Preview of Coming Attractions

Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Wolf Park, Battle Ground, Indiana: The Mouths of Wolves

Caesar Millan (the Dog Whisperer of National Geographic fame) is often the bane of my cat consultations. “I’m doing everything just the way Caesar Millan says, I’m using calm assertive energy and showing my cat that I am the leader of the pack.” His methods are deeply imbedded in the psyches of those that enjoy his show—and they are a source of much controversy in the dog training world, but simply put, they are all wrong for cats.

Because both dogs and cats are predators and can live companionably with humans, people sometimes treat cats like dogs. And yet they are completely different species. The Cat family evolved in the Old World (Europe and Africa primarily), while the canine and wolf families originated in the New World (North and South America). True, over thousands of years some cats migrated to the New World and some Wolves migrated to the Old World (primarily over the ice bridges of the Bering Straights, I am told.) In many ways they fill the same niche—but they are built entirely differently. A cats claws and teeth combine as formidable hunting tools allowing most kinds of cats to hunt alone, while most wolves need to hunt in packs for optimal survival (to bring down big prey.) Cats are not pack animals.

Because most people know so much more about dog behavior than cat behavior, sometimes it helps to contrast the two. But I don’t relate well to dogs or understand them, so I visited a Nashville area dog trainer to try to learn more about dog behavior. I asked her, “In my cat books, they say that one reason that discipline doesn’t work with a cat (unlike a dog), is that the cat is a solitary hunter—if a cat spoils its own hunt, the cat is the only one that loses. But with a pack animal—like dogs—the alpha male will discipline the dog that makes the mistakes. Is that true? Do they really do that? Also, cats are known for congregating for social purposes that include mating, but their interest in companionship is not based on survival—while a dog is dependent on the pack for survival and that is the basis of the distinct personality difference between the independent cat and the subservient dog—is that true?”

Unknowingly, I had stepped right into the middle of the great dog debate. There are (at least) two dog camps: the Positive Reinforcement school (using positive reinforcement to shape behavior, commonly referred to as ‘Clicker Training’) vs. the Dominance Theory of dog training (such as the famed Caesar Millan, who works to establish himself as the Alpha leader of the pack, using appropriate discipline etc..) My assumptions about dogs drew from the Dominance theory, while I was interviewing a clicker trainer. She kindly declined the interpretations of dog behavior that I had presented and instructed me, “If you really want to understand the roots of dog behavior, you should take a class at Wolf Park.”

Wolf Park! ( ) What a marvelous detour on my cat odyssey. Immediately I signed up for their ‘Weekend Wolf Intensive”—three days of education about wolf behavior and interaction with real, live wolves!

When I mentioned that I was going to Wolf Park to gain a better understanding of dogs, several people assured me that the two species were, in fact, unrelated and quite distinct: Lupus vs. Canine, but according to the ethologists at Wolf Park, this controversy may have been cleared up by DNA and other research. For starters, Wolves and domestic dogs have identical DNA, and they can mate and produce fertile young.

Another piece of interesting evidence is a 50 year research project done in Russia that quickly simulated the same results that probably took many thousands of years to occur naturally. In the experiments with Silver foxes, the foxes were divided and bred exclusively for their sociability to humans. Through the generations of foxes that became increasingly friendly and well adapted to human companionship, the animals underwent a physical transformation that was NOT being selected for: their tails curled, their ears flopped and their coats became spotted. Similar experiments in rats and rabbits (selected for their friendliness with humans) produced similar physical traits.

Based on these and other evidence, the currently accepted conclusion is that our modern domestic dog is a descendent of the wolf. As humans settled into an agrarian lifestyle, they created garbage dumps, during times of scarce prey, wolves would scavenge those dumps. The wolves that habituated most easily to humans would have had a higher success rate, thus surviving to breed pups that also adapted well to humans.

The difference between dogs and wolves? Dogs have adapted so well to humans—and humans to dogs, that some researchers see the evolution of humans and dogs as linked. Dogs see humans as part of their pack. While Wolves see humans as distinct and different from themselves. According to the staff at Wolf Park, “We learned that we were much safer when we accentuated our differences, rather than trying to integrate into the pack. I think the wolves here think of us like highly productive pets, who provide food—and are marvelous groomers, but we exist outside of the pack structure. The advantage being that we exist outside of the constant awareness and struggle for place in the pack heirarcy. Simply put, our skin is too fragile to be tested regularly.”

The boisterous wolves pounce on each other, growling and rolling. It seems that consciousness of their ranking pervades their every waking minute. But their hierarchies are changeable and function differently in different packs.

Although there are behaviors that are consistent from pack to pack, each pack is made of individual personalities that coalesce to create a specific culture—much like we see in different cat communities. The culture of the pack may be determined by the personality of the Alpha male. At Wolf Park, the staff speak loathingly about the days when Renki was the Alpha. “He was such a bully, the pack was in constant conflict.” Finally, he was overthrown when the rest of the pack of six ganged up on him. Tristan emerged as the Alpha male, much to everyone’s joy, because Tristan doesn’t rule by brute force. “Some wolves just have that personality. Something about the way they carry themselves commands respect—they don’t have to prove their strength daily. Just like some human leaders, the pack just follows.”

