Empowering Hope & Healing Through Education
Empowering Hope & Healing Through Education
Becoming a mom, for most of us, is a life changing experience. Throughout the animal kingdom we can find various examples of motherhood and these same instincts being displayed towards their young. One animal we can look directly to and see several parenting similarities to ourselves is the wolf. From the moment their pups are born, they are fierce protector’s and incredible providers, working as a pack to provide for their new offspring. But what about love? What about emotional connection: do wolves develop this towards their pups as well? Although there is little research to determine if wolves grieve the loss of their pups or if wolves inherit protective parental instincts upon the birth of their pups, behavioral relationships between wolf mothers and their pups and human mothers and their infants is vastly similar. In my research paper I plan to dive deeper into this topic and prove that while we are vastly different from wolves when it comes to our habits as mothers, we are also more alike than we realize.
Having a child is an extremely powerful emotional experience. From the moment our children arrive in our life our maternal instincts kick in and we immediately begin fulfilling the needs of the new life we have brought into this world. In a recent study conducted by Kathleen Krol on epigenetic dynamics in infancy and the impact of maternal engagement she states in her conclusion, “Early in ontogeny, successful interactions with caregivers are crucial as infants begin to navigate the social world. Children come to depend on these early, foundational interactions, which ultimately facilitate their lifetime capacity to affiliate and engage with others.” (Krol) As humans, our DNA is wired to nurture our children and create a relationship with them. When we consider how others animals, in particular wolves, engage and create a bond with their pups we can begin to analyze the bigger question of whether or not wolves, despite their aggressive nature create an emotional bond from the moment their pups are born. When we consider their natural instinct for protecting other members of their pack, we must also consider that they likely also translate this same behavior in their interactions with their young pups. In a 1999 article published by the Canadian Journal of Zoology David Meck describes a mother wolf and her interaction with her pup:“The breeding female tends and protects the pups more than any other pack member. For example, mothers were the only pack members I ever saw picking up pups and carrying them. Furthermore, on one occasion I observed the breeding female of the Ellesmere Island pack being most aggressive against a muskox that once stood at the den entrance. (Meck)” This example is one of the many ways in which wolves also exhibit the natural instinct to nurture and protect their children.
As human parents we too can relate to this natural desire to protect our children from harm at all costs. When our children are young, we devote ourselves to ensuring they are fed, clothed, and if they are sick receive proper medical attention. As they grow, we begin to teach them through formal education and life experiences about the importance of protecting themselves from the many dangers and precautions in today’s modern society. In a 2019 MSN News story Ciara Walsh shows a video and tells the story of a mother whose incredible reflexes saved her toddler from falling from a fourth-floor stair railing. Examples of inexplainable maternal strength and perseverance, especially when it comes to protecting their children, are everywhere. Some would argue that wolves do not possess this same ability to channel their aggression for constructive protective purposes however, in the book Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, Jane M. Packard describes the hostile nature in which wolves will interact with strangers of neighboring packs and describes: “how the mother wolf with stay near the homesite or den and protect the children for the first several months of the pups life. (35)” While this could simply be demonstrating the division of responsibility among pack members, wolves, like humans, have moments where they lose control, and I think humans should be more aware of the maternal, protective instincts and outward emotions of wolves, which are actually very similar to human mothers’ protective instincts and outward emotions.
Every parent’s worst fear, whether human or wolf, is that something devastating would happen to your child. Most parents cannot even begin to fathom what the loss of a child is like and yet sadly it is something that happens every single day. According to the CDC 1 in every 100 pregnancies after 20 weeks ends in a still birth and equates to 24,000 deaths each year. (CDC) In my young life, I have already seen this 3 times and know all too well just how devastating the loss of a child can be. In a 2019 Canadian survey of families who had experienced loss the author states in the discussion: “Consistent with other studies, respondents described experiences of disenfranchised grief, whereby losses are not legitimized by health and service professionals, families, and communities, as a source of distress. The insensitive language of loss, for example, the use of ‘fetus’ or ‘abortion’ by healthcare professionals, contributed to a sense of isolation. Our findings continue to shed light on the difficulties many families faced after pregnancy or infant loss, and how families live in the world after this experience – as ‘othered’. This study highlights the commonality of the experience of isolation, regardless of the time and type of loss. (Watson, Simmonds, La Fontaine)” This study offers a small piece of insight into just how impactful the infant loss experience is on mothers. In my own personal grief and loss journey I have developed complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and have had to go through intensive therapy to relieve the symptoms caused by the trauma of losing my children. As we have already seen in some of our previous examples, wolves display an intense emotional bond between themselves and their young pups, but what about grief? Do wolves understand and emotionally experience feelings similar to humans when it comes to the way they grieve the loss of an infant and the suffering that we experience, as parents, emotionally after our children leave us too soon?
