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The First DomesticationHow Wolves and Humans Coevolved$

Raymond Pierotti and Brandy R Fogg

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780300226164

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300226164.001.0001

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The Friendly Predator

(p.279) Conclusion
The First Domestication

Raymond Pierotti

Brandy R. Fogg

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter assesses the great enigma of the first domestication: wolves and dogs are so affectionate and seem willing, if not driven, to create strong and persistent social bonds that it becomes easy for humans to anthropomorphize and idealize these four-leggeds that share their lives so easily. Yet they remain predators, highly evolved carnivores, and they know how to kill. Given the opportunity, sometimes they kill things that humans value, for example, other domestic animals. As long as humans considered themselves to be fellow predators, however, they lived comfortably with wolves. The chapter then examines one particular case of a wild wolf that showed repeated friendly relations with humans over a period of several years and discusses the implications of such experiences.

Keywords:   domestication, wolves, dogs, social bonds, humans, predators, domestic animals

THE MAJOR ENIGMA OF the process we refer to as the first domestication is that wolves and dogs can seem so affectionate and willing, even driven, to create strong and persistent social bonds with humans that it becomes easy for humans to become overconfident and even careless about these four-legged relatives that share our lives so easily. Even in their fully domestic state, however, dogs remain predators, highly evolved carnivores that know how to kill. Given opportunities, they may kill other entities that humans value—chickens, cats, on occasion sheep and cattle, and even humans themselves. As wolves, even the smallest, gentlest dogs remain predators, regardless of how much they have changed physically and behaviorally from their wolf ancestors.

For example, a major factor in the extinction of the thylacine in Tasmania was that it was blamed for sheep killings that were in fact carried out by domestic dogs (D. Owen 2003). Pierotti once talked with a neighbor who was convinced that coyotes were killing his poultry until he found that his own German shepherd had been the culprit; our local coyotes don’t seem to kill livestock of any kind. A large, powerful dog that is highly aggressive, starved, or feels threatened can become dangerous, especially to small children and frail elder humans. Such dogs are far more deadly in terms of human health than wolves have ever been, as reflected in the mortality statistics (Sacks et al. 2000).

(p.280) As long as humans considered themselves as fellow predators of wolves, we lived comfortably with them (Pierotti 2011a). This was also true of the barely domesticated wolves that were the original Russian laiki, dingoes, or American Indian dogs. They were our boon companions, sharing our hunts and kills, living with us in a reciprocal arrangement. Once we began controlling the lives of other species, like goats, sheep, horses, pigs, and cattle, that had previously been our shared prey, however, we felt the need to try to change wolves as well. This can be seen most clearly in the Maremma, Kuvasz, and other breeds reared to live their lives with sheep: now they guard these ungulates from wolves or coyotes rather then help us hunt them down (Coppinger and Feinstein 2015).

Sometime during the Middle Ages Europeans turned on wolves and began to treat them as creatures of Satan, a being who exists only in the minds of people of European ancestry (Coates 1998; Coleman 2004; Grimaud 2003; Pastoureau 2007; Pierotti 2011a). The reasons humans create imagined villains are complex, and often involve the Christian Church, which worked hard to break relationships between humans and carnivores during the period referred to as the “Dark Ages” (Coates 1998; Pastoureau 2007). In our view, however, the real darkness came later, with the massive slaughter of both people and wildlife perpetrated by colonial Europeans as they spread themselves around the world from the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries (Sale 1991; Coates 1998; Mann 2002, 2005; Coleman 2004). Underlying this change in human attitudes was the (apparently conscious) decision to recast humans, especially followers of Christianity, from being predators to being prey (Coates 1998; Pierotti 2011a), best exemplified in the image of Christians as “the flock of a loving and protective shepherd,” notwithstanding the fact that real shepherds are actually the most relentless predators on their flocks (Pierotti 2011a).

As we have described, in most parts of the world and for almost the entirety of human history, humans interacted with wolves, or wild dogs, in a primarily positive manner. We have described Japanese okami, regarded as important allies for farmers because they helped keep their fields safe from deer and wild pigs, and the wild wolves of Hokkaido, invited to become friends and hunting companions of the Ainu people. We have discussed the loneliness of Australian Aboriginal peoples, who (p.281) were so excited when dingoes joined them 5,000 years ago that they remade their creation stories to include the only other placental mammal to join them in a land dominated by strange pouched and egg-laying mammals incapable of being proper companions for active, imaginative humans (Rose 2000, 2011). We have presented a wide range of traditional stories from Indigenous American peoples describing a range of positive relationships with wolves beginning in the mists of prehistory and continuing up until at least the later part of the nineteenth century (Fogg, Howe, and Pierotti 2015).

