Mexican Gray Wolves

Cognitive Implications for Reintroduction

A Case for Individual Consideration

The individuals who dedicate their lives to these wolves do this for many different reasons.  Most feel very strongly that humans have severely mistreated the Mexican wolf.  They go to work every day trudging through the backcountry or attending meetings full of hostile cattlemen in order to give a few wolves the chance to fend for themselves.  Though there is often little hope of success, the scientists and volunteers continue to repeat their mantra: “The absence of wolves is clearly a biological wrong – a fragmentation, an injury – but it encourages [us] that we still have somewhat in us the urge to mend that wrong” (Bass 1997, pg. 31).  Yet, in the midst of our efforts, we seem to forget the vital reason behind the work.  The captive breeding and reintroduction program for the Mexican gray wolf is directed toward the species as a whole, not toward individual wolves.  In the day to day struggles of wolf politics, we have forgotten to weigh in the costs and benefits of the programs on each individual wolf.  At what price does the wolves’ freedom come?

In philosophy, the idea of an ‘individual’ typically revolves around the possession of a mental life (Cummings and Owen 1999, pg. 8).  For centuries, humans have assumed that they are alone in the true sense of the word – that we are the only beings capable of cognition.  This belief originated in our previous lack of knowledge in the field of biology and cognitive studies.  This lack of knowledge was perceived not as a human fault, but rather as a simple lack of ability on the part of the other animals populating the earth.

Over time, it has become more difficult for humans to justify their usually cruel treatment of other animals for their own means.  In today’s society, culture and biology have evolved to a point that is forcing us to reevaluate our perceptions of other animals.  The wolf is an interesting case study in human perceptions.  Ignoring the obvious paradigm of the wolf as vicious killer or mystical healer, humans have long argued that wolves are unconscious automatons with the rest of the animal kingdom.  There have been very few papers published discussing the mental capacities of wolves, however, the basic vocabulary we associate with them invokes a sense of intelligence: sly, vengeful, sneaking.  The stories of renegade wolves revolve around the cunning outlaw wolf outwitting the hunter, defying every attempt at capture, planning far in advance and improvising novel solutions to problems (Hampton 1997, pg. 12).  Even in the scientific literature that theoretically avoids anthropomorphism, terms such as “love,” “annoyance,” “selfishness,” and “friendliness” repeatedly arise.  If it can be shown that wolves do indeed posses some kind of cognition, or mental life, then their individual wellbeing must be taken into consideration.

Associative Learning

One aspect of having a mental life is the ability to learn the associations between separate objects within the environment.  The wolf shows this ability in three senses: the association between an external object and its effect on the wolf, the association between two external objects, and the benefits of association between multiple behaviors.

During the peak of the European immigrants’ slaughter of the American bison, the plains wolves learned to associate the sound of a gunshot with fresh bison meat.  So, many wolves would run in the direction of a gunshot and wait until the hunters left to feast on the discarded carcasses.  However, once the extirpation of the wolves began, those same wolves learned to avoid the sound of a gun because of its association with danger.  As the persecution continued and technology progressed to include aerial gunning, the previously bold wolves of the Alaskan wilderness learned to avoid the sound of a plane.  During the same time period, the wolves being studied on Isle Royale and elsewhere in the lower 48 learned to ignore the sound of a research plane because it had never caused them harm (Mech 1970, pg. 8).

The second type of learning that wolves have expressed is that of the association of a particular howl’s pitch and tone with an individual wolf:

“Individual wolves in a pack often have a very characteristic howl of their own [and] to a wolf the howling of another wolf is a powerful stimulus to follow suit.  Consequently, an initial howl by one animal will often quickly lead to a chorus by the whole pack.  But this does not invariably happen.  The initial howl of an animal of low rank, for instance, is a less effective trigger than that of a superior animal.  Thus wolves are obviously able not only to distinguish individuals howling but also connect it with a definite animal” (Zimen 1981, pg. 71).

Thus, in order to function within a pack and interact with members with any kind of reliability, a wolf must learn the individual howls and variation in voice of each pack member.

The final type of associative learning wolves exhibit is a sequence of new behaviors.  The successive pattern of whining, wagging the tail briefly, turning to lick and then growl, elevating the ears and tail, and finally baring the teeth is very typical of a wolf defending its prey from a conspecific (Fox 1972, pg. 48).  In this case, the behavior pattern is learned through trail and error and can be construed as having a rudimentary, meaningful syntax (Fox 1972, pg. 49).  Another example of wolves learning a novel sequence of behaviors was recently demonstrated in the hills of Yellowstone National Park (YNP).  The wolves that were reintroduced to YNP in 1995 and 1996 originated in British Columbia, Canada.  Their population had been isolated from bison for over a century.  Consequently, the relocated wolves did not know how to hunt and kill the bison in YNP.  For the first five years, most of the wolves ignored the bison and none were successful in taking one down.  However, in the last year, two of the packs finally learned the specific sequence of behaviors – much different from those required to hunt a deer or elk – needed to catch a bison.

Cognitive Mapping

The role of cognitive maps in a wolf’s life has been most deeply explored by Roger Peters.  Through years of observation, he examined the development of a pack’s use of territory over time.  Peters discovered that through long periods of boundary maintenance and searching for prey, wolves slowly exploit more numerous routes.  Right after acquisition of land, wolves will habitually travel on the same paths between significant ‘nodes’ of activity.  It is only after determining specific paths between nodes that wolves being to take shortcuts (McNamee 1997, pg. 188).  In order for a wolf to walk away from an established route and make a shortcut from node A to node C, that wolf requires a mental map and an understanding if basic geometry.

