By Many Stories Wolf (aka Pam Brown)
The dog was obviously on the loose. I had stopped to look at him in the parking lot of the Bearsville Theater in northern Ulster County. I noticed his tattered collar as he paused to consider me after I whistled. He didn't have the fearful air of a lost dog, but was sure of himself in his freedom. He was not interested in being caught. I couldn't help but observe his mutt-breeding — some black lab in the head, tapering to a wasp-waisted body, coyote-like, with a bushy tail.
He made me think of a question often asked in the wolf education program I do for schools and groups: "Do we have wolves here in New York or the northeast?" The answer is that now we share the land with mostly coyotes, but we do have remnant wolves that wander here from Canada or could be either escaped or released pets. There are now no officially confirmed packs in New York Sate — packs are simply family groups. A few pure wolf individuals have been verified in the past decade. There are also coyote-wolf hybrids in the woods of upstate New York — some of which are mixed with domestic dogs.
While wolves prefer their own kind, wolves, coyotes, and dogs will mate in certain instances. Of course, dogs evolved from wolves originally. If dogs return to the wild, over a few generations they will revert to a wolf-like status, developing the characteristics of their close cousins — long legs and bigger feet to navigate wild terrain, bigger heads and jaws for hunting, and bushier tails for balance, among others.
The founder of Wolf Teacher (the grassroots program with which I am involved), the late John Harris, first learned about wolves in the 1960s when his wife brought home a wolf puppy she'd gotten from an exotic animal dealer. The two would sometimes chain the young wolf to a tree in the yard. One day their landlord came by and asked if their "dog" was eating his chickens. It seemed impossible that the wolf, named Rascal, could be the culprit. She was on a chain, and John and his wife hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. Still, they agreed to watch her just to be sure. One day, after dumping a scoop of dog chow into Rascal's dish, John went into the house and watched. He observed Rascal tip over her dish, and then, with her nose, scatter the bits of kibble as far as the circumference of her rope would allow. Then she lay down and appeared to doze. Soon, a couple of chickens came clucking by, pecking at the chow. Rascal then sprang to life, pounced on the chickens, and broke both of their necks. In no time, Rascal devoured her preferred meal of fresh meat, feathers and all. They are no doubt highly intelligent creatures.
Wolves were once common to all of what is now known as the lower 48 states. Westward expansion eliminated most eastern wolves by the late nineteenth century, as humans encroached on wolf habitat, killing them out of fear or to sell their fur. Wolves don't attack people; however, the fear of wolves has been, and still is, used to justify the slaughter. The smaller, more adaptable coyote then moved in to fill the void and is now, along with the fox, the most common canid in North America.
Wolves typically weigh, on the average, between 60 and140 pounds, and have an important place in the food chain, culling deer, elk, bison, and the like. Their close cousin, the coyote, on the other hand, usually weighs between 20 and 50 pounds, and is designed to feed primarily on rodents and other smaller mammals. The underlying cause of deer overpopulation can be traced directly to the absence of their main predator.
Though wolves no longer populate the area around the ridge, it is possible for wolves to make it this far south. They are highly intelligent and resilient creatures, and perhaps they will reintroduce themselves.
My thoughts then returned to the wild dog I spotted on that late summer day. I remember watching his graceful glide, as he nimbly disappeared back into the woods, the call of the wild remaining a powerful lure. I then thought of my own disdain for confinement, a personal trait that helps me to understand the wild creatures I love. Mr. Mutt was choosing to chase rabbits, not yellow tennis balls, on this fine summer's day.
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