In each case, these conditions prevailed until Europeans or Euro-Americans arrived, bringing fear, hatred, and livestock. The wolves or dingoes then became the targets of relentless persecution (Coleman 2004; Walker 2005; Rose 2011). There is a story among Native Americans that the first action taken by Europeans upon arrival was to establish a bounty on wolves; the second was to place a bounty on the Indians themselves (Coleman 2004; Pierotti 2011a). In both situations, acceptable evidence of a kill was the scalp because heads were too heavy to transport in large numbers. In North America and Australia, genocidal war targeted both wolves and their Indigenous human companions. This was also the fate of the Ainu and their wolf companions on Hokkaido (Walker 2005). These are not rumors or guesswork: the wars and the processes involved are well documented (McIntyre 1995; Coleman 2004; Walker 2005; Rose 2011).

Only in the southern islands of Japan, where disease did not clear a path for their invasions, did the British and Americans wipe out only wolves, leaving the Indigenous population in place (Walker 2005). Another exception to this pattern was southern Siberia, where extreme climate, combined with immunity to the diseases that devastated American and Australian Indigenous people, allowed Indigenous peoples to survive (Sale 1991; Pierotti 2004, 2006, 2011a, 2011b; Rose 2000, 2011; Mann 2005). Only in the last few centuries did European Russians move effectively into Siberia, and it was not until the Soviet Union period from 1920 to 1990 that Siberian Indigenous peoples and wolves really suffered persecution, after enduring oppression during tsarist times because of the punitive requirements imposed on them for fur trapping (Lincoln 1994). Siberia remains a challenge, and there is something in the Russian spirit that allowed them to embrace the wolflike laiki, if not the wolves themselves (Cherkassov 1962; Voilochnikov and Voilochnikov (p.282) 1982; Forsyth 1992; Beregovoy 2001, 2012, Beregovoy and Porter 2001), allowing this to be one European culture where humans remain comfortable with very wolflike dogs.

We opened this book with a story about a young female wolf joining a group of humans. We would like to close by providing some understanding concerning how many times during the short history of modern humans they found wolves who did not fear them. Most were young males and females looking to establish their own social group who decided that these strange, sparsely haired primates who walked on their hind legs might make decent pack members. The wolves were much better adapted than humans to the harsh ecological conditions of Europe, Asia, and North America. They became our companions, our teachers, our guides. Some became the models for the wolf Maiyun and his female companion, who taught the proto-Tsistsista people how to hunt; others became the solitary wolves who guided and protected Lakota and Blackfoot women who found themselves alone and in need of food and companionship; yet another guided the survivors of the Sand Creek massacre.

We have previously alluded to the case of Romeo, a large, young black wolf who spent seven years interacting in a friendly manner with hundreds of people and many more dogs in the outskirts of Juneau, the capital city of Alaska (Jans 2015). Pierotti has heard numerous accounts from people working in “wild areas” about “friendly wolves” who approach humans out in the bush, sometimes seeking food but more often simply wanting to play or experience a mutually respectful friendly interaction. The example of Romeo, however, is particularly well documented and is worth exploring in some detail to relate it to many of the themes we have developed.

Nick Jans, the author of A Wolf Called Romeo, is an experienced woodsman and naturalist who has lived in Alaska and worked with wildlife for more than thirty years. The story he tells sounds extraordinary to Western-indoctrinated ears; however, he is simply describing one of the more recent examples of a dynamic that has played out many thousands of times over the millennia, especially in North America, where wolves are not hostile to humans because they spent thousands of years interacting with them as equals. The late Gordon Haber, the most experienced and dedicated of Alaskan wolf scientists, who worked for more than forty years (p.283) with Denali’s wolves, described a species that shows no aggression toward humans, is mostly curious about human activities, even when people intrude in wolf areas, and is defensive only when puppies and dens are threatened (Haber and Holleman 2013). Jans struggles at times in telling the story of Romeo, which actually strengthens his account—he is not simply a naïve wolf enthusiast or advocate who wants to merge minds with the wolf; he is an experienced naturalist who wants to provide a measured account of a profound experience.

