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A Family of Wolves
[Cathy Curby is a biologist and Wildlife Interpretive Specialist at the Arctic Refuge. She has given versions of the following presentation to a variety of audiences ranging from school children to adults.]
Good afternoon. My name is Cathy Curby, and I'm a wildlife biologist working
for the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in
We commonly think of wildlife research as moose surveys or vegetation analysis,
but I do a different type of science. I watch wild animals in undisturbed settings,
to learn about how they spend their time, and how they interact with others. I've
spent hundreds of hours watching caribou walk, wild sheep feed, and wolves sleep.
During those times, I'm sometimes fortunate enough to catch an enlightening glimpse
into a wild animal's life. The story I'll share with you today is one such glimpse.
It's a true story that I observed while working on a wolf project in the Arctic Refuge.
Like much work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this one was a partnership,
between the Service, the National Park Service, and the University of Alaska - Fairbanks.
There were three of us that summer watching the pack of wolves. We camped along
a river about 2 miles from the wolf den, and rotated 6 hour shifts, watching the
animals from a small tent three quarters of a mile from the den. We used a spotting
scope on a tripod to view the wolves, and recorded our observations into notebooks.
That summer, the wolf pack included eight adults and four pups. They lived on
a mountainside, where a small, deep hole on a rocky ledge served as a den for the
mother and pups. The adult wolves were not easy to tell apart because all of them
in this particular pack were tan-brown color except one. The mother wolf was white.
A wolf of great value and importance in the pack, we referred to her as Pearl when
we wrote about her in our notebooks.
This wolf pack hunted up into the mountains for Dall sheep, and down onto the
river valley for caribou. They also caught ground squirrels and ptarmigan (arctic
birds very similar to grouse and chickens).
A week before this story occurred, Pearl had moved the pups to a new location
about three quarters of a mile north of the den site. Scientists are not sure
exactly why mother wolves move their pups. Some suggest the pups are moved away
from the filth and fleas that have accumulated around the den, or moved to a
location less accessible to predators or where they can more safely and
successfully practice their hunting skills. Whatever the reason, such moves are
so universally common in wolves that scientists have given the name "rendezvous
site" to this new location. The word rendezvous in French means "all meet
together" and that's just what happened in this case. Over the following week,
as they each returned from their travels, the wolves discovered the pups were no
longer at the den site. The adults searched until they found the rendevous site,
and thereafter returned there from hunts.
Now look through the spotting scope with me, and we'll begin our observations
of "A family of wolves." ...
It's morning, a week after the pups were moved to the rendezvous site.
Notice that the puppies are alone now. All the adult wolves are away hunting.
I record into my notebook: 8 am, partly sunny with high overcast skies, little
wind, and a temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit. I write that the pups are
lying quietly among an open patch of 6 foot high willows, and I wait, along
with the pups, as the minutes tick by.
Later in the morning, while scanning the surrounding mountains and river
valley, I see Pearl trotting steadily back home. She's been away from her
pups for a number of hours, and is heavy with milk. The pups have nothing to
drink except her milk, so they wait thirsty as well as hungry when the adults
What's this? Pearl passes below the willows where her puppies wait, and
continues on until she arrives near the den. Surely she remembers where she
left the pups? Pearl lies down on the sand and gravel of the mountain side,
and I record her actions in my notebook, and resume my watch.
In a few minutes, another wolf trots up to Pearl and lies down nearby.
Because all the wolves except Pearl are brown, it's not possible to know if
any one of them is male or female unless they happen to urinate, and even
then I only know until they duck out of sight and I lose track of which wolf
is which. Just like dogs, female wolves squat and males lift a leg. Since I
don't know if this newly arrived wolf is a male or a female, I just refer to
it in my notebook as the babysitter.
Pearl and the babysitter wolf lie a few feet apart from each other for
about ten minutes. I don't notice any noises or body movements, but they
are looking at each other. How do they communicate? Does Pearl indicate
"go get the pups and bring them back to me."? She doesn't speak those
words, but that's what the babysitter wolf attempts to do.
