Su­per wolf!

The life of an al­pha male wolf that led Yel­low­stone’s fa­mous Druid pack told us much about what an­i­mals think and feel. Carl Sa­fina in­ves­ti­gates in this ex­tract from BeyondWord­s.

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Yel­low­stone’s finest pack leader and his sur­pris­ing life

Twenty-one was the most fa­mous wolf in Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park. “If ever there was a per­fect wolf,” says ex­pert wolf-watcher Rick McIntyre, “It was him. He was like a fic­tional char­ac­ter. But he was real.” Even from a dis­tance, Twenty-one’s big-shoul­dered pro­file was recog­nis­able.

Ut­terly fear­less in de­fence of his fam­ily, Twenty-one had the size, strength and agility to win against over­whelm­ing odds. “On two oc­ca­sions, I saw Twenty-one take on six at­tack­ing wolves – and rout them all,” Rick says. “Watch­ing him was like watch­ing Bruce Lee fight­ing, but in real life. I’d be think­ing: ‘A wolf can’t do what I am watch­ing this wolf do’.” Watch­ing Twen­ty­one, Rick elab­o­rates, “was like watch­ing Muham­mad Ali or Michael Jor­dan – a oneof-a-kind tal­ent at the top of his game, with tal­ents out­side of ‘nor­mal’.” And nor­mal for a wolf isn’t like av­er­age for a hu­man, be­cause ev­ery wolf is a pro­fes­sional ath­lete.

Twenty-one never lost a fight. And he never killed any de­feated op­po­nent. Twenty-one was a superwolf. He came into the world in the first lit­ter of pups born in Yel­low­stone in nearly 70 years. His par­ents had both been trapped in Canada and shipped to Yel­low­stone to rein­tro­duce wolves into a sys­tem that had be­come out of bal­ance, with too many elk (a rel­a­tive of Eura­sia’s red deer) for the land to bear.

Af­ter al­most 70 years with­out wolves, the elk had built to such num­bers that win­ter for them meant scarcity and hunger. For the in­tro­duced wolves, though, the im­bal­ance meant plenty of food. But even though wolves had been ab­sent longer than most peo­ple could re­mem­ber, just be­fore Twenty-one was born, some­one shot his fa­ther.

A wolf does not do well as a sin­gle mother. Re­searchers re­luc­tantly de­cided to cap­ture her and her pups and feed them for a few months in a one-acre pen. When hu­mans brought food to the pen, all the other wolves fled to the op­po­site fence, but one pup would pace a lit­tle rise in the en­clo­sure, put­ting him­self be­tween the hu­mans and the rest of his fam­ily. This pup would later be given track­ing col­lar num­ber 21.

At age two and a half, Twenty-one left his mother – and an adop­tive fa­ther– and his birth pack. He waltzed into the fam­ily known as the Druid Peak pack fewer than two days af­ter its al­pha male had also been shot il­le­gally. The Druid fe­males wel­comed this prime male wolf; their pups loved the big new guy. He adopted the pups and helped feed them. With no has­sle at all,

Twenty-one had left home and im­me­di­ately be­come the al­pha male of an es­tab­lished pack. It was his big break in life.

Twenty-one was “re­mark­ably gen­tle” with the mem­bers of his pack, says Rick. Im­me­di­ately af­ter mak­ing a kill, he would of­ten walk away to uri­nate or lie down, to al­low other fam­ily mem­bers to eat their fill.

One of Twenty-one’s favourite things was to wres­tle with lit­tle pups. “And what he re­ally loved,” Rick adds, “was to pre­tend to lose. He just got a huge kick out of it.” Here was this great big male wolf. And he’d let some lit­tle wolf jump on him and bite his fur. “He’d just fall on his back with his paws in the air,” Rick half-mimes the ac­tion.

“The abil­ity to pre­tend shows that you un­der­stand how your ac­tions are per­ceived by oth­ers. It in­di­cates high in­tel­li­gence. I’m sure the pups knew what was go­ing on, but it was a way for them to learn how it feels to con­quer some­thing much big­ger. And that kind of con­fi­dence is what wolves need ev­ery day of their hunt­ing lives.”

Early in Twenty-one’s run as an al­pha, three fe­males in his pack gave birth. That was ex­tra­or­di­nary. Usu­ally only the al­pha fe­male, or ma­tri­arch, breeds. The three lit­ters re­flected the un­nat­u­rally abun­dant food sup­ply. An as­tound­ing 20 pups sur­vived, swelling an al­ready large pack to a hard-to-be­lieve 37 wolves, the largest ever doc­u­mented. Be­cause the pack’s size re­sulted from a food base so ar­ti­fi­cially swollen af­ter seven decades de­void of wolves, the three-dozen-mem­ber pack might have been the world’s all-time largest.

