"Wild Wolves"

PBS Airdate: November 11, 1997
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ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOVA, a rare encounter with creatures of legend. They're wary, elusive. Now, NOVA journeys to the ends of the earth to expose secret lives of the pack: where they live, how they hunt, and under the cover of darkness, in places you never thought they'd go. Wild Wolves.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation. Dedicated to education and quality television.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and viewers like you.

NARRATOR: A hunter. A hunter so strong that it can pull down prey ten times its own weight. So intelligent and capable that primitive man followed it to scavenge from its kills. A hunter which, because of its very success, has now been banished by man to the most remote and barren of wildernesses. The howl of the wolf, the sound of the unknown. And yet, wolves are more familiar to us than we might think. Stone Age people took their pups and tamed them, and all our domesticated dogs are descended from them. Indeed, the very characteristics we most admire in our dogs—loyalty and intelligence and courage—are precisely the characters that the wolf has to have to survive in the wild. And yet, whereas the dog has become man's best friend, the wolf remains one of his most feared enemies. It is time we saw the wolf for what it really is. Northern Canada in winter is a bleak and unpromising land for any hunter. But the wolf is indefatigable. Its senses are so acute that it can interpret what is going on around it with a degree of subtlety that is beyond our imagining. It has a loose-limbed trot that is so effective and economical of energy that it can cover 50 miles in 24 hours, and do so for day after day after day. The raven is a scavenger, and wolves are not above joining it, for the winter brings many casualties—easy meat. Many wolves, for much of the time, operate as a pack. They have such an extraordinary degree of intuition that their understanding of one another's intentions often seems beyond normal explanation. Younger members learn from the older, more experienced ones so that the whole group operates as a unified and highly skilled team. For all of these reasons, human hunters everywhere have admired the wolf. Even today, the native people of the North call it "The Teacher," and honor its special powers with dances. In Europe, when people settled down to farm, the wolf's image changed from deity to devil and fertile imaginations wove frightening legends around it. As farmers cleared the forests, the wolves developed a taste for livestock. The innocent lamb and the savage wolf became powerful symbols which the Church used to demonstrate the existence of Satan. So, wolves were hunted without mercy. Eventually, they were driven out of most of Europe's forests, but an irrational fear of them has remained. It takes huge commitment and great dedication to study wolves. It also takes a lot of air miles. A single pack may have a vast range, hundreds of miles across. Biologist Mike Nelson is on a wolf patrol in the wilderness near the American Great Lakes. The leader of the project, Dr. David Mech, has been studying wolves here for 25 years. The team seldom catches sight of the animals. Instead, they follow a pack not by sight, but by sound. They trapped wolves from several packs and fitted them with collars that emit different radio signals. So now, by homing in on the signals, they've mapped the boundaries of each pack territory—boundaries that are rigorously marked and defended, and on a good day, they may actually catch a glimpse of the wolves themselves.

DR. DAVID MECH: There they are, Mike. There's several of them.

NARRATOR: Wolves are wary and elusive, so we may never know the whole truth about their lives. Fragments of evidence must be pieced together. Wolves can respond intelligently to changing conditions, which keeps wolf biologists guessing. Mech and Nelson can only begin to understand how wolf packs operate by examining when and what they eat. And this is work that has to be done on foot. The wolves may have scattered for now, but they left lots of clues around their deer kill, which Mech and Nelson must interpret, much as detectives would at the scene of a crime.

NELSON: Oh, a couple of legs still left here, laid down.

DR. DAVID MECH: Well, they've left some.


DR. DAVID MECH: But if we hadn't interrupted them, I think they'd have finished this off pretty fast.

NELSON: Well, it was only two hours ago when we watched them feeding here.

DR. DAVID MECH: Yeah. Oh, they'll be back.

NELSON: Yeah. Well, they even left us a marrow sample.

DR. DAVID MECH: Yeah, I'm really surprised it's not more gelatinous. It's fatty.

NELSON: Yes. I would expect it to be more depleted.

DR. DAVID MECH: Yeah, I sure would have, too. We'll take it, take some back and dry it, anyway.

NELSON: Right.