Bonding and the social emotional connection wolves show have proven to be a key component in how they compare to humans in their process of grief and loss. In the book Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals the authors discusses a recent Austrian research study: “The study found that when a wolf is missing, the wolves that are closely bonded to that wolf will howl at regular intervals. As the separation endures, the howls become more frequent and the wolves become more distressed. We could describe this behavior in various ways that deemphasize the emotional nature of the bond between the missing wolf and her friend/mate/sibling, but must we? It seems more reasonable to conclude that the wolves are concerned for their lost companion. The wolves suffer the withdrawal of a social bond and react by trying to reestablish it. While this is not grief, per se, it captures one of the essential components of grief: loss. This study confirms that wolves are keenly aware of the loss of a member of their group, and, even more important, they feel it much more deeply when it is someone, they are close to. (Lents, 165)” The next time you hear a distant howl of a wolf will you stop to consider this could be the pleas of a desperate mother longing to hear the call of her deceased pup? It is clear that wolves do in fact feel the same intense feelings of loss and longing that we experience as humans when the unthinkable happens and our children leave this world before us. This fact helps us further analyze our main point of whether or not we are like wolves, and when it comes to feelings of longing and loss we definitely have allot in common.
As we evaluate the many ways in which we are similar to wolves in particular when it comes to how we nurture, protect, and grieve our young, there are also many differences that separate us: and these differences cannot be ignored. “Human mothers typically breast feed their children milk from their breasts for 6 – 16 months. Human infants can begin being safely introduced to foods as early as 4 months of age and typically by 12 months have experienced a plethora of foods from various groups. (McCarthy, 19)” In comparison “by the time they reach five to ten weeks old wolf pups already have sharp teeth that are used for chewing solid foods and playing with other pack members. (Flahive)” Essentially, wolf pups are much more equipped at a much younger age to handle the mashing and grinding of foods like meat, vegetables, and fruit. However, if humans grew up in a remote community of hunter-gatherers, our diets would be very similar to diets of wolf pups. These two studies help us to evaluate our feeding habits and how they relate to wolves and help reinforce that while we may not eat the at the same pace and meet the same milestones at the same time both human infants and young wolf pups drink milk, both are introduced to fruits and vegetables, and later more solid meats. This evaluation additionally helps reinforce that we are more like wolves than we realize.
The considerable differences in the age at which our young reach their feeding milestones are not the only way in which we vary: the ways in which we communicate with our young is also very different. While humans typically communicate with their children primarily through spoken language, in contrast wolves typically communicate with their pups through body language, facial gestures, and other displays of dominance and submission. While human children are taught the importance of equality from birth wolves are taught the importance of establishing dominance. At first this may seem extreme to humans as we are always wanting to encourage our children to stand on their own and never let anyone control or dictate who they are, the hierarchal structure in which wolf packs operate proves to have worked for this species for hundreds of years. While wolves may teach about dominance, they are also taught the importance of protecting their pack members.
These vast differences cannot be ignored, but the stark and rising number of similarities are also a reason of why we must continue to research wolf parenting and discover the ways that their parenting styles relate to humans and how these interactions can help us to better understand these beautiful creatures. In a 2015 study published in the Zoo Biology on the effectiveness of gray wolves as foster parents for wolf pups that were from outside of their pack they came to an incredible discovery about the compassion of wolves. The results concluded by stating: “The cost-fostering attempt between zoo litters has been successful. The foster pups coped with the competition over nipples, even with an age difference of up to 8 days. Therefore, the method can be recommended as a way to introduce potential new founder genes in the Scandinavian wild wolf population. The pups ought to be at least 4-6 days of age at the time of augmentation, and the age difference between foster pups and the female’s own pups should probably not exceed 8 days, the largest age difference tested in this study. (Scharis)” This study is an excellent example of how wolves do in fact show emotions such as compassion and selfless love for others. The ways in which wolves, like humans, out of the kindness of the hearts, will foster and raise pups from birth as if they are their own is an incredibly beautiful parallel. Wolves understand the basic principle that we all just want to feel like we are loved, safe, and cared for by another. There are many stories on the internet of human parents adopting children but probably some of the most remarkable of these tales, are the stories of children who have never known love, compassion, or the sense of feeling safe. One story that was run in the Today News blog was that of Cori Salchert, a woman who fosters terminally ill children, particularly children who are on hospice care. With the help of her family, this selfless woman takes in children at the most difficult time in their life and does one of the most unthinkable things, lets them go. As the parent of a child in heaven and another currently on hospice care, I know how difficult this can be and truly commend this woman’s actions. She began fostering children in 2012 and in the article makes a profound statement about one of the children she fostered: “I found myself saddened to think he wasn't wanted because of his many physical disabilities as well as his age and size, but then I realized it wasn't that he was not wanted, it was that he was waiting for us. (Peters)” It is safe to make the analysis that like the wolf mother’s ability to take in a pup from a pack that is not her own, the human mother, Cori, is able to take in an infant even when it is not like her or her own child. As parents, it is clear, that humans we will go to any length to ensure not just our own children, but all children know what it feels like to love and be loved.