Jans seems conflicted about the idea of Romeo and what he represents. As an Alaskan naturalist, Jans is very much a hunter and has killed wolves while working with Native Alaskans, a fact to which he alludes several times. Encountering Romeo throws him off balance: “The true measure of distance between wolves and dogs lies in the eyes. A dog’s may display intelligence and engagement, but being caught in a wolf’s unblinking gaze is like standing in the path of a laser. … This black wolf’s deep amber irises hold all that force, but something more radiated from him that I’d never sensed in any other wild wolf: a relaxed acceptance of my presence” (2015, 5). Jans recognizes that Romeo is unlike other wolves he has encountered, but perhaps more important here is that Jans seems convinced that wolves and dogs are different species. He keeps trying to place Romeo in the category of “Other,” part of a world separate from the human. The Other is an all-encompassing concept implying a variety of meanings, including its position as a widely accepted synonym for difference—that is, not of Western human society (Fabian 1990). Romeo keeps confounding Jans, revealing that some wolves behave in a way he cannot quite comprehend.

In contrast, one individual who makes quick contact with Romeo and establishes solid rapport is Dakotah, Jans’s female retriever. The book’s cover shows Romeo and Dakotah greeting each other. It seems clear that Dakotah recognizes one of her own kind, regardless of what her master thinks about them being different. A running theme in Jans’s book is that Romeo is drawn more to dogs than to humans, and the feeling seems to be generally mutual. In particular, Jans describes Romeo as having especially close relationships with Dakotah, one of his neighbor’s border collies, and a large black Lab mix named Brittain, the companion of one of the book’s most interesting human characters, Harry Robinson. All of these dogs are female; as a dispersing young male, Romeo may be seeking a partner, a mother figure, or perhaps a combination of both.

(p.284) Romeo becomes a fixture of the Juneau scene, especially during the period from the freezing of the lake in the fall until it melts in the spring. Most humans respond well to his presence, although it is clear that there are some who would like to see him killed simply for existing. Interestingly, however, although this latter group seems to threaten and posture a lot, no local in the small and well-integrated community of Juneau ever takes action against Romeo, although the reader gets the impression that many are simply waiting for the wolf to commit a transgression that would justify their feelings.

Romeo, though playful with most dogs, at times administers discipline to those who cross a line. Jans has three dogs: Dakotah; Gus, an older male black Lab and former seeing-eye dog; and Chase, a yearling blue heeler (Australian cattle dog). Jans describes an encounter between Chase and Romeo:

I had Chase’s leash firmly under my boot—or so I thought. A sudden unexpected tug and off she went, a snarling blur flying straight for the wolf. … The wolf picked up the charge and came bounding to meet her full on. … The two met in an explosion of snow, the wolf wide jawed, bounding, paws slamming down to pin our dog. In that heart-rattling instant, Chase disappeared under the wolf. … I’d screwed up in a way I could never forgive myself.

Then a blue gray shape exploded out of the snow, headed back as fast as she’d gone in, yelping all the way. Lips pulled back in a grin … the wolf bounded along behind her a few feet, then trailed back. … Though she was quivering and her fur stiff with frozen saliva, we went over every inch and couldn’t find the least ding or bruise. (2015, 34)

Rather than injure, or even kill, the impolite dog, all Romeo did was show appropriate wolf discipline toward an insubordinate junior.

On at least two occasions when Pierotti was walking Nimma she administered similar quick and impressive discipline to small barking dogs that charged her, and our senior border collie regularly administers similar discipline to our border collie puppy when she transgresses. Such behavior is highly ritualized, and even though it looks (and sounds) deadly at first, injuries almost never result.

(p.285) Later on, playing with an Akita puppy belonging to a local veterinarian, Romeo “seized the puppy by the neck and bounded off into the willows” (2015, 131). The vet, filled with fear and guilt, plunges into the willows after them, when suddenly “his puppy came scampering towards him, whining. … A nose to tail exam under [the vet’s] practiced hands couldn’t detect a single laceration or bruise” (132). The key message to take from such encounters is that wolves, and their domestic descendants, can discipline misbehaving young group members in a way that may suggest serious danger to humans, yet the canids involved recognize that what is going on is part of normal group dynamics. Those chastened may be highly chagrined, their pride injured, but any resulting scars are at worst psychological.

