wolves. It seems possible that odors picked up in this way and carried to other pack members have some communicative function.
  • The animals may be marking things they consider dangerous to other wolves, especially pups, for wolves also mark traps and poisoned baits by defecating on them. (Location 643)
  • Wolves commonly go without food for three or four days and then gorge, eating as much as eighteen pounds of meat in one sitting. Then, “meat drunk,” they may lay out in the sun until digestion is completed (in two or three hours), and then start again. (Location 684)
  • All wolves eat grass, possibly to scour the digestive tract and remove worms. Consisting mostly of cellulose, the grass itself is never digested. (Location 692)
  • The latter point should be well taken: in the past, it was assumed that wolves were basely motivated and bloodthirsty; then in an environmentally enlightened age, it was suddenly assumed that they were noble and wise. So, (Location 836)
  • For my own part, I mean to suggest that there is more to a wolf hunt than killing. And that wolves are wolves, not men. (Location 839)
  • Wolves have a curious dependency on caribou to act as snowplows. It seems clear that tundra wolves do not follow caribou in winter solely to feed on them but because the herds open the way and pack the snow down. (Location 914)
  • The wolf seems to have few relationships with other animals that could be termed purely social, though he apparently takes pleasure in the company of ravens. 
  • (The set of steel nubs on a leather strap seen on dogs today is a gentler version of the spiked collar dogs once wore as protection against wolves.) (Location 937)
  • A common practice in captivity is to allow wolf pups to establish a bond with an older dog. The relationship gives humans an intermediary, and makes handling the wolves easier. (Location 939)
  • The mistake that is made here, with consistency, it seems, only by educated Western people, is to think that there is an ultimate wolf reality to be divined, one that can only be unearthed with microscope and radio collar. Some wolf biologists are possessed of the idea of binding the wolf up in “statistically significant” data. They want no question about the wolf not to have an answer. (Location 1045)
  • “The more reflective Nunamiut do not search for a primordial cause, a complete explanation or order of the nature of ultimate destiny.” (Location 1054)
  • we do not know very much at all about animals. We cannot understand them except in terms of our own needs and experiences. And to approach them solely in terms of the Western imagination is, really, to deny the animal. (Location 1149)
  • What happens when a wolf wanders into a flock of sheep and kills twenty or thirty of them in apparent compulsion is perhaps not so much slaughter as a failure on the part of the sheep to communicate anything at all—resistance, mutual respect, appropriateness—to the wolf. The wolf has initiated a sacred ritual and met with ignorance. This (Location 1288)
  • Just as intriguing is the idea that some game animals assent to a chase-without-death with wolves. Caribou and yearling wolves, for example, are often seen in harmless chases getting a taste of death. Building spirit. Training. Wolf and caribou. (Location 1379)
  • It should be understood, however, that the Indian did not rank-order animals. Each creature, from deer mouse to meadowlark, was respected for the qualities it best seemed to epitomize; when those particular qualities were desired by someone, that animal was approached as one who knew much about that thing. (Location 1391)
  • To fit into the universe, the Indian had to do two things simultaneously: be strong as an individual, and submerge his personal feelings for the good of the tribe. In the eyes of many native Americans, no other animal did this as well as the wolf. (Location 1427)
  • The inclination of white men to regard individual and social motivations in themselves as separate led them to misunderstand the Indian. The Indian was so well integrated in his environment that his motivation was almost hidden; his lifeway was as mysterious to white men as the wolf’s. (Location 1438)
  • There are no stories among Indians of lone wolves. (Location 1442)
  • The Ahtena Indians of southern Alaska brought a wolf they’d killed into camp on their shoulders, chanting: “This is the chief, he is coming.” The dead wolf was taken inside a hut, where he was propped up in a sitting position and a banquet meal was set before him by a shaman. Each family in the village contributed something. When it was felt the wolf had eaten all he wanted, the men ate what was left. (Location 1503)
