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By Tom Cushing

The Big, Good Wolf

Uploaded: Jun 22, 2015

The more we learn about the fellow-traveling species with whom we share this planet, the smarter and more sophisticated they become. So it is with wolves -- yesteryear's vicious, rapacious plunderers of pig families, small children and shepherd boys.

They are renowned in our grimmest fairy tales and other mythologies as big, bad, cunning killing machines. We've even developed a caricature of their leaders to flatter our species' presumed "alpha-males." Granted, many of these tales were penned in an earlier, more agrarian era, when marauding wolfpacks might have posed a dire threat to life, limb and livestock. But recent studies, in less fraught times, reveal that the archetype of the aggressive, angry, dominant male finds little support in actual nature. Bosses, take note.

In a recent op-ed piece by Carl Safina, 20-year Yellowstone wolfpack observer and researcher Rick McIntyre is quoted as follows: "The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf 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."

Indeed, his personal favorite alpha, named "Number 21" to match his radio collar (nobody said researchers were artistically inclined in the naming department), was fierce in defense of pack, but gentle within it ? wrestling with pups as a favorite pastime, and even seeking out a sickly straggler for extra attention. Per McIntyre again: "Strength impresses us. But kindness is what we remember best."

Somehow, Kipling understood that dynamic, one-hundred years ago. Akela, the pack alpha in the Jungle Book, led by honor, strength and courage. He takes a nearly defenseless/easy-meal toddler Mowgli into his pack and nurtures him, perhaps sensing that he might need the human someday to face down the fearsome tiger Shere Khan. When the showdown arrives, the old wolf and his young acolyte put their lives on the line to drive off and eventually kill the mighty feline. He's my kind of alpha.

It should also be noted that there are two hierarchies in the wolf pack ? male and female ? and that the females are far from deferential. As McIntyre puts it: "It's the alpha female who really runs the show."

In my own experience of canines -- hosting well over a hundred border collies (if you've ever watched their eyes, you know they're among the wolves' closest cousins) ? bears out both points. Chuchundra, my alpha throughout a decade of fostering, doesn't really do much. We've even nicknamed him Honey Badger (look it up). But he does lead, and his corrections to pups are progressive and measured. That he is deeply distrustful of people may be a further badge of honor. And I've always had to chuckle when a potential adopter would express a preference for a female, presumptively the easier-going, more docile sex. Uh, no.

Another recent op-ed examines the many costs of workplace incivility, and lays much of the blame on Type-A, domineering bosses, who demoralize their 'packs.' They might take a lesson from ol' canis lupus in the original article: "imagine two wolf packs, or two human tribes," Mr. McIntyre said. "Which is more likely to survive and reproduce? The one whose members are more cooperative, more sharing, less violent with one another; or the group whose members are beating each other up and competing with one another?"

That article concludes: "Men can learn a thing or two from real wolves: less snarl, more quiet confidence, leading by example, faithful devotion in the care and defense of families, respect for females and a sharing of responsibilities. That's really what wolfing up should mean." I'll howl to that.