The silver stripes of the wolf’s coat gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. His black nose inhaled my scent deeply, his ears pointing alertly forward.
We were inches apart now, and from the corner of my eye I could see the other members of his pack waiting. Every fibre of my being was focused on surviving the next few seconds.
The wolf’s powerful hindquarters lowered slightly as he prepared to jump. He flew towards me; his paws, the size of side plates, landed on my shoulders, his imposing fangs only a centimetre from my face. The world stopped.
Wolves have taught me how important family is, to show affection to those we love, and to celebrate life, even if only for a brief moment. They have shown me what it means to be a human being. Three wolves are pictured together at Yellowstone National Park
Then he licked my face with his rough tongue. This was my first wolf kiss – the equivalent of a human handshake – and it was a fearsome introduction to these extraordinary animals.
Now, after 25 years of observing the creatures loving, living and dying in the wilds of the US, Canada and Germany, I’ve learned the rather disconcerting truth: no species is socially so close to humans as the wolf.
Scientists who have studied the social systems of wolf packs over many generations all agree that man can, in fact, learn a lot about himself by watching these amazing animals. At first glance, of course, we couldn’t be more different.
The ‘big bad wolf’ of fairy tales is deeply rooted in our minds, along with the wolf’s fearsome reputation as a hunter.
Yet it is no accident that many groups of indigenous people – from Native American tribes to Mongolians – see the wolf as the ancestor and totem of their own origins.
Author Elli H. Radinger is pictured above with a wolf. After 25 years of observing wolves, she writes that she has learned no species is socially so close to humans as the wolf
Both humans and wolves prioritise family and care for the elderly and thrive on harmony and ritual. This becomes even more significant if you compare the fact that even male primates, considered more similar to humans than wolves, don’t help feed their young or look after the old.
We both appoint leaders and use our individual talents for the good of the family or in our work. Some of us are patient and good listeners; others are impulsive and take new ideas further. Some are peacemakers and skilled negotiators.
When I observe these traits in wolves, I wonder why everything seems to be so much more complicated for us humans.
In our modern, high-tech age we’ve become alienated from nature. We don’t even experience darkness and silence any more.
But wolves have taught me how important family is, to show affection to those we love, and to celebrate life, even if only for a brief moment. They have shown me what it means to be a human being.
Lesson one- From cradle to grave: family matters
Few scenes in nature are as heart-warming to observe as a wolf family. In contrast to the growling, fang-flashing creatures that we see in films, the lives of wild wolves are characterised by harmony and playful, affectionate interactions.
The pups are the beloved and protected treasure of the pack. The whole family looks after them, including aunts, uncles and older brothers and sisters. Old and wounded family members are brought food and never abandoned. Every member of the pack knows where his place is. For family, wolves will sacrifice their lives.
In April 2013, in a valley in Yellowstone Park, I watched a two-year-old wolf intervene in a turf war to save her mother and four newborn pup siblings. Her mother, the alpha female of the local pack, was being chased by 16 members of a rival, neighbouring group and was running for her life.
Having crossed a road and tourist route, the attackers didn’t dare follow – but they now stood between the wolf and her days-old pups in the den. It fell to the wolf’s daughter to lure them in a different direction, which could easily have proved fatal.
Elderly or sick wolves, too, are cared for by the pack. Old wolves are invaluable. A pack with just one elderly member has a 150 per cent better chance of winning in battles because of their experience – they will avoid a conflict they don’t think they can win [File photo]
But having easily outrun them, the rival wolves left, disgruntled, and didn’t reappear that year in the same territory.
Another special moment of love among siblings came one spring, when melting snow had transformed rivers into raging torrents. This is the time when wolf families move from dens to hunting grounds and may need to cross the rivers. The adults swim ahead, showing the little ones how it’s done.
They howl from the opposite shore and encourage them to follow. One pup didn’t dare go in, and ran up and down wailing on the bank. Again and again it dipped a paw in the water and turned round.
