“But Grandmother — what big teeth you have,” said Little Red Riding Hood, her voice quivering.
“The better to eat you with, my dear.”
It is true that these majestic creatures do in fact have big ears, big feet, and big teeth, but these elements are solely to help them survive in the environments around them. They have to rely on their feet, their teeth, their smarts, and their teamwork in order to support their families, says Maggie Howell, executive director at the Wolf Conservation Centre in New York.
But just like every animal out there, these creatures also have distinct characteristics that show their kind and less aggressive nature.
Wolves do not fight to become the “alpha”
Many believe that the alpha wolf is known to be the most powerful and dominant wolf — having earned that position by fighting off other potential candidates. But actually, wolves become alphas of their own pack by finding a mate and then breeding. The term alpha is not used with the same connotation as before. Now, the “alphas” are simply the parents of the pack. So, once a mom and dad create offspring, this is their newfound pack, and thus the parents are the alphas of the pack — no fighting for the title.
Wolves value family traditions
When it comes to family dynamics, wolves have a lot in common with humans, like living in family groups and valuing family above everything else.
They understand that cooperative living is beneficial to them, as it allows them to live together, hunt together, protect their territory together, and even have a known understanding that babysitters are going to be set up within the family structure.
These incredible creatures will take care and look after all pups, even if they’re not their own, understanding that it’s all about teamwork.
Some of the interesting family traditions wolves have are multigenerational, says Howell.
“You’re going to have the parents, which are the bosses, and the older kids helping the parents out by playing with the pups and disciplining them,” she says. “The parents train the older offspring how to be parents in the future.”
Just like humans, wolves have these traditions that they are eager to pass down from generation to generation. “The impact that a wolf couple can have on other wolves, generations away, those generations that they will never meet, I think is really special,” says Howell.
Wolves look after each other
And because these creatures value the importance of family, it’s no question that they possess the natural instincts to always look after one another. While a breeding female is nursing, she will spend the majority of her time in a den, which appears exhausting, says Howell.
“Through our den cameras, it sometimes looks worse than being a human since she just has to lay there all day with her pups,” she says.
During this time, the pack will protect and feed the breeding female by bringing back food for her after having gone hunting.
Wolves mate for life
Like penguins, wolves tend to mate for life. Though it’s possible for them to have more than one companion throughout their lifetime, wolves tend to stay with their chosen mates.
Wolves are social predators that love to communicate
Wolves are known to communicate through many different vocalizations, but howling is the most popular form, says Howell.
Howling is their main form of communication, as the howls can travel long distances in open terrain — up to 10 miles away.
But unlike the average human, wolves can easily identify which type of howl is being heard. During breeding season, there’s a certain type of howl that announces that they are looking for a mate. “They are single and ready to mingle,” says Howell.
Wolves can also howl to locate other members of the family, to trick other packs into thinking they’re a larger family than they actually are so that other neighbouring families won’t mess with them, to warn other members that there might be potential danger — this is called a bark howl — and even just to sing. Howling to sing is something called social glue says Howell. “It’s a way to reaffirm those family bonds, like how humans will sing around campfires,” she says.
Wolves often cry
Similar to humans, wolves can also vocalize their sadness and they do so through one distinct howl.
“I’ve seen mourning, I’ve seen real grief and sadness,” says Howell.
She explains that during her time at the Wolf Conservation Centre, she has witnessed an older, critically endangered red wolf pass away due to bloat, a disease which caused her stomach to flip over on herself, leading to a fast death.
“Our volunteer had noticed that this wolf was not looking too good, and our curator immediately knew what was wrong, so we decided to put her down before her agony got worse,” she says.
This wolf had a mate and for the next couple of weeks, “he was just looking, and howling, and looking, and howling, and we could just tell how desperate his howls sounded,” says Howell. “It wasn’t the same sound as his other howls.”
Howell believes that the wolves’ feeling of loss is similar to the feelings humans feel. There’s a desperation to it because the loss of a wolf parent impacts the survival of the rest of the family. “We were just devastated because it was such a tragic loss, it just tore our hearts,” she says.
If you’re in a place that has wild wolves you should be respectful and keep your distance. You are now in their territory. Enjoy the encounter, “the fact that you’re seeing these elusive animals is pretty special and rare,” says Howell.
“Getting to be able to see a wolf in the wild makes me really happy,” she says, “it’s something I will definitely cherish forever.”