Most research about wolves is centered around conservation efforts, the pack mentality, and aggressive tendencies and does not spend much time on behavioral aspects of the parent child relationship. An article published in the Journal of Mammalogy in 1985 discusses: “that while the wolves tended to be aggressive when humans invaded their den space, it was rare for wolves to be aggressive towards humans in any other setting. (Scott, 807-809)” While this study illustrates the importance of not invading wolf dens, is also another reminder of our similarities.
When we experience an unknown person or animal entering our den or home we go immediately into defensive mode, especially if we have children, a spouse, or pets that could be injured by an unwanted intruder. In extreme cases of self-defense, humans have even been known to kill or have animals killed that invade their home. One such story from Denver Colorado published by the Associated Press tells the tale of a mother who saved her 5-year-old daughter from being attacked by a black bear. The article states: “The girl’s mother told state wildlife officers that her daughter went outside around 2:30 a.m. after hearing noises she thought might be coming from her dog. The mother said she heard screaming and found her daughter being dragged by a large black bear. She told authorities that the bear dropped the girl after she yelled at it.“ Before the sun rose on the morning of Mother’s Day, she truly exemplified the love and courage of what it takes to be a mother and, because of those actions, her child is here today, said J.T. Romatzke, regional manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (Associated Press)” This tale is just one of the many examples of mothers springing to action to protect their young from being hurt in their home. Like the wolf the mother of this young girl felt a natural instinct to protect her young child and sprang into action. This bear was later found and killed, and it brings up more questions as to the ethicality of such actions as sentencing an animal to death for mere curiosity.
Bias, regardless of what the specific bias you are presenting is, sometimes is something we as humans cannot prevent ourselves from doing because it is naturally and instinctively ingrained in the very fiber of who we are as individuals. So why do we see this behavior as acceptable, but when we enter the den or home of a wolf, we condemn them for protecting their family at all costs: just like we would do? It is my belief, that the biases towards animals that are ingrained in us from infancy, are why we create a hierarchal structure of acceptance when it comes to animal behavior compared to human behavior. A 2015 article published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development helped to highlight the confirmation bias young children hold towards certain animals, merely off appearance. The author states: “The purpose of this study was to examine confirmation bias in children without explicitly inducing fear. Eighty non-clinical children (7–13 years) were shown pictures of a neutral animal (quokka) and two dangerous-looking animals (aye aye and possum). For each animal, levels of perceived fear, threat and request for additional threatening or non-threatening information were obtained. A behavioral approach test (BAT) was included as behavioral measure of fear. The results indicated that the aye aye and possum were rated as more threatening and fearful than the quokka. For the aye aye and possum higher fear levels coincided with search for more threatening than non-threatening information. This pattern was absent in non-fearful children and for the non-threatening quokka. During the BAT the quokka was more often approached first compared to the aye aye and possum. Our findings suggest that confirmation bias in children can be observed without using verbal fear induction. (Dibbets)”
As humans we create a bond with our children before they are even born and as they begin to form inside of us and by the time the gestation period is over, we have already developed our motherly instincts to protect, nurture, and love the new life we have brought into this world. Wolves, are extremely similar to us in their desire to protect, nurture, and love their pups, and throughout this paper we have taken a hard look at some of these behavioral similarities. Now it is up to us to remember when we are interacting with wolves that while they may be wild and our past knowledge may have dictated an aggressor with no self-control, new research is proving that we are more alike than we realize and just like humans from various parts of the world or who have various alternative methods of communication, we must take the time to understand and get on their level. We can learn allot when we just take the time to stop and come from a place of understanding instead of judgement and this even goes with our ideas and relationships with animals. It is up to us to choose what our future children will grow to learn about wolves and their wonderfully curious similarities to humans.
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