When you have kids, you always need to find something interesting to visit with them. That year we used to go to the Darwin museum, a place dedicated to the history of evolution with 3D reconstructions of pre-historic life. During one of these visits we noticed a poster announcing a series of lectures named “Put a good word in favour of the grey beast”.
It appeared to be a gathering of a lot of amazing people from several countries, unified by love and interest towards wolves. One of the speakers was a great Soviet and now Georgian scientist Yason Badridze, a very gentle man of enormous inner strength and wisdom. He spent his life studying behaviour and intellect of wolves and other carnivores and ways of their reintroduction in territories where they were previously extinguished by humans.
He started his work at times , when wolves were officially considered pests. In 1974, being a young researcher, for 4 months he’s been implementing his plan to enter a wolves’ pack in the mountains of Georgia. He succeeded and then lived for 2 years as a member of the pack of six wolves, taking part in their hunting activities running 20 km a day, sharing meal and rest with them. Of course, he didn’t eat raw meat, he split from the pack to cook his share. He describes the relationships in the pack as maximally friendly and harmonised, wolves prefer not to spend their energy on useless conflicts. Wolves took care of him and brought him meat when he was ill. They even risked their life saving him from a bear.
One of Yason’s messages to the humanity is that wolves in the wild not only won’t attack, but by all means avoid any encounters with people. They are not dangerous pests in spite of their reputation of an evil archetype. Wolves start approaching human settlements and hunting domestic animals because of 2 reasons: First, people destroy populations of deer and other hoofed mammals, that are the main food resource for wolves. Second, people kill experienced wolves, and younger ones get no education in how to hunt there proper prey. For wolves hunting in a pack is a highly coordinated collective activity headed by the alpha male wolf, where each member plays a special role. Learning to hunt is a multi-step process guided by experienced wolves, it takes at least 1.5 years. Without this education growing up wolves are helpless.
By the irresponsible human behaviour wolves get pushed out of their normal life cycle, some of them seek food on the outskirts of human settlements and collide with humans.
At that time I already was deep into nature recording, having recently returned from my 2 week recording trip to the national park in Karelia (North-Western Russia), studying bird voice guides, trying to analyse the rhythms of birds’ songs. Meeting with Yason ignited me. Now by all means I had to meet wolves and record their voices.
“Why do wolves howl?”- I asked Yason. According to his answer: First, it’s the way to strengthen relations within a pack. Through vocal harmony they achieve harmony of communication and tune to each other. Second, it’s the way of communication across distances. Third, it’s the way of signalling the territory of the pack to the neighbour packs. Wolves are highly social animals and their language of vocal communication is very sophisticated. Yason explored this language and was able to communicate with wolves, and once that skill saved his life. In order to track locations of freshly reintroduced wolves in the mountains of Georgia, he made a DIY radio tracking system and once was noticed and arrested by military border guards. They were sure he was a spy, not a scientist, and were ready to take him for further investigations. He promised the guards that if he howls, his wolves will come out of the forest. Out of curiosity, they allowed him to try, and in 20 minutes his wolves came out. The amazed guards let Yason go, but still destroyed his radio device.
By the way, different regions have different wolf dialects. Visiting his colleague wolf explorer in Canada, Yason tried to call Canadian wolves the way he called wolves in Georgia, and his fellow laughed at him, because Canadian wolves didn’t understand his Georgian wolf language phrases.
It’s amazing how musical wolves are. Seems like they have perfect pitch, because I compared howl takes recorded with large intervals – very often they are in the same key. Howling of a pack is always a musical piece with development, a climax, and a softer, slower final part. It may be a complex polyphony with members of the pack repeating the leading part of the alpha male wolf.
Listen to this cheerful howling of the pack. The alpha male wolf Hort starts the chant, then his wife Mira supports him and then 7 other wolves join the chorus.
I’ll be back with the next chapter of the story soon.