“Only Twenty-one had what it took to run an out­fit that large,” Rick com­ments. It wasn’t all peace­ful. The high den­sity of wolves prob­a­bly pro­duced un­nat­u­rally high wolf-on-wolf con­flict. In ter­ri­to­rial de­fence and in pur­suit of ex­panded ter­ri­tory, Twen­ty­one par­tic­i­pated in plenty of fights.

Wolf ter­ri­to­rial fights re­sem­ble hu­man tribal war­fare. When packs fight, num­bers count, but ex­pe­ri­ence mat­ters an aw­ful

lot. As adults of both packs bee­line to or away from ri­vals or bat­tle for their lives, ju­ve­niles can seem lost in the con­fu­sion. Wolf pups un­der a year old of­ten seem dis­mayed by an at­tack, and a ju­ve­nile that gets pinned by at­tack­ers may sim­ply give up. Wolves of­ten tar­get the al­phas of the ri­val pack, as if they fully un­der­stand that if they can rout or kill the ex­pe­ri­enced lead­ers, vic­tory will be theirs.

Fa­tal con­flict be­tween tribal groups isn’t just a hu­man or chim­panzee thing. The se­cond-most-com­mon cause of wolf death in the Rock­ies is be­ing killed by other wolves. (Be­ing killed by hu­mans is first.) But, as men­tioned, Twenty-one never lost a fight and he never killed a van­quished wolf. His restraint seems in­cred­i­ble. What could it be? Mercy? Can a wolf be mag­nan­i­mous?

When a hu­man re­leases a van­quished op­po­nent rather than killing them, in the eyes of on­look­ers the van­quished still loses sta­tus but the vic­tor seems all the more im­pres­sive. You can’t be mag­nan­i­mous un­less you’ve won, so you have proved your­self by win­ning. And if you show mercy, your lack of fear shows tremen­dous con­fi­dence. On­look­ers might feel it would be de­sir­able to fol­low such a per­son.

His­tory’s most es­teemed, high­est­sta­tus lead­ers are not ruth­less strong­men like Hitler, Stalin and Mao – they are Gandhi, King and Man­dela. Peace­ful war­riors earn higher global sta­tus than vi­o­lent ones. Muham­mad Ali was a prac­ti­tioner of com­bat who spoke of peace and re­fused to go to war, and his sta­tus rose to un­prece­dented heights with his re­jec­tion of killing.

For hu­mans and many other an­i­mals, sta­tus is a huge deal, pre­oc­cu­py­ing one’s mind, oc­cu­py­ing one’s time and cost­ing en­ergy. And for it, much trea­sure and blood is risked. Wolves do not un­der­stand why sta­tus and dom­i­nance are so im­por­tant to them, any more than do hu­mans. With­out con­sult­ing our opin­ion our brains pro­duce hor­mones that make us feel strongly com­pelled to strive for sta­tus and as­sert dom­i­nance. Dom­i­nance feels like an end in it­self.

Here’s why: high sta­tus aids sur­vival. Sta­tus is a daily proxy for com­pe­ti­tion for mates and food. Then, when­ever mates or food are in short sup­ply, the high-sta­tus in­di­vid­ual has the ad­van­tage. The thing at stake is sur­vival, and ul­ti­mately in sur­vival the thing


BBC Wildlife at stake is re­pro­duc­tion. Dom­i­nance lets you out­com­pete oth­ers for food, mates and pre­ferred ter­ri­tory, which boosts re­pro­duc­tion.

So, can a wolf be mag­nan­i­mous? In hu­mans, as we’ve noted, let­ting a van­quished ri­val go free is a show of both ex­tra strength and ex­tra­or­di­nary self­con­fi­dence. In free-liv­ing an­i­mals, the pub­lic dis­play of ex­cess is some­times called the ‘hand­i­cap prin­ci­ple’. The mes­sage is: “No­tice that I have enough to spare. I have so much, in fact, that I can af­ford to hand­i­cap my­self.” Al­most any kind of ex­cess will im­press, as long as it’s some­thing that’s val­ued, such as brav­ery, beauty or wealth. In hu­mans, elevating one’s sta­tus by dis­play­ing ex­cess wealth is called con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion.

Many an­i­mals bid for sta­tus by flaunt­ing ex­cess ac­cu­mu­la­tion, such as pea­cock tails or long, lux­u­ri­ous hair. The icon­o­clas­tic Is­raeli re­searcher Amotz Za­havi, who first coined the hand­i­cap prin­ci­ple, stud­ied so­cial birds called Ara­bian bab­blers. He no­ticed that they com­pete for the op­por­tu­nity to fight ri­vals. He con­sid­ered such birds al­tru­is­tic be­cause the fight­ers vie for the hon­our of be­ing seen put­ting them­selves at risk on be­half of their group. If they were sol­diers, they’d come back to the nest wear­ing medals.

