Wolves at First Sight
From a deep grove of sloping pines, a coyote yips an alarm. And when I scope that slope, my view sweeps across snow, sage, the pines—. Wolves! Nearly a mile away, but clear enough in the telescope, about half a dozen wolves are trotting into the valley like big, long-legged dogs. Like the ancestors of all dogs—which is what wolves are. With an easy, unhurried motion, they cover distance surprisingly fast. Minute by minute, they grow closer. The wolf in front is gray; two black wolves follow closely, one limping slightly; another gray, two more dark ones, and two more grays. Eight wolves, actually. My first ever.
Wolf packs attract ravens, and the wolves of Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley attract human attention as nowhere else. The great wolf-watcher Rick McIntyre follows wolves here every day. I don’t mean five days a week, or weather permitting; I mean that every day—for thirteen years so far, every single time the sun has said peekaboo—Rick McIntyre has been out here. No matter the blizzards of winter or the rains of summer; no matter anything else. What matters most to Rick is wolves. Rick has had his eye on wild wolves for more hours than any human ever has. “It’s a never-ending story,” he says, as if it’s that simple. For him, it is.
Rick can glance through a telescope at a wolf a mile away, instantly tell you who it is by name, and recite its life. As Rick sees it, wolves and humans must deal with similar life problems, “such as figuring out when to face the risks of leaving home, finding your place in the world—. There are endless similarities,” he says.
* * *
Two more wolves who’ve been lying on the snow on a sunlit slope have just roused. Rick points to two wolves gliding across the snow at an intercepting angle. “The one with the raised tail is Eight-Twenty—that’s her.”
Some of these wolves wear electronic collars to help researchers track and understand their movements. The wolves often get named for their collar numbers. This one’s collar number is 820. So they call her Eight-Twenty. If you have a special receiver—as Rick has—you can sometimes find and identify particular wolves by picking up the collar’s beeping signal.
Even compared to two sisters a year older, Eight-Twenty stands out as a particularly talented young wolf. Doug McLaughlin, who manages cabins right outside Yellowstone and comes to look for wolves most mornings, explains: “Eight-Twenty is so much like her mother. Even at two years old she’s independent-minded, self-confident. She’s got the natural-born-leader personality. And she’s already an able hunter—which her mother, O-Six, was famous for.”
* * *
The ten wolves are coming together on the valley flats. Deep-chested adults and lanky yearlings. I see them clearly in my scope.
The wolves greet energetically, tails raised and wagging, lots of body pressing and face licking. Rick dictates into his recorder, “Big rally.” They’re greeting one another the way our dogs greet us when we come home.
What I am seeing is this: Wolves focus on their elders the way dogs focus on their human family. As wolves grow up, they take charge of their own lives and families, a lot like people do. Dogs remain dependent on humans. Dogs are basically wolf pups who never get to grow up to take charge of their own lives and decisions. Wolves take charge. They must.
Rick translates a blur of furry action. “That black one and the gray one on the left are both females and are nearly a year old. The gray is Eight-Twenty’s younger sister. She has no collar.” Some of the regular watchers have nicknamed her Butterfly. “See her pushing with her paw? That’s a puppy thing meaning, ‘I want to play.’”
Just to Butterfly’s right—two siblings a year older, who helped raise her. Butterfly shows them respect by lowering her body and ears, similar to a human’s bowing. “She’s very social,” Rick says admiringly. “Everybody’s friend.” Of course, showing respect helps protect a lower-ranking individual from aggression. Usually.
* * *
But now there’s aggression and an intense show of submission by one wolf with head low, ears down, and tail tucked. It’s the proud and talented Eight-Twenty—abruptly on her back! What’s going on?
When their mother, O-Six, was alive, she kept order in the family. But that was a few months ago. Now her daughters are all in competition with one another. Three sisters are now towering over Eight-Twenty. One is a year older, and two are Eight-Twenty’s same-age littermates. Eight-Twenty behaves like an older wolf. Her sisters seem jealous.
Pinned on her back, Eight-Twenty is not fighting, just trying to hold her sisters off with outstretched legs. There’s a tense pause.
Suddenly, a fierce escalation of violence. The others are vigorously biting Eight-Twenty. This is more than simply putting a wolf in her place. Eight-Twenty is whimpering, yelping, in pain. One sister is biting her in the belly, another on her hip.
When Eight-Twenty gets a chance to move, she runs away. But only a short distance.
She circles back, crouching in intense submission, wanting at least to be allowed to stay in her family. Her sisters aren’t open to any compromise; they want her out. Snarling and threatening, they make it clear: coming closer—bad idea.
Eight-Twenty vanishes into snowy sagebrush. This very moment—banishment by her own sisters—is the final turning point in Eight-Twenty’s life.
The main turning point was four months ago, when someone killed their famous mother. The end of O-Six’s life started turmoil in the lives of her family.
* * *
To understand why O-Six was such a standout individual and why her death so matters, we must go one generation back. Her grandfather was Yellowstone’s most famous wolf: Twenty-One.
Eight-Twenty being pushed out of her family by her sisters.
Copyright © 2020 by Carl Safina