The babysitter wolf gets up, trots slowly north across a quarter mile of
low, widely-spaced willows, across a quarter mile of steep, unstable, rough
rocks and cobbles called a talus or scree slope, and across a quarter mile
of dense, 6-foot high willows. When it reaches the pups, they greet it with
wild enthusiasm. (Ok, you're right, I don't know if it is wild enthusiasm.
Scientists are careful not to assign human emotions to wild animals' actions.
So let me tell you what the pups do, and you decide for yourself). The pups
run up to the babysitter wolf, their tails wagging so much that their hips
wag. Their hips wagging so much that their shoulders wag. Their shoulders
wagging so much that their heads wag, and their heads wagging so much that
their noses wag.
Adult wolves don't have hands or backpacks with which to carry food back
to the pups, so after a successful hunt, adults bring home chunks of meat in
their stomachs. The pups indicate their hunger by jumping up and pulling on
an adult's jowls (the upper lips along the side of a wolf's mouth) with their
sharp little puppy teeth. The hungrier they are, the harder they bite and pull.
If the adults have eaten recently, this jumping and pulling by the puppies
causes them to regurgitate the meat back up and onto the ground for the puppies
While I watch, the puppies throw themselves up toward the babysitter's face,
all four of them pulling energetically with their sharp little teeth on the
jowls of the adult wolf. When they have a free moment, they jump back and
forth, up and down, race around the newly arrived wolf, and yip. After a few
minutes of this, the puppies realize that the babysitter wolf has no food for
them, and they calm down.
After another 5 minutes with the puppies, the babysitter wolf (does it
remember that it has a job to do?) walks back toward the den, crossing the
tall willows, picking its way across the talus slope, and crossing the short
willows. When it arrives next to Pearl, it turns to look behind itself. If
it were a human, I would say it was gesturing, "See, here are the puppies I
was supposed to bring." But the pups are not there.
When the wolf pups were old enough to stay alone, Pearl joined the other
adults in the hunt. Before she left the pups for the first time, she taught
them when to follow her and when they should stay near the den: if she walked
away slowly - at the speed short puppy-legs could keep up with - the pups were
to accompany her; but when she walked away at an adult pace, they were to stay
where they were until her return.
Being well trained, the puppies know not to follow an adult walking at a
normal adult pace, so they didn't follow the babysitter wolf. They are still
waiting back at the rendezvous site. The babysitter wolf lies down near Pearl.
Do the two wolves communicate again? It seems that Pearl indicates
something because soon the babysitter wolf rises and walks back toward the
pups, across the low willows, the talus slope, and the tall willows. When
it enters the clearing where the puppies wait, they mob it again, wagging
all the way up to their noses, and pulling energetically on the adult's jowls.
But there is still no food for them, and soon the babysitter wolf moves off
toward the den again.
This time the babysitter takes only a few steps before it stops and looks
back toward the puppies. The puppies scamper up to the adult, and the babysitter
wolf walks off again. Over and over, the babysitter wolf takes a few steps and
then waits for the puppies to join it. They travel in this halting manner most
of the way through the tall willows. But then the babysitter wolf no longer stops
to allow the puppies to catch up (did it think they would follow automatically
now?). Whatever the reason, the babysitter wolf walks through the rest of the
tall willows, across the talus slope, and across the low willows. When it
reaches Pearl this second time, it looks behind itself (again it looks to me
like it's indicating "now here are your puppies"), but there are still no
puppies. The babysitter wolf lies down near Pearl.
Do the two wolves communicate again? Soon the babysitter wolf rises and
walks back north. This time, when the pups see it coming, they aren't as
energetic, wagging only as far forward as their hips, and jumping less forcefully
around the mouth of the adult wolf. Again the babysitter wolf stays for a few
minutes with the puppies, and then moves off south toward the den. But this time
it tries a new technique (did Pearl somehow remind it about walking slowly, or
does it realize on its own?). As the babysitter moves away from the puppies, it
moves with exaggerated slowness, s-l-o-w-l-y lifting one foot, then s-l-o-w-l-y
putting it down, before s-l-o-w-l-y lifting the next foot. It travels at this
snail's pace across the willow clearing. The puppies watch this spectacle with
what from a human I'd call "questioning glances," but they do follow the adult
wolf all the way through the tall willows.
