Wild Song
Time, October 6, 1980

see also


by Michael Fox
Little, Brown; 131 pages; $12.95.

WOLVES USED TO SLAVER a lot. They hung around outside European villages to gobble up grandmothers. They trailed troikas across the frozen steppes, waiting for some tender Muscovite to be tossed their way. They howled through the Canadian wilderness on the heels of succulent trappers lost in the snow. All that has changed. Now wolves are seen as benign and useful citizens of the ecosystem. They protect nature's delicate balance by keeping down those troublesome caribou herds and even practice birth control. Wolves do still howl, of course, but, as Michael Fox reassuringly points out, this is often to express "their unity and kinship through song."

Fox, 43, is a psychologist and ethologist, and a leader in the growing pack of natural scientists who have lately given wolves a good name. He has been raising wolves and studying them for years. In earlier books like Behavior of Wolves, Dogs and Related Canids, Fox presented the facts. The Soul of the Wolf is something else, an illustrated valentine to Fox's four-footed friends, and a moral message for another endangered species, man. The valentine is marvelous, the exhortation overblown. By learning about wolves, Fox insists, man can learn about the mysterious intricacies of nature, and thus be encouraged to cease his depredations. In some ways, Fox avers, the world would be a better place to live in if people behaved more like wolves.

More like wolves? Yes indeed. Take sex, for instance. Wolf couples, writes Fox, "enjoy mutual love and affiliation without year-round conflicts over and desire for sex." Unlike men and women (and male dogs), who are highly promiscuous and make love more or less all the year round, wolves, both male and female, breed only once a year, though they have a longish courtship period when the male brings the female good things to eat, sticks to play with, and may, by bowing, invite her to puppylike play.

Dogs breed at nine months of age. Wolves wait until they are two or even three years old. Meanwhile they do the work of the pack, most notably helping care for other wolves' pups, in what Fox calls "a time of apprenticeship and service to their society." In any pack, however, unless its ranks have been seriously depleted, only one female each year gives birth to a litter. Even more notable, some studies suggest, the alpha male (or executive wolf), who makes all pack decisions and conducts the hunt, tends not to breed—perhaps because it would distract him from command. Says Fox primly: Man needs to "emulate the wolf ... in exercising greater dominion over sexuality and incredible reproductive potential."

Wolves are killers. Precisely because of that, says Fox, they seem to be at pains to avoid killing one another. Within the pack this takes the form of ritual challenge and acts of subservience, plus carefully pursued systems of personal rights. In external affairs, packs keep to their own turf. When they hunt near the border of another pack's range, they howl out early warning systems so there will be no inadvertent confrontation. And they leave buffer zones between territories, not merely to keep the peace, but to provide safety areas where deer are allowed to breed.

Wolf survival is apparently based on recognition of two facts: overbreeding in the pack and wanton destruction of game will bring disaster; cooperation is necessary for survival. These conditions used to apply to man. They may again, and perhaps do now, though the book's anthropomorphic analogies are not always convincing on this point. What does come through is Fox's overwhelming love of wolves, a sense of communion with them that goes beyond words — something that anyone who has loved a large dog will understand. The most powerful words in the book, though, are Henry Beston's celebrated perception that man errs in patronizing animals as lower forms of life:

"In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."

The photographs are remarkable. There they all are, the gray brothers, stretching, playing, howling in unison with Fox and his human children, fighting mock battles. Or just sitting, looking out at the world, with half-closed, quizzical eyes, a compelling mixture of Old Dog Tray and Ming the Merciless.