Few animals touch our hearts and speak to our spirit like the wolf does. For centuries they have been symbols of guardianship, ritual, loyalty and spirit. Wolves have the ability to make quick and firm emotional attachments and to trust their own instincts. They teach us to do the same, to trust our hearts and minds and to have control over our own lives.
Perhaps our fascination with them stems from what their very being symbolizes to us. They are free creatures, living in the wild, unencumbered with life's dramas. They embrace life's freedoms that were meant for all of us.
Beyond their mystical side, wolves also have a dark side, a side to be feared. They are sometimes portrayed as creatures of nightmares, fanged beasts who lurk in dark forests. This is a bad rep that they have acquired; most of the time they only kill to survive. We credit this fear of the wolf to the Europeans who brought this fear with them.
At one time, wolves populated all of North America but, as they became the hunted, their populations dwindled. In 1600 the North American gray wolf population hovered around 2 million and today they number 65,000 and the world population stands at 150,000. Wolves were the first animals to be placed on the United States Endangered Species list in 1973. The last wolf in Yellowstone Park was killed in 1926 and in 1995 wolves were reintroduced. After ten years, 136 wolves roamed the park in 13 wolf packs.
Photo by Getty Images/KenCanning
Whether they are mystical creatures or not, both red and gray wolves have distinctive characteristics that set them apart from any other animal. Some of these stats give them an almost "human" side:
1) Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of wolves is their howl which can be both eerie and intriguing. Wolves howl in packs to contact a separated member of the group, to rally a group before hunting or to warn rival packs to keep away. Lone wolves howl to attract mates or because they are alone. They will respond to humans imitating their calls. The International Wolf Center in Minnesota periodically sponsors "howl nights," when people go into the wilderness and howl, hoping for answering calls.
2) They have been attributed to be human-like because they communicate within the packs by using a variety of facial expressions.
3) Wolves are carnivores and are celebrated to be some of the greatest hunters in the animal kingdom. A hungry wolf can eat 20 pounds of meat in a single meal. This is like a human eating 100 hamburgers in one sitting. They are also able to go 12 days without eating. They have immense power in their jaws which possess a crushing power of 1500 pounds per square inch, compared with 75 pounds per square inch for a dog. They are equipped with 42 teeth that are specialized for stabbing and shearing flesh and crushing bones.
4) They have about 200 million scent cells which enable them to smell other animals more than a mile away. Humans have 5 million, by comparison.
5) Wolves also possess a keen sense of hearing which lets them detect sound six miles away in the forest and 10 miles away on the open tundra.
6) Wolves run on their toes to help preserve their paw pads and this ability also helps them to stop and turn quickly. They run at 20 mph on an average but can get up to speeds of 40 mph for a couple minutes at a time when in pursuit. Equipped with webbing between their toes, they can swim 8 miles at a time when needed.
7) There is a light reflecting layer in wolves' eyes called tapetum lucidum, which causes a wolf's eyes to glow in the dark, thereby adding to the mystique of the species. This may help them with night vision in tracking prey. Their eyes are extremely sensitive to movement.
8) All female wolves can bear pups but only a few in each pack do. By doing this, they produce only the strongest pups, which limits how many the pack has to care for. Males and females mate for life and are both devoted parents. They maintain sophisticated family ties, so much so that females in the pack that do not bear offspring will babysit and care for wolf pups in the pack that are not their own.
9) Wolf pups are born blind and deaf. All wolf pups' eyes are blue at birth but turn yellow by the time they are eight months old.
10) Wolves spend one-third of their lives roaming and they shed their winter coats in sheets.
11) Most times, where there are wolves there are also ravens, sometimes referred to as "wolf-birds." They follow the packs to not only tease them, but also to help themselves to the leftovers of the kills.
12) Many North American Indian tribes consider wolves, like bears, closely related to humans. The Aztecs used wolf liver as an ingredient to treat melancholy and they also believed that piercing a person's breast with a wolf bone would delay death. Cherokees would not hunt wolves because they believed that a slain wolf's brother would exchange revenge.
Many think that wolves hold a mystical power that is both ancient and wise. They are symbols of our own desires to be free, wild and untamed. These attributes speak directly to our souls. Farley Mowat perhaps put it into words the best, "We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be — the mythological epitome of a savage, ruthless killer — which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself."
Thus, we get wolf power and wolf symbolism. Wolf power teaches us to find resources which we need to use wisely to keep moving forward and to keep evolving. Wolf symbolism teaches us to assess each situation and to adapt as needed — always ready, always prepared.
But the greatest lesson that we get from the wolf is the wolf spirit. This spirit enables us to be intuitive to our surroundings, to sense movements and to anticipate every move of ones we are stalking or ones who are stalking us. We can learn these attributes by bonding with the soul of the wolf. Wolf spirit, the spirit to be free, unencumbered and untamed, lives in all our souls to some degree.