  • This person then might explain to the dead wolf that he had been hired by some other village so the wolf would take out any revenge at the wrong place. The Chukchi Eskimo of northeastern Siberia routinely told any wolf they killed that they were Russians, not Eskimos. (Location 1509)
  • At the heart of theriophobia is the fear of one’s own nature. In its headiest manifestations theriophobia is projected onto a single animal, the animal becomes a scapegoat, and it is annihilated. That is what happened to the wolf in America. The routes that led there, however, were complex. (Location 1949)
  • In Europe at the same time the subjugation and ordering of shabby wilderness had reached its exaggerated apotheosis in the excessive neatness of the Versailles gardens. (Location 1974)
  • Roderick Nash writes: “In the morality play of westward expansion, wilderness was the villain, and the pioneer, as hero, relished its destruction. The transformation of wilderness into civilization was the reward for his sacrifices, the definition of his achievement and the source of his pride.” (Location 2000)
  • If a horse kicked a pestering child and the child died, the horse was to be tried and hung. (Location 2035)
  • To clear wolves out of the forest so man could raise cattle was perfectly all right. It was not only all right, it met with the approval of various religious denominations who admired such industry, and of the state, whose aim was a subdued, pastoral, and productive countryside. (Location 2054)
  • Descartes articulated the belief that not only were animals put on earth for man’s use but they were distinctly lowborn; they were without souls and therefore man incurred no moral guilt in killing them. (Location 2058)
  • There is something deep-seated in men that makes them want to “take on” the outdoors, as though it were something to be whipped, and to kill wolves because killing a wolf stands for real triumph. (Location 2264)
  • Men in a speculative business like cattle ranching singled out one scapegoat for their financial losses. (Location 2628)
  • Part of the tragedy—and it was a tragedy—was that wolves who bothered no cattle were hunted down by men who largely wanted to prove to other men that they were no fools. (Location 2673)
  • do not think it comes from some base, atavistic urge, though that may be a part of it. I think it is that we simply do not understand our place in the universe and have not the courage to admit it. (Location 2837)
  • They wanted the attention and respect they used to get in a township, young boys tagging after them, men their own age cheering their shenanigans with the game wardens. It was all slipping away from them now. That afternoon (Location 2876)
  • We killed hundreds of thousands of wolves. Sometimes with cause, sometimes with none. In the end, I think we are going to have to go back and look at the stories we made up when we had no reason to kill, and find some way to look the animal in the face again. (Location 2884)
  • cannot, in the light of his effect on man, conceive of the wolf as reducible. (Location 2904)
  • The Roman Church, which dominated medieval life in Europe, exploited the sinister image of wolves in order to create a sense of real devils prowling in a real world. During the years of the Inquisition, the Church sought to smother social and political unrest and to maintain secular control by flushing out “werewolves” in the community and putting them to death. (Location 2951)
  • The Greek for wolf, lukos, is so close to the word for light, leukos, that the one was sometimes mistaken for the other in translation. Some scholars have argued that Apollo only came down to us as both the god of dawn and a god associated with wolves because of this etymological confusion. (Location 2981)
  • Saint Francis was trying to get the animal to desist. He and the wolf met one day outside the city walls and made the following agreement, witnessed by a notary: the residents of Gubbio would feed the wolf and let him wander at will through the town and the wolf, for his part, would never harm man (Location 3005)
  • Seventeenth-century Europeans commonly referred to a lump that might announce breast cancer as a wolf. They similarly called open sores and knobs on their legs (and on the legs of their animals) wolves. In nineteenth-century medicine a type of general skin disorder characterized by ulcerative lesions and tubercules was called lupus vulgaris, the common wolf. A related disorder was lupus erythematosus unquium mutilans, literally “the mutilated red talons of the wolf,” a disease that attacks the hands and so disfigures the skin and nails that they look like the paws of a wolf. The (Location 3055)
  • Today, systemic lupus erythematosus is recognized as one of the most puzzling disorders in medicine. (Location 3059)
