I’m nearly done reading the captivating book, Among Wolves. This work is comprised of the late Gordon Haber’s essays, field notes, scientific papers, photographs and even Tweets, as well as personal commentaries from those who knew him best, including the pilots who flew Haber over the vast Denali National Park so he could pursue his exhaustive study of wolves.
I’ll be writing a review for EcoLit Books after finishing Among Wolves but I am so enamored with the book that I wanted to share some of it with you now.
Alaska writer Marybeth Holleman compiled the words and pictures and created a book that does justice to the vast body of work done by Haber in the forty-three years he spent as a student of Canis lupus. Among Wolves is a readable and informative text that is accessible to all. There is science here but also anecdotes and meaningful insights. Holleman writes that Haber “…was, above all, a scientist-one who never forgot the initial sense of wonder, curiosity and excitement that drew him to study wolves. He was never afraid of drawing conclusions from his research, or of voicing those conclusions.” (pg 12). Haber’s passion for his work is apparent throughout the pages of this book.
Perhaps because he didn’t work under the thumb of a Federal or state agency (his research was funded by sources such as Friends of Animals), Haber portrayed wolves differently than most biologists. He built on what was already known about them, adding depth and dimension to more basic facts and figures.
One section I especially enjoyed was Haber’s description of the den areas of several of the packs he studied. In 1966 and 1967, Haber mapped out the underground structure of the Toklat pack’s homesite. In order to do this in his typically thorough manner, he crawled into each of the dozen or so tunnels that made up the den area. He found the burrows clean and dry and the ground of the major chambers lined with a thick layer of wolf underfur, providing a soft bed for the thirteen newborn pups the two breeding females produced that year.
This particular homesite was one of a cluster of dens within an eight mile radius. The packs, Haber learned, tended to use several sites each summer, depending on prey availability and disturbances by humans. He believed they also moved from one to the other to help train their young to travel. The homesites not only contained dens, they also had an above ground layout with lookouts for adult wolves, interconnecting trails, and play areas for pups. Tunnel entrances usually faced the south, allowing for early sunshine in the spring. Water was nearly always close by. And the sites were often constructed in elevated areas, providing wolves with good views to watch for prey and predators alike.
These homesites were used over and over again by the Denali wolves. The area Haber mapped out was known to be in use for at least twenty years before he crawled into the tunnels. But Haber as well as his predecessor, Dr. Adolph Murie, believed the sites had housed wolves for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Haber didn’t like the word “pack.” He saw wolf groups as families, believing the term pack failed to “convey the fascinating essence of what sets wolf social organization apart from the organization of other species.” (pg 244) The Toklat wolves, in his estimation, were “one of the world’s oldest known nonhuman social groups in the wild,” (pg 238) comparing them to the chimpanzees Jane Goodall studied in Gombe National Park, Tanzania.
The Toklat family had long and lasting relationships. One primary breeding female held her position for fourteen years. Non-breeding wolves were very involved with training and rearing the young. Females who weren’t mothers even nursed other female’s pups. Hunting techniques were honed by this group and practices passed on from generation to generation.
Homesites reminiscent of villages and complex social structures can’t help but make one think of human culture. If family groups of wolves are allowed to exist for long periods of time without destruction they can offer us insights into our own past and current societies.
A vocal opponent of the Alaskan tendency to eradicate their wolves, Haber said, “Numbers are secondary to relationships and actions. It isn’t about numbers, it’s about traditions and cultures.” (pg 237)
Wolves are not isolated entities, they are complex social creatures. Even if hunting and trapping does not lead them to a threatened or endangered status, this random killing destroys much more than an individual wolf. As Haber said, “…although wolf numbers often rebound from public hunting, trapping, and heavier agency killing, at least in the short term, the repercussions are distinct and long-lasting. There are lost traditions, fragmentation, and continued mortality long after direct killings. Effects can be felt for generations.” (pg 246)
Haber’s death in 2009 at age 67 was a profound loss, yet his writings remain to be used to help us understand wolves as the intricate and essential species they are. Among Wolves should be required reading by those who believe managing these animals is only a matter of counting them. Perhaps someday, the rest of the world will catch up with the progressive thinking of Gordon Haber.
(Quotes are from Among Wolves by Gordon Haber and Marybeth Holleman, University of Alaska Press, 2013)