NARRATOR: The quality and amount of bone marrow will tell them about the deer's health before it died. Teeth samples will establish its age, and scuffle marks in the snow will indicate how many wolves were involved in the chase and in the final kill. Mech and Nelson will deduce why that particular white-tailed deer became vulnerable. In these Minnesota forests, Mech and Nelson have established that it is old, young, or sick deer that are most likely to be killed by wolves. A fit deer, with all its senses tuned to danger, can usually spot a wolf in time, and escape. The numbers and size of prey animals in any area affect the size of wolf packs. In Northern Minnesota, there are many white-tailed deer and moose, so some packs can be 15-strong. The pack is dominated by an adult pair who are often together for life. Offspring from the previous three years make up the rest of the group. These pups look fully grown, but they're still learning from their parents. Their schooling is long, and their family life intense. Wolf packs are no more than highly organized and mobile nurseries. And it is this extraordinary mobility which makes them so difficult to observe at close range. To get close to a wolf on the ground, you have to be able to think like a wolf, and observe and interpret the same signs that they use in making their decisions. These wolves in Northern Canada are exceptional. They follow and attempt to kill the formidable and massive of all prey animals—buffalo. These buffalo belong to the last of the great herds that once covered the North American grasslands. Wolf packs have shadowed them for thousands of years. Although the wolves here are the largest in the world—Some weigh over 125 pounds—an adult buffalo may weigh over a ton. So, bringing one down is both difficult and dangerous. Snow can sometimes give wolves an advantage. Their splayed paws act like snowshoes, so that they can move over the top of crusted snow in places where other animals would sink into the drifts. To make up for their relatively small size, these wolves rely heavily on teamwork. They move among the buffalo, sizing up the herd, looking for an animal that might be vulnerable, and therefore easier to bring down. The buffaloes stand their ground. If the pack can persuade the herd to move, then the older and weaker animals will become more obvious. The wolves are choosing their moment very carefully, because in each buffalo hunt, they are risking their lives. The wolves' first attack is a test. It will help them to decide whether to back off or whether to build up the pressure. They've selected a possible victim. If they can isolate it from the herd, they will be able to deny it security and food. Day after day, they keep up the pressure. The stress on the buffalo becomes both physical and psychological, draining it of energy and determination. It's a long process. But the wolves are patient. If the wolves are successful, they will have enough meat to last the whole pack for a week. If the buffalo manages to regain the safety of the herd, then the wolves will have to start all over again. Here in the high arctic, members of the pack keep in touch with one another over vast distances. Prey may be widely scattered. Herds of musk ox, for instance, may be tens of miles apart. Arctic wolves have to cover a lot of ground. Often, they are forced to live on smaller prey, such as arctic hare. But hares are alert and quick, and although there are many of them, they are very difficult to catch. They're not much more than a snack for a wolf, and when you're on such short rations, you have no energy to spare. Even if jaegers harass you because you have inadvertently gotten close to their nest, it's not worth the energy to respond. Calories may be short, but relationships are strong. This is the seventh spring that this wolf couple have been together. Ellesmere Island, where these wolves live, is in almost perpetual darkness during the five months of winter. When summer arrives, the thick fur, which helped the wolf survive the bitter cold, becomes an irritation. It's a pleasure to get rid of it. This far north, the summer is very short, so the arrival of young has to be precisely timed. Arctic hares have already produced their babies, and the leverets are busy cropping the new plant shoots. But if the wolves themselves are to breed successfully, their hunting efforts must go up a gear. Wolves have an eloquent body language. The female uses it to persuade the male to go out to find food. There is no stalking cover for the male wolf, and adult hares can easily sprint and bounce out of danger. The leverets tend to lie low. The young hare has speed—but the wolf has stamina. The female wants her share. This tug of war reflects an internal struggle, the battle between a wolf's individual needs and its team spirit. The female wins the hare without too much trouble—which suggests that there's more at stake than this meal. The pair may already have pups hidden away in their den. By keeping her partner hungry, the female forces him to continue his search for food. Further south, the buffalo are also shedding their winter coats and minding their spring calves. The new calves are easier targets for the wolves, but they must still be cautious. Nothing about catching buffalo is easy. The calves may look vulnerable, but they have fiercely protective parents. Again, the wolves get the herd on the run. Instinctively, the calves move to the middle, where they are shielded by the sheer bulk and ferocity of the adults. Buffalo calves can run as fast as their parents, but if the wolves keep the herd moving, the calves will become exhausted. And if one should stumble, it will be left exposed. The wolves have got one. This calf seems doomed. An adult returns to the rescue. The mother, helped by several other adults, tries to shepherd the calf back to the safety of the herd. The calf makes it, but the injuries and shock it has sustained have weakened it. So, the wolves will keep the herd running for many miles yet. Their hunger makes them determined and tenacious. Successful buffalo hunts are rare. It's very difficult for wolves to bring down a fit adult. The best opportunity comes when an animal is weak or already wounded. And this one is. The buffalo makes a break for safety, but its strength is already ebbing away. The wolves' only weapons are their sharp teeth. Killing quickly is not a choice open to them. There has always been a natural and subtle relationship between wolves and buffalo. Human hunters on the plains used to put on wolf skins in order to creep close to the herds. But it wasn't easy even for them to catch one. Horse-power shifted the balance. Native people could now round up the buffalo and kill them in larger numbers. But once the hunters had guns, the buffalo had little chance. European colonizers cleared the land for their cattle and grain—first of buffalo, and then of wolves. Wolves were shot, trapped, and poisoned with fanatical zeal. By the early 1930s, wolves had been exterminated from most of the United States. As in Europe, the wolf became a fugitive, surviving only in places well away from persecution—Places such as this, a remote island off the west coast of Canada, where clear creeks each year fill with salmon. It's a wilderness largely untouched by man. Wolves are extremely adaptable, and here, during the salmon season, they go fishing. As we have learned more about the wolves' way of life, we have come to accept that, like all predators, they are important elements in maintaining the natural balance of the wilderness. Almost from birth, wolf puppies display individual personalities and aptitudes. At three months, they are still too inexperienced to kill large animals, so they are nurtured in a safe place while the older wolves go out hunting. Grovelling and urgent licking by the pups encourages the returning adult to regurgitate the contents of its expandable stomach. Farther south in the United States, some people, increasingly appreciative of wild places, have campaigned for the protection of wolves and a better understanding of their nature. Many people want to re-introduce them into protected land, which is now overrun by deer and elk. The Nez Perce Indians of the Rocky Mountains offered their own tribal lands for the release of 35 wild-trapped wolves.