  • Middle Ages. At a time when no one knew anything about genetics, the idea that a child suffering from Down’s syndrome—small ears, a broad forehead, a flat nose, prominent teeth—was the offspring of a wench and a werewolf was perfectly plausible. (Location 3239)
  • Civilization was not as precious as it is to us today. The temptation to strike back at a painful world must have been strong. (Location 3242)
  • In Africa there were werehyenas, in Japan there were werefoxes, in South America there were werejaguars, in Norway there were werebears. In Europe there were werewolves. (Location 3282)
  • In a hunter society, like that of the Cheyenne, traits that were universally admired—courage, hunting skill, endurance—placed the wolf in a pantheon of respected animals; but when man turned to agriculture and husbandry, to cities, the very same wolf was hated as cowardly, stupid, and rapacious. (Location 3326)
  • a wolf is wounded and a human being is later found with a similar wound—was the basis of proof in many werewolf trials.) (Location 3343)
  • And it was a general belief in Europe that those unfortunate enough to be born on Christmas Eve would be werewolves. (Location 3390)
  • evidence. The idle word of a neighbor, the gibberish of a village idiot, a shaving cut that showed up the morning after someone claimed to have driven off a wolf with a sharp stick—for these reasons and less thousands died at the stake. (Location 3419)
  • People wanted society to work smoothly, to be rid of whatever ailed it. (Location 3422)
  • Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1487. Its title, Hammer of Witches, derives from a title sometimes bestowed on Inquisitors, Hammer of Heretics. One of the purposes of the book was to refute in tedious scholastic fashion every objection to the existence of werewolves. The Malleus (Location 3437)
  • Because the wolf children described by various writers were all probably autistic or schizophrenic, suffering either congenital or psychological problems or both, the issue of whether authentic wolf-raised children ever existed seems a hopeless, not to say pointless, inquiry. (Location 3522)
  • The earliest Aesop in Greek is one from the second century by Babrius, but it shows the effects of his having lived for a while in the Near East. The influence of fable collections from India, called the Fables of Pilpay or Bidpai and taken from the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesa, and stories of the Buddha in animal form from the Jatakas, show up more clearly in Aesopian collections after 1251, (Location 3653)
  • The possibility has yet to be realized of a synthesis between the benevolent wolf of many native American stories and the malcontented wolf of most European fairy tales. At present we seem incapable of such a creation, unable to write about a whole wolf because, for most of us, animals are still either two-dimensional symbols or simply inconsequential, suitable only for children’s stories where good and evil are clearly separated. Were we to perceive such a synthesis, it would signal a radical change in man. For it would mean that he had finally quit his preoccupation with himself and begun to contemplate a universe in which he was not central. (Location 3928)
  • AT THE SOUTHERN END of the Acropolis in Athens stand the ruins of the Lyceum. Philologists argue about the origin of the name but it seems probable that the building was once used as a place of worship for Apollo, the Wolf Slayer. (Location 3935)
  • DURING THE TIME I was researching this book, my wife and I raised two hybrid red wolves at our home in the woods in Oregon. (Location 4038)
  • They often sought out ridges, high on the slopes of the mountain valley where we lived. I assumed at first that it was for the view but later it seemed it was for another reason as well. Here the air currents that moved strongly upslope in the afternoon reached them intact, not broken up, with the olfactory information they carried scattered, as happened when the winds blew through the trees. (Location 4080)
  • someone let them out. We never found out who. I think it must have been someone who believed all wild animals should be free but who did not know that wild animals raised in captivity are no longer wild. River was shot and killed by a man who told us later he wasn’t sure what kind of animals they were but they looked wild and were trying to play with his neighbor’s dogs, (Location 4099)
  • “There could be more, there could be things we don’t understand,” is not to damn knowledge. It is to take a wider view. It is to permit yourself an extraordinary freedom: someone else does not have to be wrong in order that you may be right. (Location 4122)