I was watching a documentary on wild mountain gray wolves on Animal Planet a few days ago. I managed to learn a couple of things about these wolves:
1) They are communal animals that live in packs,
2) There is a leader in every pack, usually an alpha male who asserts its dominance over the rest of its pack. This is an important trait to ensure the survival and harmony of the pack, particularly during times when food is scarce,
3) There are strict code of conducts which are practiced and understood by each member of the pack,
4) They play together to create and enhance bonding,
5) The whole pack shares the responsibility of looking after their pups,
6) They do not attack human beings for food, but if it does it is often out of self-defence.
It was interesting for me to watch the behaviour of the wolves. The alpha male, once being recognised as the leader of the pack, would ensure that every other member of the pack stays in their own submissive roles. It dictates who can share the fruits of a hunt, who can participate during playtime and who can join the pack.
From time to time, the alpha male will remind the rest who is the boss. It displays dominance by staying on top of the other, snarling impressively by showing its big and sharp fangs, hair rising on its back and positioning its jaws on the neck of the other. The latter will lie on its back, surrendering in total submission. Once, the position of power is established, the alpha male will back off and the other one will stay away. It doesn’t really bite, unless being challenged. A wolf’s bite is lethal because it has incredible jaw strength unmatched by other animals, able to bite into the flesh of animals ten times its size.
A pup will acquire this code of conduct by instinct. When approaching an alpha male, a pup displays meekness by tucking its tail underneath its body and stays cautious until it gets the green light from the alpha male.
Such behaviours may seem harsh but necessary to ensure the continuous survival of the specie.
It seems that dogs, although being tamed for centuries, still possess the genetic memory or instinct by displaying similar behaviour. I had an unfortunate experience while I was in Ethiopia not too long ago.
My husband and I “inherited” two bitches, owned by the previous resident of a house which we rented. Being a dog lover, I didn’t mind taking over the responsibility of looking after them. They were both very friendly and it didn’t take long before they began to accept and treat me as their “master”.
After a few months, they both got into a fight, which resulted in injuries, particularly Sofres, a German Shepherd, who was older and weaker. Our security guard then informed us that the fights were normal and occurred at least twice a year, during the mating season.
True enough, it happened again after a few more months and each time it happened, Sofres suffered more and more due to increased aggression by Milu, a mongrel breed. I tried to observe their behaviour and it was evident that Milu was very territorial and possessive of me. She displayed similar signs of dominance; snarling and threatening to bite Sofres whenever the latter approached me for affection. However, I noticed that Sofres never seemed to learn because she would try again and again in defiance of Milu’s threats.
At that time, I just concluded that Sofres was a silly and stubborn bitch, but now I realised that Sofres was probably an alpha female as well and due to old age and extremely weak hind legs, a common genetic defect of German Shepherd, she could not challenge Milu the way she would have wanted to.
As a solution, I decided to spay Milu but it didn’t work out because she nearly died of a botched operation done by a local vet. Unable to trust another vet, I was forced to contemplate another solution and thought about sending either one of them to an animal shelter. Before I could make any decision, another incident happened, which ultimately led to an unpleasant outcome.
One day, I was alerted by loud whimpering sound coming from the garden and rushed out to witness Sofres pined underneath Milu, completely helpless and “destroyed”. Milu had her jaws on Sofres’s face and her fangs were dug deep inside and she would not let go. She intended to exterminate Sofres that day. The security guard, our housekeeper and I tried to separate them but Milu was undeterred. The level of her strength and aggression were unbelievable.
In the end, we somehow managed but it was too late. Milu had caused so much damage to Sofres that the only humane thing to do was to end her life. That day, I did not just end Sofres’ life, I did the same for Milu. Many of you may question why. Whether it was the right or wrong thing to do, I don’t know. The decision taken was one of the most difficult ones I ever had in my entire life. While the burden was so great, I had to do something and most of you might not understand this but Milu was in fact, my favourite. I didn’t end her life as a punishment to her, but as a favour.
Now, for those who are against euthanasia will conclude that what I did was morally wrong. I am willing to take up a debate on that but for now, this isn’t really the point I want to make in this article.
My point is, after understanding a little bit about certain animal behaviour, I can’t help but wonder whether as human beings, do we somehow possess similar trait and characteristic as these wolves? Men have been fighting for power and asserting dominance over one another since time immemorial. But my question is, like these wolves, would it be better for all of us if we learn to submit ourselves to one leader with absolute power?
I have read many times how some Iraqis and Afghans reminisce the time during Saddam Hussein and the Taliban’s rule. They said that they were better off then since there were lesser crimes and politically more stable. Sure, there was no freedom and democracy whatsoever but they were safe. What about living in a communist regime? If properly implemented, could it not be an ideal way of life where communal living will ensure that nobody gets hungry?
I am not a communist, nor someone who supports dictatorship, but perhaps in the end, we are ultimately no different from other animals. Ever since we became a civilised nation, we have tried for so long to evolve from acts of barbaric aggression and dominance into a nation governed by a different code of conduct; one which protects and defends human rights, democracy and social justice. And yet, like dogs, we are held back by our genetic memories and instinct to exterminate those who are "either with or against us".
I can't help but wonder, what if we were wolves?
Written on 19 October 2008