HORACE: When the first wolves came back for release, I was there to greet them. And it was good to give them a blessing. I had the opportunity to look inside the cage and greet the wolf. I looked into his eyes and he looked at me. And I spoke to him in my own language. I told him, "I'm glad to see you back, my brother. You have been gone a long time, and it's good to see you back here again." That's the words that I offered to him. And after that, I never see him anymore, and I'm hoping that someday, we will meet again.

NARRATOR: In other places, the wolf is not so welcome. Wolves pay no regard to human feelings or boundaries. They travel to where there is food. They may follow other wolf scent for hundreds of miles, or just strike out independently on their own. In the late 1980s, a grey male wolf trotted 250 miles from the Canadian border right into the Nine Mile Valley, the heart of Montana ranching country. Hatred of wolves has a long tradition here.

RALPH THISTED: I caught sight of this big coyote, or what I thought was a coyote, and after getting the rifle and sighting down the telescopic sights to get a better look, I realized it was not a coyote.

NARRATOR: The grey wolf had chosen his ranch well. Ralph Thisted was intrigued by the view down his gunsights, and hoped to see more. Soon after, Federal biologist Mike Jiminez arrived on the track of another wolf. This was a female with a radio collar that had been caught near Canada some months before. She had followed the male's scent right onto the Thisted ranch. When her signal became static, Jiminez suspected that they had made a den. Word leaked out. The return of the wolf was a tabloid editor's dream. Opinion quickly polarized. But wolves have legal protection now. Killing them no longer brings a bounty, but a possible hundred-thousand-dollar fine. Ranching country is hard to police. Within weeks, the female wolf's radio collar was recovered. It had been cut off and dumped. Neither her body—nor the culprit—was ever found. Soon afterwards, her mate, the grey male, was found dead by the highway. Ralph Thisted began videoing the orphaned pups. Road-killed deer were put out for the pups to eat. But without their parents, he feared for their long-term survival. Some did make it, and there is now a healthy wolf population in the valley, and their presence is more widely accepted. Elsewhere, wolves are not waiting for an invitation. Wherever wild prey is dense, they are crossing the Canadian border, trickling back into their former territory. If wolves have enough room to maneuver, they tend to avoid cattle. But if there is a shortage of prey, it's hardly surprising that a wolf will try to take the meat that men are rearing for themselves. Nowhere is this problem greater than in India. It is early July in the state of Maharashtra, and the monsoon is breaking. It is about as hot and humid as a wolf can stand. India is as far south as wolves go. Indian wolves are uncommon, but they are most visible in the rainy season, when they are hunting for their pups as well as for themselves. Wild blackbuck concentrate in large numbers wherever there is new growth, even if it is in the heart of a wolf pack's territory. As in wolf hunts everywhere, the first stage is to identify frailty. Blackbuck are not only fast, they are also extremely agile. Each, as it leaps, is demonstrating its fitness and strength. Maybe their pursuer will choose a weaker neighbor, or get too confused to select a single target. But when the monsoon dries up in September, the blackbuck disperse. The wolves must look elsewhere for food. These fast-growing pups still need feeding. The parents' only choice is to take the villagers' livestock. Local people also have families to support, and they do all they can to protect their herd, using their dogs—domesticated wolves—to help them do so. It's hard for anyone to make a living here. There are few places left for the Indian wolf. In some parts of Europe, wolves have found a way of living close to man. In rural Romania, the pace of change has been relatively slow. The mountain meadows of Transylvania are grazed in much the same way as they have been for centuries. Every evening, shepherds pen their flocks to protect them against wild animals. Just above them, on the upper slopes, is one of the wildest and most extensive tracts of forest left in Europe. Wolves, bears, and lynx live here in substantial numbers. But when shepherds lose occasional lambs, it's the wolf that is usually blamed. To establish the truth of the matter, scientists trapped and radio collared a wild female wolf. Using remote cameras, they were able to monitor the growth of her nine puppies. By June, most of the youngsters were on to solids—regurgitated deer meat, for instance—which she brought back from her hunting trips. A couple of the youngsters still have a taste for her milk. There are good numbers of red deer in her hunting territory, but providing food for ten is a demanding business. However, her patch of forest slopes down to the suburbs and industrial areas of the town of Brasov. Brasov is modernizing fast, but this is Transylvania, and werewolf myths persist to this day. So, the first report of a wolf by the main line to Bucharest were treated as tales told by the gullible. Romanian bed-time stories are as full of evil wolves as elsewhere in Europe. The scientists were skeptical, but when they began tracking the wolf at night, they discovered that they had missed half