In the end, his sister swam back, grabbed a stick and distracted the pup with pulling games. Then she enticed him into the water with a stick and helped him to the other side.
Elderly or sick wolves, too, are cared for by the pack. Old wolves are invaluable. A pack with just one elderly member has a 150 per cent better chance of winning in battles because of their experience – they will avoid a conflict they don’t think they can win.
In a pack known as Silver in Yellowstone, a young whippersnapper had become leader but treated the old deposed head with great respect – because the old gentleman was a master in the difficult art of bison-killing.
When they die, there is genuine grief. Cinderella, one of the females from the park’s ‘Druid’ pack, died during a hunting trip. Her partner retreated into the den where they had raised their pups and howled for the next three days.
Six months later, his skeleton was found in an area where he had spent many months with his partner. How he’d died remained a mystery. Could it have been a broken heart?
Lesson two- Lead like an Alpha wolf
One bitterly cold day I spotted the Druid pack, a group of seven animals, whose alpha male was like the leading man in a movie.
One biologist liked to compare him to Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan: a unique talent with abilities beyond the norm. When he appeared, the wolf world seemed to hold its breath. He had a powerful build and radiated natural authority.
Leadership, in wolf packs, is not about being the bravest or the strongest – it depends on the group dynamic. But leadership is ultimately about harmony: to keep the family together [File photo]
This pack leader had two outstanding characteristics: he never lost a fight, and never killed a rival. Once he had made his position clear, he would let the defeated wolf live.
That day, a strange wolf – whom I later christened Casanova – approached the pack. The interloper was attractive with shiny pitch-black fur and gold-coloured eyes. The females must have gone weak at the knees.
One female courageously extended the tip of her tail – Cupid’s arrow whirred through the air. Her father charged: a short scuffle, a small bite.
Then Casanova unleashed all his charm, dancing around, wagging his tail and demanding to play. The parents succumbed, and gave up on their efforts to chase him away.
Later, he rolled on his back when the boss approached, and licked his face. It demonstrated a high degree of social intelligence – if he had behaved otherwise, it could have meant the end.
But it also showed the Druid pack leader’s intelligence. The pack’s collective interests were at stake: a new mate could only improve their chances of survival by increasing the genetic pool.
And leadership, in wolf packs, is not about being the bravest or the strongest – it depends on the group dynamic.
But leadership is ultimately about harmony: to keep the family together. Despots are extremely unpopular – and, as I have observed, are often ousted.
Lesson three- Women hold all the wisdom
What is universal among wolf packs is that key decisions – how, when and where to hunt or dig a den – are ultimately made by the highest-ranking female.
In the end, everything of any importance to the family is geared towards them, too. While important decisions are taken by the male and female pack leaders together, in the event of doubt, the pack takes its lead from the alpha female.
One female wolf in Yellowstone, dubbed Angelina Jolie, was a legend. Everyone who saw her was fascinated. A young female wolf’s top priority is usually to find a partner and raise young.
Angelina turned out to be one of the best hunters Yellowstone had ever seen. She liked hunting alone, and preferred fighting face to face. Once I watched as she attacked an elk cow on the shore [File photo]
Not Angelina. Throughout the first winter she had up to five suitors during the mating season, which is very unusual among wild wolves. She rejected the biggest and strongest contenders.
Instead she took up with two young brothers, and founded a family with them. Shortly after the birth of her first pups, Angelina left her den and within ten minutes had killed two elk cows – by herself. The males watched. It looked as if she was teaching the brothers how to hunt.
Angelina turned out to be one of the best hunters Yellowstone had ever seen. She liked hunting alone, and preferred fighting face to face. Once I watched as she attacked an elk cow on the shore.
Treading water, she pressed her victim’s head under the water with all of her weight until the animal drowned, before leaving the body to drift to a sandbank.
Her one fatal error came when she left the protection of the national park. She was shot and killed, prompting an outpouring of letters and emails lamenting the loss – many from women who identified with the charismatic wolf.
Lesson four- How to teach your children
Young wolves learn by observing their parents. But although they seem to have the freedom to do whatever they want, even wolf parents sometimes need to set boundaries.