So far, so good. But when the puppies get to the talus slope, they refuse
to follow the babysitter wolf out onto the sharp and unstable rocks. The
babysitter wolf notices they're no longer close behind it. Itself part-way
across the talus slope, it turns to face the puppies, lowers its front
shoulders, raises its hindquarters, wags its tail, and jumps up and down with
its front paws extended, yipping. It looks to me like the babysitter wolf is
indicating "Come on. Follow me. You can do it."
But try as it may, the babysitter wolf is unable to entice any of the
puppies out onto the talus slope. Finally it walks back to the puppies at
the edge of the rocks.
Already the babysitter wolf has learned a great deal about how to work
with young wolves. It has discovered under what circumstances they will
stay when you leave, and how to have them follow when you want them to travel
with you. At this new impasse the babysitter wolf pauses. It appears to me
like the wolf is thinking of new actions to try, in its attempt to get the
Now the babysitter tries pushing. It stands behind a puppy, lowers its
head, and gently pushes the puppy from the rear end, nudging it forward
onto the rocks. But the puppy stumbles over the rough surface, yips, and
runs back off behind the other wolves. Pushing doesn't work.
The babysitter wolf pauses. Is it thinking of another method?
Next the babysitter wolf tries carrying. It turns away from the talus,
picks up a puppy by the scruff of the neck, and turns back toward the rocks
to carry the puppy across. When it swings the puppy across the rocks,
however, the puppy's hind end hits hard against the sharp stones. The
puppy yips. The babysitter wolf opens its mouth and drops the puppy, and
the puppy runs off the rocks behind the other wolves. Carrying doesn't
It looks like the babysitter wolf has run out of ideas. It walks back
to the clearing in the tall willows, followed by the puppies. It hasn't
figured out how to move the young wolves over the talus slope yet, but on
it's walk back to the willows, it demonstrates that it has learned the
proper pace to use when walking with baby wolves. The five animals lie
down around the clearing, and after recording all this in my notebook I
wait to see what the babysitter wolf will do next.
I don't have to wait more than a few minutes before the babysitter wolf
rises. It indicates by it's slow walk (now just the right speed for young
wolves) that the puppies should follow. They all walk through the tall
willows, and again come to a halt at the edge of the talus slope.
The babysitter wolf walks a few steps out onto the rocks, while the
puppies huddle together on the soil nearby. As it did before, the babysitter
turns to face the puppies, lowers its front shoulders, raises its hindquarters,
wags its tail, and jumps up and down with its front paws extended, yipping.
It jumps and yips over and over again, progressively adding more bounce to
the jumps and more volume to the yips. It jumps and yips for a minute and more.
Finally, one pup steps out onto the rocks of the talus slope. The adult
wolf becomes even more energetic and noisy, and it backs slowly away from
the puppies while still jumping and yipping. The puppy takes another tentative
step, doesn't have any major problems, and continues very slowly picking its
way across the sharp, unbalanced stones toward the babysitter wolf. Now a
second puppy moves out onto the talus slope. It misses it's footing, stumbling
between two rocks, but it picks itself up and slowly continues forward. The
babysitter wolf moves backward toward the den, still with great energy. A
third puppy follows the other two out onto the rocks. By now there is a string
of wolves across the talus slope - the babysitter moving backwards with jumps
and yips, and three tiny pups spread out and slowly picking their way across
the steep slope.
When the babysitter wolf arrives at the end of the talus slope, it continues
moving backwards, and leads the pups easily across the low willows. As soon as
the young wolves see their mother lying on the gravel, they race past the
babysitter wolf, lie down with their mother, and nurse. The babysitter wolf
follows behind, then lies down close to Pearl and the feeding pups.
I am bouncing up and down with excitement. The babysitter wolf tried
repeatedly, learned new skills as it progressed, and finally succeeded in
getting three of the pups back to their mother.
But one puppy never found the courage to follow the others across the
talus slope. It has returned by itself to the tall willows, where it lies
very quietly in an unobtrusive shadow. This puppy has never been alone
before. It's always been at least with its brothers and sisters. I write
in my notebook that it looks scared and lonely.
Can wolves count? Do Pearl and the babysitter wolf know that there's a
pup missing? Will Pearl go get the final pup, now that the babysitter wolf
has brought most of her puppies to her?
