We love and trust our canine companions. We might not leave them alone with a sandwich, but they live in our homes, sleep on our beds (with or without our permission), even take care of our children. It’s not difficult to argue that we share with our dogs the strongest known bond between unrelated species. And yet it’s a thin biological line between man’s best friend and a long-standing symbol of fear: the wild wolf. I was fascinated, then, to come across the story of an Ontario family who had to euthanize their pet of many years, only to then discover that it was a full-blooded grey wolf all along.
The not-quite-dog was named Buck, which, as an aside, happens to be the name of the dog in Jack London’s Call of the Wild, who left his human masters to join a wild wolf pack in Alaska. London also wrote White Fang, the complementary story of a wild wolf dog who chose to leave the wild for the love of human companionship. These true events immediately reminded me of both novellas.
The wolf pet incident raises many questions. Legal ones: like what would have happened if the animal’s true identity had been revealed while it was still alive? And practical ones: where did this wolf come from and who came up with its supposed pedigree (they believed it was a German shepherd and husky mix)? But my own interest takes us to the fundamental questions of identity and kinship of these close cousins. How does a family keep a wolf in their midst for years and never suspect it is different from other dogs?
Yes, yes, I know, dogs are wolves, wolves are dogs. The former declaration is true for the more specific definition of a domestic dog, currently considered (by most) a sub-species of the ancestral Canis lupus. The latter is true for the broader definition of dog applying to all members of the canid family, including wolves, coyotes and foxes.
But the working definition of a species, though less arbitrary than that of any other taxa, nonetheless has some wiggle room. Two individuals are considered members of the same species if they possess a shared gene pool, which means they can produce viable offspring together. However it’s not simply a question of matching numbers of chromosomes or an ovum accepting a spermatozoon in a petri dish. Some genetically similar populations will never mate under normal circumstances, even though they are biologically capable of doing so, sometimes purely for behavioral reasons: the wrong steps in the mating dance, or a different pitch in their songs. Wolf dogs, especially in the North between wild wolves and huskies, do regularly occur. But by and large, wild wolf and domestic dog populations remain separate.
So wolves and dogs are very similar. Except when they’re not. Wolves can sometimes be tamed, but tame is not the same as domesticated. Domestication is a change in gene frequencies that results in animals with a genetic predilection towards tameness with humans. Wildlife rescue groups working with wolves will tell you that a wolf pup is curious and friendly and affectionate, no different than a Yorkshire terrier, St. Bernard or Labrador puppy. The difference is that wild wolves become much more skittish, aggressive and suspicious towards their human handlers when they reach sexual maturity, while domestic dogs remain trusting and loyal all their lives.
Around the middle of the twentieth century, a Russian scientist, Dmitri Belyaev, performed breeding experiments with silver foxes. In a manner similar to wolves, the kits (young foxes) were curious and friendly, but changed as they got older. However, Belyaev and his team were able to select for the bravest and calmest individuals until, within just a few generations, the foxes were also behaving and looking very similarly to domestic dogs, complete with floppy ears.
We know that something like this occurred with wolves about ten thousand years ago. But the huge romantic twist in the story is that our prehistoric ancestors did not carefully control the breeding of their new friends for desirable traits. The process was begun by the wolves themselves. Those individuals with the shortest flight distance and the greatest interest in our leftover food followed us, hung around, and thus became the first dogs. Self-selected as the most trusting (by wolf standards), their children became more trusting and loving in turn, until today they are a symbol of love and trust, the antithesis of the popular depiction of their wild cousins.
While evolutionary biology tells us that species can separate and transform in response to new environments, it also tells us that it is most often just the frequency of different pre-existing alleles in the population which changes. All the genetic variety, from the most aggressive tendencies to the most loyal, already exist in the population.
So I like to think that this particular wolf, by all accounts a well-loved family member, is just another individual of his species who chose to enter anew into that ancient covenant. Love me; trust me; I will be your steadfast guardian and friend, said he. And he was. No matter that he emerged from a neighboring gene pool. No matter that he lacked the benefit of ten millenia of selective breeding.
Canines and hominids, we just keep falling for each other again and again. I’d say that’s just a little bit wonderful.
Photo credit: Gunner Ries Amphibol