Wolf expert and naturalist Elli Radinger has spent 25 years working with wolves - and the experience has taught her as much about being human as it has about wild animals.
It’s always said that a woman never forgets her first kiss. I must confess: I don’t remember the first kiss I had with a boy. But I will never forget the first kiss I got from a wolf.
Let me explain. The moment happened in Wolf Park, a wolf research facility in Indiana. I had applied for an ethology internship to learn about the behaviour of wolves and, in order to be accepted, I had to take part in a “wolf-casting”. My childhood dream would only come true if the casting was successful and the alpha wolf of the pack accepted me.
Prior to this, I had left behind my old life as an attorney-at-law in Frankfurt. My work consisted of divorces, criminal defence and rental disputes, and I was finding it increasingly frustrating. Instead of pushing for justice with enthusiasm, I was starting to dread every legal meeting in my diary. I lacked the detachment and the abrasiveness to be a good lawyer. I was unhappy and longed to fulfil my life’s dream, which was to combine my love of writing with the fascination I had always had for wolves.
And why wolves? I grew up with dogs – my childhood best friend was a German Shepherd. He was my “wolf”, and I have loved his wild ancestors ever since.
But back in the Wolf Park research facility it wasn’t a dog, but a wolf, who was staring right at me. Imbo, a six-year-old male timber wolf was getting ready to jump. He flew towards me, his huge paws landing on my shoulders, his imposing fangs only a centimetre from my face. The world stopped. Then he licked my face with his rough tongue. That “kiss” was my introduction to the “wolf drug”, and from that moment on, my life changed. Imbo’s acceptance meant my internship application was successful, and throughout my work at Wolf Park I learned everything I could about the behaviour of captive wolves.
Half a year later I moved for several months into the wilderness of northern Minnesota and lived in a log cabin far from civilization in the middle of wolf and bear territory. It was here that I saw my first wild wolves.
Finally, in 1995, the next part of my life began. The first Canadian timber wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park, and I started to work there as a volunteer, assisting the biologists with their field research.
By observing the Yellowstone wolves, and watching their hunting, mating and the raising of their young, I discovered that wolves are very similar to human beings. To me, the wolf is a great teacher from whom we can learn a lot about life.
What touches me again and again is how lovingly the wolves take care of their family members. When one of them gets wounded during hunting or fighting, the whole pack takes care of him. When they leave for the hunt, one stays with the injured animal. When they return, they bring food along. Sick and old animals are cared for until they are better again. It is precisely this caring characteristic that makes people and wolves so similar to each other.
As a woman, the female aspect of wolves and humans fascinates me. In my opinion and from my experience, the world of wolves is a world of women. It’s usually the alpha pair who make decisions (together) in a wolf family, such as when to start a hunt, or which outsider to accept or drive away. But if there has to be a decision made between the leaders, it’s the female who’s in charge. I have met some incredibly strong personalities among the female wolves and have told their stories in my book.
Women are fascinated by wolves. At my readings, seminars and on my wolf tours, men are in a distinct minority. Why? What attracts women to wolves? Is it their wild, untameable aspect?
I strongly believe that women recognise their own ‘wolf soul’ in the animal. They have a different way of dealing with nature. They aren’t afraid of being vulnerable, and they don’t want to ‘conquer’ as most men do. ‘Wolf-conquerors’ seem to believe that what other people think of them is more important, and in their opinion there’s no need ‘to humble yourself’ or ‘curry favour’.
When dealing with animals, most women have the gift of withdrawing, observing and waiting, while men tend to want to thrust themselves forward, to control and to dominate. A good friend and mentor of mine, the great German wolf researcher Erik Zimen, once said to me: “In history, both wolf and woman have seemed to be the ones who were oppressed. But in reality they’re the ones who are the strong ones.”
This applies not only to wolves, but also to humans. Men are no longer the strong ones. Women live longer and are healthier than men. In general, they have a stronger and more flexible immune system. But most women are also mentally and emotionally stronger.
When it comes to the survival of the family, female wolves show the greatest adaptability and intelligence. So in the mating season the alpha female will mate with different males. Thus her offspring has many potential fathers, who will hunt for her and her pups, and protect them against enemies. She is the true centre of the family.
Wolves are similar to us in so many other respects. Like them, we are living creatures with a personality, a soul, intelligence and emotions. The wolves of Yellowstone have become a part of me. Observing their complex social behaviour for so long has changed me. Concepts such as morality, responsibility and love have acquired a new meaning for me. The wolves are my teachers and the source of my inspiration. Every day they teach me to see the world with other eyes – theirs.
The wolves have taught me how important family is, to show affection to those we love, and to celebrate life. They have shown me what it means to be human.
The Wisdom of Wolves by Elli D Radinger is available to buy now
Images: Unsplash, Getty