Recently, we buried our beloved wolf on a bluff at our cabin overlooking the Potomac. We trust he is running free on the tundra, a noble creature that never should have been confined.
I abhor the hatred, vitriol and “ad hominem” pejorative derision that accompany the polarization, chaos and intolerance plaguing contemporary U.S. society. Living over a decade with Nietzsche, our wolf, offers insight.
He never wanted us, nor, did we want him. Abandoned as a young pup at an animal shelter by a dolt who thought a wolf would make a good watchdog, he was to be euthanized. He could not be offered for adoption since rabies vaccine efficacy had not been adequately studied in wolves.
Bred by humans in captivity, environmentally, he never ran free or enjoyed the social order of a pack. Yet, he was intensely and innately distrustful and fearful of humans, seeking the most distant corner in which to cower. He was physically beautiful and the vet estimated genetically he was 95 percent wolf. We did not believe he deserved to die and took him home where we planned to construct a large fenced run.
Socially, home consisted of my wife and me, my wife’s daughter who often visited and an aging cocker spaniel. As his run was being constructed, it was obvious he did not want to be “trapped” in a house or garage, hiding behind an old couch in the basement. My wife was the only family member who could get near him and coax him to eat.
With time we believed we could build trust and have the big dog we always wanted to sit beside us in my truck and lay on the floor or deck at our feet as we watched the sunset or TV. It never happened. It became clear that if the wolf was going to survive, it would have to occur with mutual respect and accommodation for his social order, not ours. We were never going to train him. Survival demanded he adopt us within the paradigm of the social order of a wolf pack.
He never strayed from that social order until his death a dozen years later. He would tolerate and even enjoy a few of the practices and foibles of humans and domesticated pets, but never compromised on core wolf social values. Never a part of a wolf pack socially, we wondered how these behaviors became “hard wired,” since Lamarckian genetics had been scientifically disproved years ago.
I was designated the “alpha-male” of the pack. He would move away and drop his head when I approached and not eat when I fed him until I was out of eyesight. He would also spend several minutes checking around his food dish to assure there were no traps and he was not going to get swatted by the alpha male. He would accept food out of hand from his mother (my wife) and sister (her daughter). My wife enjoyed frequent hugs and kisses.
If he was allowed into the house, he would not move from the same spot where he could view all commerce if I were present. If only his mother was present, he would follow her around and observe what she was doing. If his sister babysat him, he felt he had the run of the house, including jumping on beds.
His run was his domain and no animal, wild or domestic, survived if they somehow managed to slip or burrow into it. The exceptions were the “pack member” cocker spaniel and a young pup we took care of for a short time. In the domain of the vet’s office he was completely docile and hospitable, personally greeting each cat and dog waiting to be seen.
One of our favorite stories of “missed” wolf-human communication involves a hunt episode. He had escaped from his run and headed for a pasture nearby where a horse, mule and pony were present. As we ran to retrieve him he decided the pack was on a hunt and began nipping at the back legs of the mule and horse in order to turn them aside and turn the pony (dinner) toward us. The scenario was repeated many times as we tried to get near him to grab his collar. Finally, as if to say you two are the worst hunters I have ever seen, he just sat down exasperated and let my wife put on his leash and head home.
In his run or the truck, we observed him exchange “whine” words with other large canines and a black bear. His talk enraged them but he paid no heed to a group of deer that bedded down near his run. We never figured out why. He was headstrong, and when my wife walked him it was usually a struggle as to pace and direction.
At first he would hide in his run and never make a noise when strangers would be present. His oral communication consisted of howling when he chose. However, he did develop a “wannabe” bark after awhile and would sometime use it when strangers came. We thought he might have believed the cocker spaniel had certain privileges he did not have and it might help his status to bark. He also started raising his leg to urinate and scraping the ground afterward, although he never could master the right leg or motion.
His favorite food was venison scraps hunters would bring or he would find on his walks. However, he discovered discarded fries and Frosties on his walks and became a fast food junkie. He would tire of his dog food and raw pork bones, picking out well-seasoned leftovers and scraps, being especially partial to Italian and Chinese food.
Our stories of human-wolf social boundaries and accommodations are many, memorable and often amusing. They are also a lesson of diversity and tolerance.
A wolf’s life expectancy in the wild is about five to eight years; Nietzsche lived twice as long. If wolves would evolve as did other domesticated canines they would have much longer and easier lives. Some might suggest that. I would resist such an evolutionary policy in respect of the value, beauty and positive aspects of social diversity. I’ll never coerce a wolf to sit beside me in the front seat of a truck. Wolves should run free.
Many individuals are ridiculed today for “selfishly” holding onto a social order that other factions within our diverse and pluralistic country finds archaic, dysfunctional, reactionary and anti-progressive. They assert these individuals — and all society — would be better off if they adopted the same behavior, practices and social order to which society has, allegedly, progressively evolved. They are entitled to their beliefs but can traditionalists be “trained” to behave within the precepts of a new social order that others have determined would benefit them? Or does such attempted coercion result in conflict and chaos?
Should, or can, these traditionalists, be trained by government to abandon the values of their social order without causing severe disruption and destruction? No doubt, analogies to the wolf’s situation will be greeted with ridicule and derision, noting that, unlike wolves, humans can “reason”. Perhaps, but what does that really mean?
Nietzsche adopted certain contemporary human and domesticated pet behaviors, e.g., love of Frosties and fries, but never abandoned his core social order values. They were “hard wired.” Are we to believe that all human social values are the result of contemporary social and religious environmental beliefs that can be disproved and discarded by science and “reason?” Are we to believe that over time social values can be “hard wired” into other species but not humans?
Are we to accept that it is natural for a wolf to refuse to abandon his social order values if he is to survive but humans can easily abandoned them when confronted with reason and science? Perhaps such coercion, real or perceived, significantly contributes to social chaos, conflict and acrimony.
Finally, Nietzsche prospered by accommodating certain human behaviors but retaining his core social values. Given the recent rise of violence and destructive behavior in U.S. human society, I am not convinced discarding many traditional social values has brought increased social prosperity.
In today’s contentious society one’s ideology will likely determine if one either accepts and embraces — or derides and discards — any potential lessons. That would be unfortunate but probably appropriate. On learning of Nietzsche death, my youngest brother sent a quote from his philosopher namesake, “And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.”
Wolves are not ideal pets.
The episode with the wolf running the horses reminds me of a story my grandpa told me of his favorite hunting dog, a cross between a “toy collie” and an elkhound named Blue. A friend of his sent the dog out to bring in a mare and colt, and by the time it was over, Blue had the colt nearly hamstrung.
But it is in relationships with wolves like Nietzsche that we see how the human-dog bond could have started.
Some wolves are such intensely social animals that they are surprisingly quite tolerant of humans and other animals.
I don’t know whether he was actually 95 percent wolf or not, but one thing is clear– wolves cannot be kept under the same coercive conditions that so many dogs acquiesce to.
The animal must be allowed to be.
And most dogs would be better off if they were allowed such liberties, too.
But too many humans just aren’t into that.