By Sid Gustafson
Nina took an interest in wolves as a young child. She grew up with her dog, Lick, and it was Lick who taught her a keen awareness regarding the nature of animals. Nina could see some animals lived with people, while other animals stayed away from people, and in the case of Lick’s cousin the wolf, far away. Although Nina grew up on the edge of Glacier Park where wolves have raised their families for millennia, she had never seen a wolf. She heard a wolf howl on occasion, and Lick sniffed out an occasional track now and then to tell her the wolves had trotted through.
Wolf and dog. How could two animals so alike live so differently, Nina wondered? Why did dogs prefer people, and wolves shy away from folk to roam the wilderness? Where did the path of dog and human meet? Where did the path of wolf and man part? When? Why?
Her Uncle, Howler Ground Owl, knew. He told the story well of how wolf became dog, how a certain strain of wolves became dog and the other wolves remained wolf. Howler knew the legends and he knew the science. Howler Ground like individuals that worked together for group survival, species that worked together came to survive together.”
“Dogs live and work together with people, still,” she said.
“Dogs and horses.” “Yes,” Howler said, “much like the wolves still work with ravens.”
“That’s right. Canis lupus is wolf. Canis familiaris is dog,” he said. “Today wolf and dog are different. Wolf is wolf, and dog is dog. Dogs stay close to man, and wolves stay as far away from men as they can.”
“Wolves howl. Dogs bark,” Nina replied.
“That’s right,” he said.
“So dogs didn’t evolve from wolves?”
“No, not from these wolves. Dogs evolved from the line of wolves that stopped following the grazers and began shepherding mankind.”
“So dogs and wolves share in ancient ancestor?”
“That’s right. One hundred thousand years ago, according to the science people, the two types of wolves split. One line followed man to become dog, while the other followed the caribou and bison and other four– €legged grazers of the plain so become the wolves of today.”
“Where is it best to hear the wolves howl?”
“As far way from the workings of mankind as one can go. Deep into the mountains is where the wolves howl.”
“Is it easy to hear the wolves howl?”
“With the right ears you will hear them.”
“Why do you think the wolves howl?”
Howler did not answer.
“Do they ever howl to us?” She asked.
“Only wolves know why they howl, and what they say to one another. Humans know why dogs bark; to warn us, to protect us, to let us know something is up. No human knows why wolves howl, though, not for sure. Some say they howl to the raven for help from time to time. Some say wolves howl to keep track of their other scavengers, from wolves and lions and bears. With dogs, people could eat in peace.”
“How long did the man– wolves follow people before they started living together?”
“It is said both in legend and science that it took tens of thousands of years before humans finally invited the dog in from the cold. Young people and women were likely involved in bringing the dogs closer, much as you keep your dog close to you. The two species had taken their time learning to communicate with one another. Their social organizations began to come together. In time, the two species began to share and to help one another, to please one another. The combination enhanced group survival on a bigger scale, and domestication appeared. Over long periods of time, these friendly wolf dog families merged with the human families.”
“The dogs protected the people.”
“Yes, the dogs protected the humans, and the humans shared their bounty in return. The dog society became entwined with the human society. They began sharing their resources wandering across Asia together, helping each other to survive, learning and appreciating the ways of the other. Group survival has its advantages over individual survival. Groups are more likely to survive than individuals in the great North. After dog, horse moved in alongside the nomads, and soon horse became part of the social fabric. Dogs and people protected the horse’s grasslands, and soon the horse carried the people all over the world. It was dog and horse who made us human.”
“Strength in numbers requires communication. Dogs learned to communicate with one another through time, as did people and horses and hundreds of species. Over time, species began to understand other species; they adapted their language to their neighbors’ language. Wolves had learned to read humans, and it was the wolves that liked what they read that began following the wandering humans. These humans came to understand their followers, so similar were the two species’ group survival strategies. The groups most likely to survive were the most social, and the most social groups of humans soon came to share their social structure with dogs.”
Nina nodded, yes. She had heard of the Neanderthals, and then of the Cro— Magnons wandering out of Africa into Europe and across Asia.
“Waves of humans journeying to find new lives in new lands.”
Nina took a deep breath and looked to the sky and imagined, knowing how to listen to Howler tell a story.
“Some human wanderers began following the grazers of the great, open grasslands, hunting them, eating them. As the wolves followed the grazers, so did certain groups of people. Soon, both wolves and humans were following the grazers together, the grazers following the grass. As both species followed the grazers, certain families of wolves began following certain clans of man. The grazers of the plains had brought the two species close together.”
“So most of the wolves stayed with the grazers, then, but a curious group began following the people?”
“That’s right, Nina. Each group of wolves had their tendencies and preferences. Certain groups found a better life following groups of people rather than following the herds grazing the plains, maybe an easier life, easier at first. As man became more social and successful, he created a niche for these doggy wolves to follow patiently along.”