One summer I observed a family of wolves moving through Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. One young wolf dawdled along behind. His family waited a few times until he caught up, but eventually they’d had enough. They ran on, and left the dreamer behind.
Realising he was lost, the young wolf howled to call them back, which had always worked in the past – but not this time. It wasn’t until the evening that his family returned to collect him.
He had learned his lesson – he didn’t stray again. That is how wolf education works: while nothing is forbidden, the young learn that actions have consequences.
There is no chance of playing one parent off against another – the wolf parents are united, and the whole family is involved in disciplining the offspring.
Lesson five- Choose your moment
The strength of wolves lies in their ability to gauge a situation and then decide how to proceed. They know too well that it’s often better to practise patience first of all, to think the situation through.
And that sometimes it makes no sense to take the next step. This logic was well demonstrated when I once watched a wolf pack driving a powerful bull elk to the edge of a cliff.
They stared intensely at one another, like rivals before a boxing match. If the wolves were to attack, they would have fallen 20 metres into the abyss with their prey.
The strength of wolves lies in their ability to gauge a situation and then decide how to proceed. They know too well that it’s often better to practise patience first of all, to think the situation through [File photo]
After long consideration, they gave up. The possibility of success wasn’t worth the risk.
Unlike people, wolves don’t always connect everything with achievement. We may feel humiliated if we fail to achieve what we set out to do. We think we can’t afford to make mistakes.
But the essence of patience lies in accepting the natural rhythm of life and not trying to adapt it to our human timetable. For several days in May 2011, I watched a one-year-old female wolf trying in vain to hunt pronghorns, one of the fastest land animals on Earth, able to reach speeds of more than 40mph.
She always hunted alone, and the other wolves seemed to take no interest in her undertaking, which they clearly deemed pointless.
But then one of the pronghorns stepped in a hole in the snow and stumbled. The wolf shot over and grabbed its prey by the ankle. The practice had paid off. Even today she likes hunting pronghorns.
Lesson six- Never stop playing
Two-year-old Yukon is a grown adult wolf in Canada’s Banff National Park who still behaves like an adolescent.
He kicks soft-drink cans around in front of him like a football player, before finally ‘scoring’ with them again and again. He is, like most wolves, plainly just having fun.
Adult wolves play chase, tug- of-war or hide-and-seek. They bring each other little gifts, usually small pieces of food or bones, and strut provocatively up and down in front of the others until they chase them.
And old wolves playing with pups look as if they have fallen into a fountain of youth. One very popular game with the Yellowstone wolves is to break the ice on a lake or a river. They jump up and down on the ice with their front paws until it cracks.
Not everyone can withdraw into the wilderness to meet wolves. But all of us, if we are open, can experience the wisdom of wolves. What they’ve taught me is simple, writes author Elli H. Radinger [File photo]
Anything at all can be a toy: sticks, old bones and scraps of fur, and particularly anything humans have left behind, from clothing to rubbish. One winter I observed a bored female wolf plucking pine cones from a tree.
She threw them in the air like ping-pong balls, then either caught them or let them roll down the slope before sliding down after them. She was simply entertaining herself. Is that something we’ve forgotten how to do?
Sometimes I wonder whether our children actually know how to play. Looking at iPhones or iPads, the social activities so important for children’s development don’t take place. As adults, we are so preoccupied with our everyday routines that we often don’t even have time to play. Perhaps we should.
With wolves and other wild animals, we experience an intense present moment. We are ourselves, not who we were or want to be, or how we represent ourselves through the money in our bank accounts, or social media profiles.
Not everyone can withdraw into the wilderness to meet wolves. But all of us, if we are open, can experience the wisdom of wolves. What they’ve taught me is simple.
Love your family, and look after those entrusted to you. Never give up. Never stop playing.
© Elli H. Radinger
Extracted from The Wisdom Of Wolves, by Elli H. Radinger, published by Michael Joseph on Thursday, priced £14.99.
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