The wolves contact with each other is overwhelmingly oral. And it strikes me that this is a strong distinction between cats and dogs. Cats engage in a nose to nose sniff in greeting, then perhaps a head butt or cheek rub and a good whiff of each other’s tushies, but wolves engage in mouth to mouth, well lathered greetings involving tongues and teeth. As I observed them at the park, it seemed that they were constantly in each others mouths.

In fact, they were also very intimate with my mouth. We were instructed to let the wolves kiss us, as this is a friendly way to interact with them. When we entered their pen, I positioned myself next to a large log. Kailani (the alpha female by virtue of being the only female in this pack) leapt onto the log and extended her long nose to sniff me. I avoided direct eye contact (very rude with cats and wolves), but offered her my face to sniff. Immediately her tongue was working its way all over my mouth, wet nose probing too. It was very gratifying, but I drew away as she became more excitable. Later, she approached me again, as I sat on a different log. This time her greeting was so enthusiastic that she nibbled on my lower lip before I pulled away. Her kisses left my lips lightly damp and very salty because of the dog treats she had just eaten.

Not being overly fond of being licked, it was clear that this is another reason I relate better to cats than dogs. A level of oral contact that I (frankly) consider highly excessive is a natural part of canine/lupus communication—and a very important one too. Yes, its true, cats engage in mutual grooming—and in fact, I even enjoy the exfoliated effect of a bit of cat grooming on my hand—but I don’t like being slobbered on.

I also found the wolves constant angling for position exhausting to watch. Most cats exist in fluid hierarchies that operate more like time-share arrangements—though occasional personality clashes may cause discord in a particular home. With the canine family, each pack has an institutionalized structure, which may have its own quirks from pack to pack, but none the less, the hierarchy is obvious and crucial to their social organization--very different from cats.

The ranking of the pack became very clearly, very quickly. Tristan stayed out of most of the wrangling, benevolent Alpha that he is, though occasionally he might step in to break up a conflict. The wrestling and ritualized (not dangerous) aggression between the 2nd and 3rd in the hierarchy—particularly with regard to Rudy, the omega wolf, was persistent. It was clear that humans wouldn’t stand a chance (as pack members) in an environment of constant testing.

What I learned seemed to indicate that both the positive reinforcement folks and the dominance theory folks have some insight into the nature of the dog/wolf. There is no question that wolves organize themselves in dominance hierarchies, and that, according to the many years of experience at Wolf Park, positive reinforcement is crucial to shaping their behaviors to be compatible with their human handlers. With dogs, that same hierarchy has been adjusted to include humans, and watching the wolves, it seems that being a benevolent alpha (with calm, assertive energy, like Tristan) is essential to managing a dog, but that positive reinforcement is clearly the key to unlock many beneficial behaviors in the human/canine relationship.

Did I get answers to the questions I had originally posed to the dog trainer? Sort of.

No, the alpha wolf doesn’t ‘discipline’ a pack member that messes up the hunt. In fact, 9 out of ten attempts to bring down prey fail. In a given pack, some of the older wolves won’t even participate in the hunting, though they do get to partake of the meat. An Alpha male isn’t necessarily the best hunter, he may have other qualities that make him the leader.

One of the great benefits of visiting Wolf Park is observing the Wolf/Bison demonstration. Of course, a wolf’s preferred prey is an elk or deer, but Bison is another prey that have been integral to the wolves existence. We watched two wolves attempt to snag a calf from a herd of Bison. Mostly, we watched the young ‘punk’ Bison males chase off the wolves. A wolf is no match for the powerful Bison, clearly to take down such a prey takes the power of a pack.

In their hunt, wolves are very different from humans, who usually prize the strongest member of a herd. Wolves test and watch for the weakest animal in the herd, they work to separate that animal from the herd often chasing the herd for long distances before finding their kill. This aerobic form of hunting is very different from the cat, who is a stalker and pouncer and rarely does more than a sprint to take down its prey—alone.

So what about the question of discipline? Wolves do discipline each other down the hierarchy, insisting on submission from lower ranking members. With their pups, they are very tolerant until the pups mature, then the adults will assert themselves mostly using their mouths to correct annoying behaviors.

I collected some of fur that wolves had shed. “Take it home to your cats, their reaction will be a lot of fun.” In true dog form, the fur gave off a pungent odor. The fur enthralled ycats, who chewed on it and played with it and reacted as though it were catnip.

As my friend observed, she said, “I bet it’s the smell of carrion, the wolves roll around in all sorts of gross smelling stuff don’t they?”

'Yes, they do,' I thought as I reached down to pet my own smelly dogs whose unwashed frontier spirits stand in such distinct contrast to the old world gentility of my sweetly, self perfumed cats.

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