Somehow, the adult wolves are communicating again. The babysitter wolf
appears to know that it should go and bring back the final pup, because the
babysitter wolf rises, crosses the low willows, the talus slope, and the tall
willows, and finds the missing pup in the willow clearing.
When the babysitter wolf arrives, the single puppy races over to it,
wagging from tail to nose, and jumps all over the babysitter wolf. After a
few minutes with the pup, the babysitter wolf walks slowly back to the talus
slope, followed by the puppy. The babysitter wolf walks a few steps out onto
the rocks, while the puppy waits on the soil nearby. As it did before, the
babysitter turns to face the puppy, lowers its front shoulders, raises its
hindquarters, wags its tail, and jumps up and down with its front paws extended,
yipping. It jumps and yips over and over again, progressively adding more
bounce to the jumps, and more volume to the yips. It jumps and yips for a
minute and more. But never does the puppy try walking on the talus rocks.
Head drooping, the babysitter wolf gives up and walks back to the willows
with the puppy. Both wolves lie down, a little ways apart. They remain
lying for fifteen minutes. This is by far the longest the babysitter wolf
has stayed at the willows during the attempt to get the puppies home. Has
the wolf given up? Is it thinking of additional things to try, to get the
puppy back to Pearl? Is it hoping Pearl will come and get her puppy herself?
What would you do, if you were the babysitter wolf?
Oh look, the babysitter wolf is up, slowly walking through the willows
and sniffing the ground. The adult seems to be walking around aimlessly.
The puppy, still lying down, watches it.
Scattered among the willows are a few pieces of bone and horn that
wolves brought to the rendezvous site over the past week. The babysitter
wolf picks up one end of a caribou leg bone in its teeth. The wolf shakes
the bone, turns its body left and right, and growls softly. It looks to
me like a dog playing tug-a-war with a bone.
It looks like that to the puppy, too, who bounds over, grabs the other
end of the bone, and tries to pull and shake it away from the adult wolf.
The two wolves play this way for a number of minutes, growling and shaking
the bone. The adult, being larger, moves backward pulling the puppy left,
right, uphill and downhill around the clearing and through the willows.
It slowly becomes clear to me, even though the wolves are moving in all
four directions, and appear to be moving randomly, that the babysitter wolf
is ever so slowly moving more toward the south (toward the talus slope) than
in any other direction.
Sometimes while they are playing, the puppy lets go of the bone, bounces
backward and then leaps forward to grab the bone again. When the two wolves
are half way to the talus slope, the babysitter wolf changes the game. Now,
it moves mostly just south. But more significantly, when the puppy leaps up
for the bone, the babysitter wolf lifts its head at the last minute, moving
the bone just out of reach of the puppy. The younger wolf stares up at the
bone and leaps again. Again, the babysitter wolf moves the bone up and away
at the very last second. The puppy is unable to get the bone. It knows it
had it earlier. Surely it can get it again?
All the while, the babysitter wolf is very slowly backing toward the talus.
The puppy leaps again and again, with eyes only on the bone. The babysitter
wolf shakes the bone close in front of the puppy's nose, growling softly, but
each time the puppy leaps, the babysitter moves the bone just high enough so
the puppy can't quite reach it.
The puppy looks and acts completely mesmerized by the bone. It doesn't
notice when the babysitter wolf very slowly moves out onto the talus slope.
It's focus is completely upward, toward the bone it can't quite catch. In
this way, the babysitter leads the puppy across the rough stones, then
through the low willows, the puppy always watching and leaping toward the
bone. When the puppy is close enough to notice Pearl, it abandons the bone,
races over to lie next to its mother, and begins energetically nursing. The
babysitter wolf wags its tail and lies down nearby.
I am stunned. Pearl had confidence that the babysitter wolf would succeed.
During the two hours it took to bring her puppies home, she never intervened
in any way. And I was overwhelmed by the babysitter wolf. It never gave up.
It stayed focused on the task, and overcame one challenge after another. It
even used a tool of sorts to distract the last puppy and lead it safely home.
This glimpse into the behavior of a family of wolves taught me a great deal
about how wolves interact and solve problems. It even taught me many lessons
to improve my own mothering and childcare skills.
May 9, 2011