Nina closed her eyes and pictured the packs of dogs lingering alongside the encampments of people.
“But it took a long, long time before man invited the human—following wolves in from the cold, tens of thousands of years. Children like you probably had a hand in taming the friendly dog–wolves, in bringing them closer to the clan.”
“So the people smelled okay to these people–following wolves?”
“Yes. They came to smell okay to the dog–wolves in time, it seems. As man became an efficient nomadic hunter throughout Asia, certain wolves became interested. The dog wolves fell in alongside the wandering people, eating the leftovers of their hunting and gathering. In time, the scavenger dogs took to protecting the people, barking, you know. Soon they began helping man hunt the grazers. After successful hunts, the dogs protected the people and their meat from the grazers hale and hearty they kept their wolf families healthy, eating the weak and old, keeping the population in balance with the grass like the hunters of today. The wolves and the grazers traveled together, and were eventually joined by humans. All around the top of the world grazers came to be followed by wolves. Some of the wolves altered their course, and instead of following the grazers, they began following the people. These are the wolves that became dogs.”
Will we ever see the wolves that keep following the grazers?”
“Not likely,” he replied. ”Seldom will anyone see those wolves howl, no there in the Blackfeet country, not often. Wolves stay away from men in these parts. Seldom seen is the wolf. Wolves see men, but we seldom see wolves in this Rocky Mountain foothill country.”
“Wolves know men,” Howler explained. “They fear men. Man is the wolf’s only predator. Wolves have fine hearing and great senses of smell. They smell men from far away; far, far away. Wolves know humans are nearby long before humans can know wolves are around.”
“How do the wolves know without seeing the men?”
“Wolves have a special gland in their nose, the vomeronasal gland. When they smell men, or where men have been, they stay as far away from that smell as wolves can stay. Men do not smell good to wolves. It is also said that sometimes the ravens tell the wolves that people are coming, too.”
Nina nodded, contemplating the secret lives of wolves and ravens.
“Little good comes to wolves from men.” Howler went on. “Dogs stay with men. Wolves stay away, far away as they can. Dog and wolf split long ago.”
“Didn’t dogs come from wolves?” She asked.
“Dogs and wolves share an ancestor. The wolves and dogs of today both descended from a wolf of long ago, a hundred thousand years ago, in the time before the Indians came to America with their dogs. Dog did not come from this wolf, but from a different wolf of long ago, along ago wolf from Asia.”
“How did that happen?”
“Humankind wandered out of Africa, you know.”
Owl taught the evolution and domestication of the wolf in the Blackfeet school. He enchanted children with the story of how a certain clan of wolves set the stage to eventually have their progeny evolve into dogs. It was as much these wolves’ idea to become dog as it was humankind’s idea, it seems. Dog came to people. Blackfeet are longtime dog people. Howler’s Indian ancestors brought dogs to America with them from Asia. The Indians traveled all down the continent through the wolves and bears, escorted safely by their dogs. Indians and dogs have long lived together helping one another.
Nina remembers hearing her first wolf howl walking with her dog one summer in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Heart Butte. Lick stopped and listened, canting her head to clarify the howl. Nina stopped to listen with Lick, and heard the howl bound out of the mountains. Lick gave a bark, a sharp bark that bounced across the prairie into the wolf’s mountains, letting wolf know this girl had a protector. Lick turned and took Nina home, leaving the wolf her space. Wolves howl, and dogs bark.
Later that summer, the lone howl was joined by other howls. Nina and Howler heard the wolves howl into the fall, until one day they howled no more.
One night as they listened for the wolves, Howler told Nina that the wolves left to raise a family.
“Where did the wolves first come from?” she asked.
“Napi sent the wolves to help shepherd the grazers. That is the legend.”
Nina knew Napi was the Blackfoot creator. Napi is nature. “And where did dog come from?” The little girl asked.
“Dog came from the wolves after the wolves began shepherding the grazers grazing the great grasslands of the northern worlds,” Howler explained. The Indian glanced north to the top of the world.
“Wolves came from the North, then?” Nina asked her uncle.
“Well, they followed the grazers north as the world filled up with life,” Howler put in. “Wolves followed the wild elk, deer, buffalo, aurochs, and others to the great grasslands. Grazers need shepherds, you know. The wolves followed along to shepherd the grazers, to keep the grazing herds healthy and vigorous. By keeping families, to gather packs, to socialize. Others say wolves howl to keep track of the world. Wolves not only shepherd the grazers, they shepherd the top of the world.”
Nina listened past Howler’s story. She listened through the easy breeze into the night. She felt wolves from far away smell her.
“They howl to let one another know where they are, and who they are. That they are there, part of the world apart from us, but with us, always.”
Nina howled, she howled to let the wolves know she listened for them; that she did not want to see them, only to hear them howl.