the story. A starlight-sensitive camera revealed that not only was it a wolf here, but it was behaving in a most surprising fashion. When the night express to Bucharest had passed through, the female wolf carefully crossed the line. Although temporarily limping, probably because of a thorn in her foot, the female was confidently making her way into town. She was clearly streetwise and seemed to be certain of where she was going. By midnight, she had crossed the main drainage canal, and had been joined by a yearling from her pack. They were now on the other side of town, well away from their forest home. When the female headed across waste ground towards the oil refinery, the researchers were struggling to keep up. But the team's leader, Dr. Christopher Promberger, had guessed where the wolf was heading—for the summer sheep meadows beyond. The sheep are well-guarded. This must be one of the few places in Europe where shepherds still watch their flocks by night. Their dogs display all the possessiveness of their wolf ancestors. Outnumbered, the female wolf turned back into town. It is now known that she always checks the flocks first for a chance stray, but she finds easier meals in and around the Brasov rubbish bins. Wolves here are simply adapting to a new environment, just as urban foxes have done in English towns. She looks very like another feral dog, and so far, she has evaded unwanted publicity. But it is unlikely that the Brasov residents will remain in the dark for much longer. They will have to decide whether or not to tolerate a wolf in their midst. To survive in the modern world, wolves need our acceptance, as well as physical space. Even in the wildest places, wolves face difficulties. On the barren ground of Ellesmere Island, even suitable places for dens are rare, and the wolves have great problems to solve if they are to raise a family. This pair have two pups. At five weeks old, they are adventurous, but they are far from independent. The female and her mate will have to provide them with food for months yet. Wolf puppyhood is long because there is so much to learn. Vigorous play is an important part of learning new skills, but also helps to strengthen to pups' developing bodies. They will try to suckle as often as possible, but their mother is not always keen to oblige. It is likely that she hasn't had much to eat herself lately, and is simply short of milk. The mother wolf and her pups are showing obvious signs of hunger. To maintain a healthy development, the pups will have to increase their weight by two to three pounds every week. But that will require a regular supply of nourishment. These puppies may be small, but to feed them properly, their parents will need a hunting territory of over a thousand square miles. The male is kept hard at work. The female still does the begging, but gradually, the pups will learn this ritual for themselves. The male seems reluctant to deliver the meal. No doubt he is hungry too, but the female cannot accompany him and help on long hunts until the pups are a bit older. The pups wolf down their food, simply because they can never be sure of their next mouthful. As the days lengthen, so do the leverets' chances of survival. They are faster now, and smarter. Wolves rarely live beyond nine years in the wild. The male wolf may already be thirteen. So, although he's exceptional, he's well past his prime. On days when he is unsuccessful, the female collects food from her store—leverets that were killed and buried earlier in the year, when they were easier to catch. But if his family is to survive, the male cannot give up the hunt. Wolves are the experts at chasing and collecting moving objects, and this exercise is far more critical than retrieving a ball. Today is a good day. The male has brought back two hares and readily gives up one to the female. But her urge to feed her pups is overwhelming. It's a hard life, but if the male's bloodline is to survive, then pups' future comes first. In seven seasons, this wolf couple have raised only three offspring to maturity, and the prospects for the current family are by no means certain. Already, one pup is quicker to take advantage of the incoming meal. It's a critical advantage, for it will give the most vigorous pup a head start when the long arctic winter begins to close in. The den provides some shelter, but the weather is not the problem. There may just not be enough food to go around. If the pups survive until the spring, the parents will have done unusually well. Wolves have had to be tenacious. Not only do they endure some of the harshest conditions on earth, but they also have survived bitter hostility from humanity. Their methods, especially when hunting, may shock us deeply. But they aren't given meat out of tins and packets, as our dogs are. A wolf can only be a wolf. They remain wary and unknowable. But steadily, they are winning back our respect. Even the howl of the wolf, that once struck terror into our hearts, is now regarded by many as one of the most thrilling sounds of the natural world. In August these days, hundreds of Canadians make a pilgrimage into the wilderness to make contact with wolves. A road, cutting through the remote forests of spruce and fir, provides a good place to stand and listen for this wild music. These listeners have no chance of actually seeing a wolf. But National Park rangers know how to communicate with the legendary outlaw who, for centuries, we have tried to destroy.

