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The Wolf In All of Us
By John Thompson on Animals & Society Institute
Those moments of feeling tangibly united with another species are like affirmations for those who work to transform “us” and “them” into a single “we.”
There were over two hundred people in the auditorium when the presenter, Dr. L. David Mech, ordered the lights turned completely off.
“Imagine we are sitting on a hill above a vast snow covered plain,” he said. The world is so quiet you think you can listen to snowflakes falling. And then, from not too far away, you hear this….”
Beginning with a low rumble as though emerging from the earth, a lone wolf’s voice rose very gradually to a crescendo above the clouds. Again, and yet again. The howl was textured so that one could hear harmonics of the dominant note. Strangely, I felt a cavernous loneliness, an amorphous yearning for something indescribable that was just out of reach, and tears flowed quietly down my cheeks.
The song faded as gradually as it began and the room remained in darkness for a few more heartbeats. There was no shuffling or coughing from the people. Only scattered sobs and deep breathing. And when the lights were slowly turned up it was obvious that this was a good business day for Kleenex.
That moment was over 30 years ago but it is frozen in my mind as solidly as the icy landscape where the recording was made. And Mech, ageless in my remembrance, will always be “The Wolf Man,” and I will always be enthralled by the sounds he introduced me to.
Since 1958 Dr. Mech has studied wolves and used his knowledge to educate people about these miraculous canids through his International Wolf Center, the classes he teaches at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, and as the US Dept. of Interior’s senior wolf expert.
The sound that Dr. Mech played for our group was from a male who had become separated from his pack. He was pleading for a reply so he could reunite.
But pack unity is not the only motivation for wolf howls. They do it for as many reasons as people speaking, but perhaps they don’t waste as much breath on small talk. They even howl to pass on important information to other packs, and at the same time warn their neighbors to respect the pack’s boundaries. And each wolf has an individual, distinctive voice that pack mates easily recognize.
Some scientists are seriously studying wolf vocalizations, using instruments that graphically analyze their language. But there are still people whose lives in nature remain attuned to animals and who understand without needing such tools. Like a wolf, they recognize who is talking and what is being said.
Even though the noise and pace of “civilized” life blunts our sensitivities we retain something deep inside that knows the calls of the wild. The loneliness and yearning felt by those who listened to that wolf’s voice reaching out over miles of frozen land was an accurate interpretation, passed from one species to another without science or effort.
Peer-reviewed findings from experiments in universities around the world validate that indeed humans and non-humans experience life with much the same range of emotions. The data also proves that humans retain the ability to discern meaning expressed by other species. Indeed, we are fundamentally and essentially united with other animals, even to the point of being constructed from predominantly identical genes.
Those similarities, that close relationship, make it so much harder to see the war that humans wage against their animal relatives. But those moments of feeling tangibly united with another species are like affirmations for those who work to transform “us” and “them” into a single “we.”
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