Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: 8 – Wolf (Canis lupus)

The Grey Wolf – Even as a felid man I can admit these are gorgeous creatures. The long, broad snout, that keen nose, piercing yellow eyes, a thick-set skull and neck, full of muscles for that fabulous jaw, covered in a silver fur. Major beauties. (Credit: Lou Gold CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Since the advent of the internet the world is ablaze with endless kittos, doggos, puppers and memes about them all. It can be hard to imagine that wolves had anything but a reputation for being adorable wild doggos, fit for memes and love.

Unfortunately have a conversation with anyone about the reintroduction of wolves into habitats from which they were (comparatively) recently purged, e.g. the UK, and you will find the age-old worries, concerns and outright mythological perceptions still persist.

The best of the wolf memes, ‘Moon Moon’ the somewhat ableist intellectually challenged Wolf originated on Tumblr in 2013 based on one of those silly “Your Name” posts which allowed your werewolf name to be ‘Moon Moon’. (Credit: Kitchiki via KnowYourMeme)

People love seeing wolves in zoos, they just don’t want them in the wild where they will definitely eat their pets, their farm animals and/or their kids.

Given that this is the common perception and given that wolves are a species spread widely across Northern Europe, Asia, North America, you would assume that attacks on humans are ridiculously common – what with there being around 8 billion of us and around 300,000 (estimated) of them globally, we must be in contact all the time, right? I mean, it’s heart disease, cancer, traffic accident, wolf attack as the leading causes of death, in that order?

No. Wolf attacks are ridiculously uncommon, deaths from wolf attacks even more so. Using even slightly inflated statistics we might be looking at, on average, 4-6 deaths per year, globally. That is based upon data from the fifty years leading up to 2002, and the bulk of those attacks took place in Asia (over 200). In Europe, Russia and North America there were a total of 11 fatal wolf attacks in half a century.

So, as far as I am concerned I can see absolutely zero reason why we cannot reintroduce wolves into the UK. They’d probably actually reduce deaths overall because deer are a car-jamming menace! What’s more, right now the deer are running rampant, eating shoots, preventing new forest growth, they have to be managed by game keepers, regularly culled, we’ve got people willing to put species, predators, like wolf and lynx back in the UK, where they were before we persecuted them off of this island and local people don’t want it and farmers don’t want it.

A Canadian timber wolf, or Northwestern wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis) one of many of the closely related wolf species. This one had a gorgeous mottled, dark pelage. These are often found in zoos in the UK, along with Eurasian wolves. (credit: TheOtherKev via Pixabay)

Well of course the local people don’t want it, they’re misinformed and misunderstood. They’ve seen more movies and TV with werewolves than they have seen humans and wolves interacting in real life. They don’t realise there have been literally fewer deaths in fifty years, in Europe and North America, from wolves than there have been from fucking deer! They love does, Bambi taught them to love deer, the fucking own-everything multimedia conglomerate has already got their pro-deer propaganda into the minds, hearts and ever-draining wallets of people out there. They don’t realise the valuable service these wolves would do keeping deer numbers in check, promoting rewilding of ecosystems turned disorderly by an overrunning of large herbivores with no natural predators.

And of course the farmers don’t want it. Look I try to be respectful. I know not every farmer is a flatcap wearing, shotgun-draped-across-the-arm, plum-voiced, fox-hunting Tory twat. But a lot of them are and they can fuck themselves. I get it, everyone wants a job but agricultural practices have absolutely decimated our planet at the expense of a great deal of populations, species and much needed biodiversity. The notion that the farming lobby gets to decide what’s best for the Great British ecosystem is frankly laughable to me.

Hehehe… That look on her face? That’s an “Is it in yet?” look… Still, good use of the reach-around technique, he’s clearly not inexperienced.
Yes, I am aware I am immature! Here at We Lack Discipline, unlike many other supposedly ‘serious’ outlets, we recognise certain universal truths one of which is animals shagging is often funny! We don’t need to grow up, you need to grow down!
(Credit: Temaki CC-BY-2.0)

I even read an argument that having wolves would ‘bother’ their animals. Yeah! Like growing them to kill them for money causes them zero fucking concern! Like the treatment they get when they’re penned into fucking lorries on their way to the abattoir is a joy for them! Like all that leaked footage, all the undercover investigations showing the cruelty doled out to our food animals is in some way better than them getting snatched by a wolf in the night, as nature intended!