What's in a wolf's howl? A calling card. A warning. An invitation. Hear the call of the wild at

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Wild Wolves

Produced by
Mike Salisbury

Written by
Susan Western

David Attenborough

Cinematography and Direction
Ian McCarthy
Jeff Turner

Martin Elsbury

Ian Butcher
Steven Faux

Assistant Producer
Michelle Thompson

Sound Recording
Trevor Gosling

Additional Cinematography
Justine Evans

Field Assistants
Tom Clarke
Anton Pauw

Production Coordinators
Anne Holmes
Philippa Lawson

Sound Editor
Angela Groves

Sound Mix
Graham Wild

Rebecca Harris

Scientific Consultants
Ludwig Carbyn
L. David Mech

Executive Producer, David Attenborough Specials
Keith Scholey

Special Thanks
Algonquin Provincial Park Authority
Atmospheric Environment Services - Canada
Bob Danielson
Bruce Weide and Patricia Tucker
Jenny Ryon, Canadian Centre for Wolf Research
Koochiching County Historical Society
Christoph Promberger, Ovidiu Ionescu, Carpathian Wolf Project
Marcus Zeugin
Mike Jimenez
National Museum of American Art
Nine Mile Valley Community
The Nez Perce Tribe
Polar Continental Shelf Project - Canada
The Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource N.Y.
Ralph Thisted
Satish Kumar
Societe Radio-Canada
Superior National Forest
U.S. Department of the Interior
Wood Buffalo National Park

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
Linda Callahan

Paul Marotta
Lisa Cerqueira

Nancy Marshall

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Editors
Mark Steele
Jim Deering

Post Production Director
Alison M. White

Unit Managers
Laurie Cahalane
Amy Trahant

Business Manager
Carolyn Birmingham

Science Editor
Lauren S. Aguirre

Senior Producer
Coproductions and Acquisitions
Melanie Wallace

Series Producer
Beth Hoppe

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer, NOVA
Paula S. Apsell

A BBC Production in association with WGBH/Boston

© 1997 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved


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