A cognitive map is an “intelligence advantageous to any predator who ranges repeatedly over large areas in pursuit of prey” (Hampton 1997, pg. 24) as was once demonstrated by the wolf named Rami from Mission:Wolf.  During one of her walks through the forest on a leash with Kent, Rami spotted two mule deer in the distance.  She froze and watched them take off running perpendicular to her original path.  Rami then turned at an irregular angle to her path and ran along the bisect.  When she reached the path of the deer, Rami was a mere four feet behind them.  The implications of this are quite astounding: Rami had object permanence of the deer when they were out of sight and was able to mentally ‘calculate’ the speed of the deer, the angle at which she needed to turn and her own speed, much faster than Kent.  This would not have been possible without a mental representation or cognitive map of the area.


It is widely accepted that wolves have individual personalities (Mech 1970, pg. 297).  Those who have spent substantial time with a group of wolves explain that some are authoritarian leaders while others are aloof alphas that are not concerned with the every action of their pack.  Mission:Wolf is home to a litter of 5 wolf pups with very different personalities: Guinness is a bold and jealous hot-head looking for trouble where ever he can find it; Porini is rather reserved and fades into the background of his pack; Kestral is extremely skittish, sensitive and high strung; Mowgli is generally shy and unpredictable but very protective of his property; and Nedd is loyal, sweet and steady once you gain his trust.

This is quite possibly the most powerful argument for individual consideration.  Personality is relatively simple to witness once developed and it provides a valuable link through which humans can identify with wolves.  If the Mexican wolf project assigned names and published personality files or life histories of each of its wolves, it would be held much more accountable for the individual wolves’ mental states by the public than it is now.

Indications of Cognition

The above examples, and many more that may come to light through creative research, give the indication that wolves have a mental life and are capable of cognition.  If the evidence appears merely anecdotal, give it time.  The type of data required to “scientifically prove” that animals in general, much less one specific species, are cognitive takes years of observation.  In the mean time, we should act as if wolves have mental lives because not to would be more egregious if they are shown to be cognitive, than to give them more consideration than needed of they are shown to be automatons.  In the words of Marc Bekoff: “…when we are unsure about an individual’s ability to reason or to think, then we should assume that he or she can do so, in his or her ways… We should err on the side of the animals” (Bekoff 1993, pg. 641)

Implications for the Mexican Wolf

If we do assume that the concerns of individual wolves are important, the policies and practices of the Mexican wolf captive breeding and reintroduction programs should be examined.  Nearly all of the published information on the wolves themselves is dedicated to their genetic fitness and viability (Seidman 1996, pg. 61).

One constant worry that is expressed is whether captive reared wolves can successfully adapt to the wild (USFWS 1993).  This question has been largely answered with respect to the species.  The 1987 reintroduction of Red Wolves (Canis rufus) to Alligator River National Park was a complete success despite the initial problems and the feared influence of captivity on the wolves (DeBlieu 1993, pg. 86).  Now, there are second and third generation wild Red wolves living in North Carolina.  The addition to this precedence, the Mexican wolf recovery effort is now three years old and the wild wolves are largely self-reliant.  However, the health risks to each individual wolf released are compounded by potential starvation, possible illegal shooting and the lure of easy prey – livestock.  While the mortality rate of released wolves has dropped over the past three years, there have been reports of at least two wolves being shot and another three disappearing this year alone (USFWS 2001).

Another potential risk to the individual released wolves is recapture.  Many of the wild wolves have been caught in leg hold traps and by aerial darting since the beginning of the program, in efforts to relocate them.  While the traps are generally set to a light spring and are sometimes padded, so as not to injure the wolf, the stress of the situation can be significant.  Aerial darting usually results in a chase and occasional misplacements of the dart cause medical complications.

On the whole, though, I believe that the benefits of freedom outweigh the costs for both the subspecies and the individual wolves.  Yes, the released wolves do face danger, however they have been given freedom.  By living in the wild, a wolf is able to make many choices for itself and enjoy its free will much more than in a cage.  The chance to regulate its own pack composition, diet and routine are worth the risks to the wolf’s health.  In most cases, the Mexican wolves are successfully providing for themselves and learning how to be wild again.  If for no other reason, the released wolves are more mentally stimulated and challenged and have the opportunity to exercise their associative learning and cognitive maps.

The remaining concern for the wolves in the program is over the individuals who will always remain in captivity.  The breeding stock is placed in natural environment enclosures, however they are typically 0.33 acres in size (USFWS 1993).  The most troubling consequence is the need for the breeding wolves to remain unsocialized.  In order to raise pups that are skittish of humans, the parent wolves need to be afraid of their caretakers.  While this will pay off for the released wolves, the ones that remain in captivity will have to live with human intervention for the rest of their lives. Francisco, a breeding stock wolf, is 14 years old, lost his devoted mate in the spring of 2001 and cannot abide the sight of a human near his enclosure (USFWS 2001).  Now, Francisco will have to live out his days behind a chain-link fence alone.


I don’t presume to know how to solve this situation.  The most important first step we can take in all our interactions with non-human animals is to recognize that we have a responsibility to try to understand each individual’s point of view.  For Francisco, at least we have now realized that he needs something more for a fulfilling life.  Perhaps the best alternative is to place a couple of pups from another breeding pair with him.  This would give Francisco the companionship wolves require and would provide the program with a few more wolf pups on their way back to the wild.

We must now take our cue from Aldo Leopold and continue to change our perspective on the wolf.  In one afternoon, Leopold was taught the power and grace held within a Mexican wolf.  Let us now learn the same lesson with respect to wolf cognition and the ethics of our actions:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in the eyes.  I realized then and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and the mountain.  I was young then, and full of trigger itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise.  But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view. (Leopold as quoted in Brown 1983, pg. 116).


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