It’s a big wide world out there and all evidence indicates we ruined the shit out of it. Not wolves. I don’t even like dogs and I’m going to bat for what is basically the prototype. Because when you study enough biology you get that insight. You get an ability to see a bigger picture and understand there’s a big thing we’re all working towards. Individual selfishness can fly out of the window very quickly, and you realise perhaps this nation struggling for cheap lamb for a decade or two, but having wolves providing valuable ecosystem services, balancing our populations of native herbivores, giving us back a symbol of our wildness, our commitment to the environment, the forest, the trees, to nature – a thing from which we are inseparable and yet spend our entire lives pretending that umbilical cord is not there from life until we’re little more than a memory of eternity – maybe that struggle is worth it.

The train don’t even stop when you’re six feet under the fucking ground, you’re still tethered to it, part of it, you’re the recycling, you become as another thing. You rot, and feed the worms that tend the soil, that help the grass to grow to feed the deer so the wolves may eat them.

IT’S THE CIRCLE OF LIIIIIIIIIFE! AND IT MOVES US AAAAAAAALL!

THE CIRCLE OF LIFE! A sunset on the Serengeti. Are there wolves here? Yes, there are. African golden wolves (Canis lupaster).

Yeah, I’m passionate about this kind of stuff. I hate that humans can’t be honest enough to admit that the reason they don’t like big predators around is because then they don’t feel like the baddest bitches on the block. The thing is the people who cleared the wolves out died hundreds of years ago, if you’re so bad, prove it. Bring ‘em back and survive. It’s not hard. You can’t prove your potency now on the achievements of your ancestors then.

Bottom line I reckon if you crunched the numbers it’d be plain to see it would save more money than it would ever possibly cost. It would likely reduce harm more than it would ever possibly cause.

I’m not talking much about wolves, am I?

Okay, big woofers.

Canid evolution happened in the Americas, beginning in North America around 35 million years ago, during the Late Eocene. Funnily enough, as with the development of cats, some of the earliest canids would have been small, slinky and almost like the Viverridae in their appearance, species like the Mesocyon, for example.

A skeleton of the extinct Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) a wolf species with different ancestors to the grey wolf. Most individuals would have been about the size of the largest grey wolves, although there are skeletal indications they would have been a bit bulkier, particularly in their upper-bodies. These would have been adaptations to the megafauna on the North American plains at the time. (Credit:
Cory Doctorow CC-BY-SA 2.0)

By the Late Miocene, starting around 10 million years ago, canids began to expand out of their territories mainly in the Southwestern parts of North America, moving across the continent. This included the Canis genus, including wolves, and the Vulpes genus, the foxes. They crossed the Beringian land bridge into Asia and began to radiate out from there.

South-American canid species came later with the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, the land-bridge between North and South America, around 3 million years ago.

DNA analysis suggests wolves, our domestic dogs, most of their offshoots, have a common ancestor around 20,000 years ago – but if you’ve been reading We Lack Discipline you should know that anything occurring between 20,000-10,000 years ago comes with a big “Uh-oh!” Because this was around the time of the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, the retreating of the glaciers and the Pleistocene extinction event, also known as the Quaternary extinction.

The fossil record has grey wolves going back around 300,000 years or so. So what’s the deal?

We don’t know but, likely a bottleneck.

Similar DNA analysis suggests that the Himalayan wolf (Canis lupus chanco) is a basal population, effectively an ancestral population which split around 700,000 years ago, so if the ancestral, basal population is still around exhibiting markers dating back nearly a million years but the common species of wolves show genetic restriction, there’s a lot of evidence for a bottleneck.