The most intriguing human in Romeo’s world is Harry Robinson, who appoints himself as one of Romeo’s translators to the general public (we wish Robinson would publish his own account). Jans (and others) refer to Harry as the “Wolf Whisperer,” a cliché that has probably outlived its usefulness. Robinson refers to Romeo as his “friend,” which seems a more appropriate term and suggests a more egalitarian relationship. Robinson seems to understand better than others that the presence of Romeo is a gift, one that should be honored rather than exploited. When Robinson and his dog Brittain go on extended excursions throughout the local landscape, if Robinson “howls,” Romeo often will join them: “The three would trace game trails and visit … the rolling spruce-hemlock forest” (Jans 2015, 158). Robinson witnesses Romeo taking beaver as prey and finds evidence that the wolf has taken goat-antelopes (Oreamnos americanus), which are common in the mountains above Juneau. Romeo is clearly an accomplished hunter, not dependent on being fed by humans (or scavenging). Romeo also protects his friends: “Romeo once sensed something ahead on one of their walks, bristled, then lunged forward, growling, as a locally known brown [grizzly] bear and grown cub appeared around a bend in the trail, a few dozen feet away. As the wolf charged in defense of his pack, the bear turned tail, and Romeo completed the rout” (159). Through such actions, Romeo reveals that he is, in fact, a fully functioning wild wolf, capable of challenging any other creature in his environment. Thus, when he chooses to associate with human and canid companions, and even to protect them, he also shows where his priorities lie.

(p.286) In our view, the significant aspect is not so much that Robinson is a “Wolf Whisperer” but that Romeo may be something even more impressive, a “Human Whisperer.” While we are on this theme, it seems relevant to discuss one of Cesar Millan’s greatest insights—his assessment of some of the happiest, most emotionally stable dogs in America:

I think that dogs that live with homeless people often have the most fulfilling, balanced lives. … These dogs don’t exactly look like AKC champs, but they’re almost always well behaved and nonaggressive. Watch a homeless person walking with a dog and you will witness a good example of pack leader–pack follower body language. … The dog follows either beside the human or just behind her. … Dogs don’t know the difference between organic and regular dog food, they don’t think about groomers, and in nature, there aren’t any vets. … Homeless people … walk from place to place, pick up cans, and seek a meal and a warm place to sleep. This lifestyle might be unacceptable to many humans, but for a dog this is the ideal, natural routine that nature created for him. He is getting the consistent amount of primal exercise that he needs. … He is free to travel. … Exploration is a natural animal trait. … Balance in a dog’s life isn’t created by giving them material things … [but] by allowing them to fully express the physical and psychological parts of their being. Living with a homeless person, a dog migrates [and] … works for food.

(Millan and Peltier 2006, 130–31)

Robinson and Brittain provide Romeo with something very similar; they wander like a wolf group, sometimes finding food and sometimes adventure. As Millan points out, “Homeless owners aren’t pampering their dogs … although the dogs can sense that their owners are happy about having them around” (Millan and Peltier 2006, 202–3). Homeless owners provide “someone to follow, who’ll eventually lead the dogs to food and water and a place to rest” (203). One gets the sense that had any of the humans around Juneau been willing, Romeo would have been pleased to have a constant companion, happy to take the lead if that was what the human wanted, as Robinson seems to have done in the proper context.

(p.287) Over time Romeo learned to respond to communication from Robinson. “He would obey a number of my commands, although he would carefully consider them beforehand. … He’d observe a situation and reason it through … but he definitely knew what the word no! meant” (Jans 2015, 158). On one occasion when Romeo grabs a pug in his mouth, Robinson shouts, “No!” and the wolf releases the dog. In another case, Robinson intervenes in and diffuses a physical confrontation between Romeo and a large husky mix.

Over the years Romeo seems to have won over the majority of humans he encountered through behaving with dignity and friendliness. Reading Jans’s and Robinson’s accounts, Pierotti was reminded of his time spent watching Peter interact with other humans, and how impressed he was that the most dignified and best behaved individual around was the nonhuman, and that he had the ability to change the behavior of the humans themselves.

Romeo lived to the age of at least nine before he was needlessly shot and killed by a couple of young men from outside the Juneau area; Jans provides clear photos of “the killers,” as he refers to them. Peter lived to the age of fourteen and died of old age, safe and well cared for in his enclosure. Some might compare the fates of these two extraordinary individuals as supporting evidence for Gordon Smith’s (1978) argument that the ideal situation for wolves in the modern world is living with humans—not in a cage but in a secure relationship where their needs are met through their interaction with humans. Romeo lived free, but he died violently. Was this a better or worse life than the safe, secure existence that Peter experienced, cared for by loving humans, never in danger?

Such relationships as Romeo developed with people have happened many times, in many places. It continues to happen up to the present in locations like Juneau, and it will continue to happen in the future if humans are prepared to receive the gift. The wolf called Romeo offered such a gift. Some, like Harry Robinson, were ready to receive it. Others, like Nick Jans, knew there was a gift of being offered but were unsure about how to respond, influenced by the fear-filled legacy the Christian Church has impressed upon people of European heritage over the last thousand years (Coleman 2004; Pastoureau 2007; Pierotti 2011a).

