When Alpha Just Is
What if a central part of what you thought you knew about wolf behavior was wrong?
A brilliant article on wolves inspires me this day. We tend to think of “alpha males” as constantly establishing their dominance by demonstrations of might, putting other males on their backs, snarling menacingly at others with bared teeth.
It turns out that’s far from reality, according to biologist Rick McIntyre. And the reality of alpha male wolves is nothing short of a beacon of hope for our species, males in particular. It turns out the chief male wolf is kind, caring, playful, and quietly in charge, respected without having to grandstand or growl very often within his pack.
The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf,” the veteran wolf researcher Rick McIntyre told me as we were watching gray wolves, “is a quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance. You know what you need to do; you know what’s best for your pack. You lead by example. You’re very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect.”
That wolf leader saves the theatrics for outsiders who challenge his pack’s integrity.
Perhaps mankind needs to learn from this reality, and drop the fierce competitive, aggressive ideas of leadership. Might make the world a safer place to live.
When the Basic Assumption is Wrong
As is always possible, the original model studied had weak underpinnings. The alpha dominance theory came from behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, studying captive wolves. In a zoo in Switzerland. His publication in 1947 included the following,
By incessant control and repression of all types of competition (within the same sex), both of these “α animals” defend their social position.” (Referring to alpha male and female wolves.)
You may well imagine that any animal, but especially free ranging, pack living predators, would live differently in captivity, no matter the size of their confined area. In fact, that’d be my first guess about confined animal behavior.
Ever see a lion in an old fashioned zoo? We had one in my city, and even as a young boy, it was just unnerving to see the “king of beasts” pacing back and forth monotonously, helplessly, restlessly, for as long as nothing else was going on, like feeding.
Having devoured Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom shows on Sunday evening TV, it was blatant that something was wrong with the poor guy in the cage. What else would account for his aberrant behavior? His confinement was the most obvious stressor of his existence.
And so it was for Schenkel. Observing wolf behavior in a haphazard collection of unrelated animals who now had to make the best of confinement would be a far cry from observing family units in the wild.
So, the alpha wolf grandstanding and violent?
Not so much.
Righting a Wrong Path
A second brilliant researcher of wolves, L. David Mech, studying the wild guys in the 60’s in Northern Michigan, unfortunately bought Schenkel’s idea, and it colored his 1970 book, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of Endangered Species , which pretty much coined the term “alpha wolf.”
Competition and dominance formed the basis of wolf hierarchy, in this early tome.
Luckily, along with others, by applying greater observation and logic, a new reality emerged as Mech studied wolves through many sequential years. He habituated wolves to his presence on an island in the extreme northern reaches of Canada and cataloged their interactions over 13 summers.
What emerged was a simple understanding:
Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.
Thus, calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so “alpha” adds no information.” – “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs” published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.
A Dog With That Magical Something
I had a patient who showed amazing alpha qualities some years back. Nick was an Akita Huskie mix, and so, had the wolf appearance. But there was not an aggressive bone in his body.
What Nick did have in spades was presence.
Judy would tell me of Nick’s dog park adventures, where other dogs would show heightened tension among them, as a vicious fight was about to erupt. Nick had the uncanny habit of inserting himself into the middle of the fray and just, well, being there, in all his confident glory.
The situation would diffuse. Everyone chilled out and dropped their aggressive stances.
Imagine, never hackles raised, never a curled lip of threat, just a calm, cool, “I’m here now, it’s alright” presence. The other dogs, even if they’d never met Nick, would just dissolve back into happy social beings when he showed up.
Hope for Mankind?
Interestingly, McIntyre and others observed that it was the alpha female, the oldest breeding wolf bitch, who called most of the shots for her pack: where to move to, when to go, when to rest, when to hunt.
Gives legs to our popular saying, “Behind every great man is a great woman.”
Biologists see there are really two hierarchies present in wolf packs, one for males and the other for females.
And interestingly, the males share pup raising responsibilities and procuring food for the family, and are devoted parents and protectors who respect the females.
We’d do well to redefine our definition of alpha male humans with a deeper understanding of how wolf packs live in the wild.
Less fighting, more calm, confident assertion of rightful status.
I like it.
Have you known any remarkable natural leaders? Species doesn’t matter. Tell us about them in the comments.