The Himalayan wolf – Genetic analysis seems to indicate that whilst they are a basal ancestor of grey wolves – that is to say this particular population is related to grey wolves, but seems to come before it. This has led to calls for it to be reclassified as an entirely separate species. It is believed they diverged around 700,000 years ago! Its a wolf with a hell of a story wrapped up in its genome and with further analysis we will only discover more amazing things. (Credit: Madhu Chetri CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Honestly – As a non-canid fan I had no idea the phylogeny, the population dynamics and the genetics of wolves were so interesting and so contested. I thought wolves was wolves, I knew their origins in North America; I believed from there they migrated and spread over the world and that was about it. I didn’t realise those migrations may have been pocked with restrictions, with bottlenecks, with some populations possibly being relatives of much older migrations, others all coming from the same bottlenecked ancestors. Before we even get onto human interactions and breeding for domestication we’ve got a species that tells a tremendous story in its genome.

I don’t like dogs, I respect wild dogs. But I have a new-found admiration for the wolf.

PUPPER TAX! Three young waiting for their mother near Sedge Lake, British Columbia, Canada. (Credit: Murray Foubister CC-BY-SA 2.0)

If you don’t know what wolves look like you likely can’t read this anyway because you are vision-impaired. My apologies, I hope to produce some audio-visual content soon, so you can enjoy my sarcasm too.

It’s like a big, fluffy dog. The largest extant member of the canid family (some extinct specimens would have been impressive, like the Epicyon) with a longish, broad snout and pointy little triangle ears. I’m no dog guy, but they’re cute, alright. Wolves are cute. They are around 1-1.5m long and about 80cm tall at the shoulder, you might have seen bigger dogs, sure – but pit a great dane against a wolf and the power of that wolf will win over the size. They are adapted for killing.

What a gorgeous shot. Wolves don’t actually howl at the moon, by the way. Howling is usually a means of long distance communication so it can be used to draw a diffuse pack together, used to signal to potential nearby other packs of their presence, used to give warnings, or used to call cubs back etc. They don’t just arbitrarily howl at the moon. (Credit: Pix4free)

Those long broad snouts, with a jaw full of strong, bone-crushing teeth, in a jaw anchored to powerful muscles, those are their main weapons. Canids hunt with their mouths, so strong teeth, jaws and necks are essential. The last thing you want is wrapping your gnashers around your prey and they shake you so hard your break your neck! Their legs are long, with fairly sizeable, and quite fluffy, paws. Most wolves exist in habitats where winter snow is a possibility if not a certainty, in winter month and those slightly longer legs and paws are useful for getting around.

They are social animals, although they tend to consist of nuclear family packs, a mating pair plus offspring. Pack sizes are somewhere in the region of 5-8, although packs have been known to come together temporarily in times of hardship. Whether this is with related packs (as dispersal of sexually mature individuals tends to be a thing) or whether they can also be unrelated, I cannot find the information! I would argue these super-packs are most likely kin-related to some extent. Pack sizes can get up to around 40, although this is rare.

Time for a little ethology (study of animal behaviour) – Now if you’re scared of wolves, or if you came across this one in the wild, you would be forgiven for thinking it was unhappy. It’s teeth are exposed, it’s nose wrinkled, it’s eyes somewhat squinted. But this is not an aggressive snarl. You can tell that from certain cues (that I will clarify in the next image) but it helps that photographer states they caught the wolf yawning! See the next image for the next lesson! (Credit: Kristi Herbert CC-BY-2.0)

One thing remarkable about wolves is the range of communications available to them, from vocalisations like howls, barks, growling, grunts, whines and whimpers, to an incredibly broad range of body-language tools, snarling, baring teeth, raising their posture, raised hackles, flattening themselves in submission, rolling over, even urination. One of these reasons wolves were so easy to domesticate is this shared ability of humans and social canids to perform for each other on a similar wavelength of physical and vocal cues.