The exchange of such gifts between human and wolf has changed both species over the last forty or so millennia. Some of the wolves changed (p.288) physically, becoming more neotenic, and came to be considered dogs. There is a tendency today to view dogs as our best nonhuman friends and wolves as our implacable enemies, but this way of thinking fails to recognize that these different physical forms remain in essence the same being, with the same predatory nature. We fear wolves and love dogs, although dogs kill far more people. Because we consider dogs under our “control,” we do not desire their extermination the way many seem to do with wolves, although some efforts at breed-specific legislation are exceptions to this general rule. There is much talk in modern America about other cultures “fearing our freedom,” but it is contemporary Americans who fear freedom, especially the kind they see in the wolf, and they use this fear to justify hatred and killing.

It is time to recognize that we define dogs behaviorally as much as physically. As we discussed in chapter 4, this topic might create controversy in archaeological circles or within standard systematics and evolutionary thinking, where DNA and anatomy are the primary traits considered, because behavior and ecology cannot be effectively incorporated into phylogenies. Defining wolves behaviorally rather than anatomically is, however, more true to the process used in the domestication of wolves.

Our contemporary struggle to recognize the wolves within our dogs emphasizes the differences between Western and Indigenous ways of understanding. Indigenous peoples saw the canids who hunted with them, guarded their villages, shared their lives, and at times saved them from the persecution of both Europeans and other tribes (Marshall 1995; Fogg, Howe, and Pierotti 2015) as wolves, or in Australia, dingoes (Rose 2000, 2011), whereas to Europeans, canids living with humans must be “dogs,” regardless of their independence or ability to switch from living with humans to living on their own. An example of this dichotomy in world-views: when we were publishing an article on the relationships between Indigenous Americans and wolves (Fogg, Howe, and Pierotti 2015), our coauthor Nimachia Howe showed a draft of our manuscript to several Blackfoot elders. Their response to our supposed major finding—that there existed strong positive relationships between tribes and wolves—was instructive, best summed up as “What’s the big deal? Doesn’t everyone know this?”

Despite problems and harassment, native peoples still try to stand by their old lupine friends. Recent efforts by the U.S. federal government to (p.289) remove protection from wolves have generated strong opposition from tribes. Chippewa tribes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan requested the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to prohibit the killing of wolves in the ceded territory of northern Wisconsin. Jim Zorn, executive director of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, said, “Tribes believe the Wisconsin hunt is biologically reckless and would be culturally harmful to Chippewa, for whom wolves are culturally important. … ‘How should we sanction the killing of our brother?’ The Voigt Intertribal Task Force of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission passed a motion unanimously opposing the killing of [wolves] and claiming all wolves in the Wisconsin ceded territory as a necessary prerequisite to a population that would fully effectuate the Tribes’ rights” (Knight 2012). None of these tribes were consulted before these measures were instituted, and all tribes in Wisconsin have requested that no wolf hunts take place and no hunters be allowed to kill wolves on tribal lands (Lewis 2013; Fogg, Howe, and Pierotti 2015).

Some tribes have gone well beyond simple requests, employing serious leverage. In retaliation for wolf hunts, six bands of Chippewa in northern Wisconsin declared their intention to spear a near-record number of walleyes during the annual spring harvest, terminating a 1997 agreement with the state and effectively shutting down the sport fishing season (Fogg, Howe, and Pierotti 2015). Such actions resulted because the relationship between the state and tribes has become increasingly strained, primarily because the tribes strongly opposed opening a wolf hunting and trapping season starting in 2012 (Knight 2012; Lewis 2013). Wolves feature prominently in origin stories and legends of the Chippewa; they are associated with courage, strength, and loyalty. Chippewa bands living in Wisconsin were allotted several “slots” of the total wolves allowed to be killed—but they refused to kill a single wolf (Lewis 2013; Fogg, Howe, and Pierotti 2015). Despite 500 years of colonization, some Indigenous Americans are still trying to protect wolves, their companions, teachers, and creators.

To an Indigenous person Romeo would simply have been what he was: a very sociable wolf, capable of living with people or without them, but preferring to share his life with them. He would have made an excellent hunting partner and might have shared their fires on cold nights, providing an alert presence that would have allowed them to sleep safely. (p.290) In contrast, the Western worldview ties itself into knots over the concept of a wild wolf that is friendly toward human beings, even though such entities were probably an everyday experience, at least in North America, until the arrival of Europeans. The real tragedy of Romeo’s life was not that he was killed by a couple of ignorant fools with guns instead of brains, but that the gift he offered was taken up by so few.