On­look­ers are im­pressed – and they should be. But re­leas­ing a beaten but po­ten­tially lethal ri­val greatly ups the ante. An in­di­vid­ual that shows such ex­cep­tional con­fi­dence boosts their own sta­tus. Some of those con­fi­dent an­i­mals might be wolves. Some might be su­per­heroes.

“Why doesn’t Bat­man just kill the Joker?” asks Rick rhetor­i­cally, be­fore vol­un­teer­ing his an­swer. “In ad­mir­ing the hero who re­strains his strength, we are im­pressed with the hero’s power,” he says. “A story in which the good per­son kills the bad guy isn’t nearly as in­ter­est­ing as a story where the good guy has a moral dilemma. In what’s been called the

great­est movie of all time, Humphrey Bog­art has won the love he has sought. But he ar­ranges things so that the other man does not lose his wife and is not hurt. We ad­mire him for that. When we see strength com­bined with restraint, we want to fol­low that in­di­vid­ual. It greatly en­hances sta­tus.”

The char­ac­ter in the movie feels bound by his ethics. But do wolves have morals, ethics? Rick chuck­les at the thought. “It would be sci­en­tific heresy to say they do. But…”

In Twenty-one’s life there was a par­tic­u­lar male, a sort of rov­ing Casanova, a con­tin­ual an­noy­ance. He was strik­ingly good-look­ing, had a big per­son­al­ity, and was al­ways do­ing some­thing in­ter­est­ing. “The best sin­gle word is charisma,” says Rick. “Fe­male wolves were happy to mate with him. Peo­ple ab­so­lutely loved him. Es­pe­cially women. Women would take one look at him – they didn’t want you to say any­thing bad about him. His ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity and in­fi­delity; it didn’t mat­ter.”

One day, Twenty-one dis­cov­ered this Casanova among his daugh­ters. Twenty-one ran in, caught him and be­gan pin­ning him to the ground. Var­i­ous pack mem­bers piled in, beat­ing up Casanova. “Casanova was also big,” Rick says, “but he was a bad fighter. Now he was over­whelmed and the pack was fi­nally killing him. Sud­denly Twenty-one steps back. The pack mem­bers are look­ing at Twenty-one as if say­ing, ‘Why has Dad stopped?’” The Casanova wolf jumped up and ran away.

But Casanova kept caus­ing prob­lems for Twenty-one. Well, why doesn’t Bat­man just kill the Joker so he won’t have to deal with him any­more? With Casanova and Twen­ty­one it didn’t make sense – un­til years later. Af­ter Twenty-one’s death, Casanova briefly be­came the Druid pack’s al­pha male. But he wasn’t ef­fec­tive, Rick re­calls: “He didn’t know what to do, just not a leader per­son­al­ity.” And although it’s very rare for a younger brother to de­pose an older one, that’s what hap­pened to him. “His year-younger brother had a much more nat­u­ral al­pha per­son­al­ity.” Casanova didn’t mind; it meant he was free to wan­der and meet other fe­males.

Even­tu­ally Casanova, along with sev­eral young Druid males, met some fe­males and they formed the Black­tail pack. “With them,” Rick re­mem­bers, “he fi­nally be­came the model of a re­spon­si­ble al­pha male and a great fa­ther.” Mean­while the mighty Druids were rav­aged by mange and di­min­ished by in­ter­pack fight­ing; the last Druid was shot near Butte, Mon­tana, in 2010. Casanova, though he’d been averse to fight­ing, died in a fight with a ri­val pack. But ev­ery­one in his Black­tail pack re­mained un­in­jured – in­clud­ing grand­chil­dren and great­grand­chil­dren of Twenty-one.

Wolves can’t fore­see such plot twists any more than peo­ple can. But evo­lu­tion does. Its cal­cu­lus in­te­grates long av­er­ages. By spar­ing the Casanova wolf, Twenty-one helped as­sure him­self more sur­viv­ing de­scen­dants. And in evo­lu­tion, sur­viv­ing de­scen­dants are the only cur­rency that mat­ters. Any­thing that’s helped de­scen­dants sur­vive will re­main in the ge­netic heir­loom.

So in strictly sur­vival­ist terms, ‘should’ a wolf let his ri­val go free? Is restraint an ef­fec­tive strat­egy for ac­cu­mu­lat­ing ben­e­fits? I think the an­swer is: yes, if you can af­ford it, be­cause some­times your en­emy to­day be­comes, to­mor­row, a ve­hi­cle for your legacy. What Rick saw play out over those years might be just the kinds of events that are the ba­sis for mag­na­nim­ity in wolves, and at the heart of mercy in men.

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