This complex communication puts one idea about wolves to bed. They are not needlessly cruel, needlessly aggressive or bullies. In fact, they have so much language related to conflict that wolf-on-wolf fights are rare and where they do occur, do not usually result in a fatality. I get tired of telling people that big, dangerous predators are masters of conflict avoidance because they know they are evolved to kill. Only humans seem stupid enough to take pride in killing. Any fight between big predators is presumed to be to the death. Big predators don’t want to die, they want you to stand down before it even gets to that. Wolves are remarkable in their conflict resolution skills, balletic almost in their approach to one another, and when conflicts do occur (usually territorial disputes) the interactions are surprisingly strategic.

This is a snarl! The mouth is very expose, the nose wrinkled and pulled back fully exposing the gums, really wrinkled up, Also note the eyes, significantly less of a squint because when you’re snarling at a potential threat, you need to damn well see it! But this is not a direct threat, this is not a gun-to-the-head. This is a display, a means of preventing fighting. If whatever is causing this reaction is not another wolf, it is an indication to fuck off. If it is another wolf they can adopt a submissive posture, done by crouching, lowering their tails, lowering their ears, sometimes a combination of these things. The offending party may then even approach the snarling wolf and lick their nose as a sign of submission, which can then become reciprocal. Wolves have a remarkably complex language they use to communicate with each other, and it actually makes them far from aggressive, they have excellent conflict resolution skills! (Credit: Matthew Smith CC-BY-NC SA 2.0)

So far I seem to be describing a wonderful species that should be hardly any bother to people, so why this horrible reputation?

Well, wolf attacks were not always so uncommon. From what I understand the invention of firearms drastically changed the dynamic between humans and wolves. Whilst humans are not naturally on the menu of wolves, it appears that where wolves are habituated to humans they do lose a lot of fear of them and will start attacking them. It also seems once wolves have learned they can attack and eat humans they continue. We need to be honest with ourselves here, we’re numerous and easy marks.

Whilst attacks nowadays may be as low as a handful per year, globally, some reports would indicate wolf attacks were in their thousands pre-the invention of guns. This would have also been before electric street lights, good fencing, safety measures of most kinds.

What’s more, attacks on livestock are likely to have been even more common still. Again, no electric fences, security lights, deterrents, just a big old open farm with some hedges or basic fence? Wolves are gonna wolf.

Le Loup de Chazes – The Wolf of Chazes, a large specimen shot by a hunter, François Antoine, appointed by King Louis XV, to take care of a troublesome, human-attacking beast around the Gévaudan province of France. The so-called Beast of Gévaudan had allegedly been attacking people, tearing their throats out, and claiming lives. There is much debate as to the exact nature of the beast, or beasts. (Credit: Public Domain)

I can’t blame them. They are just trying to survive. So are people and I can’t really blame them either. But it took hundreds of years after their eradication from the UK for people to realise the value of having wolves as a part of our ecosystems. We know and understand it now, we know and understand wolves better now, we know how to deter them from human habitations, we know how to encourage them to specific areas, we know so much more about how best to manage them with scents, restrictions, behaviours, prey and dens so we no longer need to manage them with guns.

As far as wolves go, they’ve done their time. They’re rehabilitated. Public opinion on them has shifted slightly (although, again, it’s okay when it’s the Scottish highlands but try telling someone their local forest is going to get a wolf pack and watch how quickly they backtrack their pro reintroduction opinion!) and I think it’s time we looked at them in a new light.

Yes, modern Europe has wild wolves. This is the Italian wolf (Canis lupus italicus) Incidentally there has not been a registered wolf attack in Italy, that I can find, since 1956. (Credit: SassoferratoTV CC-BY-2.0)

These are intelligent, social predators, with a long and storied history that doesn’t deserve to come to an end because of a mediaeval Central European reputation. It’s time we grew up, civilised ourselves and moved on. It’s time to forgive the wolf.

Catch up with the rest of the Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals top ten!
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals : Introduction
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Bats
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pigeons

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Foxes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Aye-Ayes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pika and Moles
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Vultures
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The European herring gull
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Brown Rat

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Wasps

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

13 thoughts on “Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: 8 – Wolf (Canis lupus)

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