“Give a dog a bad name and hang him!” That’s an old saying and the name of the dog almost throughout the world (till recently) has been “wolf”. Perhaps no other carnivore had been so relentlessly and ruthlessly hunted down — and feared — as the wolf. Even now, you can feel your skin prickle with terror as you imagine those glinting eyes, that untiring loping gait, the grey coat and thick tail, the prick-eared intelligence that says, “Come what may, I will get you.” And most of all, that snarl as it finally corners you and bares those terrible two-inch canines with which it will surely disembowel and devour you. It’s worse at night, when packs raise their heads to the full moon and howl long and loud. (To lighten up a bit, there’s a hilarious takedown on werewolves I read long ago: Family Bites, by Lisa Williams. Alas, I haven’t been able to track it down recently).
Mind you, never forget there’s a mere 0.2 per cent genetic difference between this nightmare animal and your precious Fluffy or Snowy or Brownie or Tommy, now gently nosing you for another biscuit, tail wagging furiously. My boxer, Chops, used to raise his head and howl — when he heard the flute! Wolves and domestic dogs went their separate ways nearly 15,000 years ago and the first fossil records of carnivores date back around 38 to 56 million years ago. Wolves were found pretty much everywhere in the northern hemisphere but we have been so successful in eradicating them that they’re now down to occupying one third of their original realm.
In England, they were done away with completely during Henry VII’s reign and have not returned. We’ve been pretty successful in nearly wiping them out in India too (a policy of culling started by the British) – just around 3,000 or so remain in peninsular India (in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh) and maybe just 350 or so (of a different subspecies to the above) of the Himalayan wolf in Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Sikkim. They’ve been given the animal equivalent of SPG cover (under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972), but most are found outside Protected Areas where giving them viable security is a problem.
Apart from scaring the pants off us, their main crime against “humanity” has been livestock killing and in India certainly, child-lifting. Between 1980 and 1986, 122 children were killed in Hazaribagh, allegedly by wolves, and in 1996, a single wolf accounted for 76 attacks on children, of which 50 were fatal.
Oh yes, they have paid dearly for these crimes. Ordinarily, wolves have no appetite for children or humans, but when constantly hounded out of their territories and deprived of their natural prey, they can turn rogue. Natural prey would include deer, small mammals, rodents and reptiles; grey wolves in North America may go after caribou and moose. Here, livestock — goats, sheep and cattle, domesticated and dumbed down in the art of self-protection, and in rare cases, children, are literally, easy meat and natural substitutes.
And yet, this monstrous slavering ancestor of Fluffy is not as depraved as they are made out to be. Wolves are monogamous and family-minded, living in family packs of about a dozen animals, consisting of big boss papa, the matriarch, grown-up pups and the bachchas. They’ve also been known to adopt orphaned or lost pups — apparently it’s called “allparenting”. They’re extremely territorial and will defend their property by fighting (to the death if need be), howling and scent marking. Pups are born once a year and will eventually leave home once they feel the urge to seek their own fortunes. They have a good sense of smell, excellent hearing and inexhaustible stamina, with which they track and run down their prey.
We, of course, have been taught to vilify (and be scared of) wolves ever since we were in nappies, thanks to The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, and Aesop’s Fables. Fortunately, not all writers have so denigrated them: there’s the story of Romulus and Remus (wolf-children is another subject that morbidly fascinates us), our own Mowgli and Akela, Jack London’s White Fang and of course, Phantom with his famous Devil. (You can’t train/tame a wolf cub – at least not if it’s over three weeks old, according to one report). Way back in the ’60s I saw the Walt Disney film, The Legend of Lobo, which first enamoured me to these beasts.
Men usually like thinking of themselves as alpha males of their pack. You know, by being loud and belligerent, swaggering and throwing their weight around and ordering everyone in the family on what to eat, wear, say, study, read, do and fetch and carry all the time; even on Sundays!
Well, the alpha male of the wolf pack (which, you would imagine would be the father of all generic alpha males) turns out to be one cool dude and harbours no such insecurities. He doesn’t have to prove anything; he has an air of quiet confidence, leads by example, is self-assured and will do what’s best for his family. No throwing the crockery at the walls — or at the wife — for him. He calms the pack down, plays with the pups, even pretending to lose wrestling bouts with them, and keeps an eye on the weaklings.
Of course, there’s a very good reason for this: All major decisions of the pack — when to hunt, when to move, when to rest and so on are taken by the missus — she runs the show. The native Indians of America recognized these qualities and called wolves their “sibling spirits” because they thought that they and the animals were very similar.
They were probably as sensible and sagacious as the wolves, but for the rest of us…
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher