The Wolf in Our Living Room

There are a few theories as to how the wolf ended up in our living rooms. One is that 30,000 years ago human settlers stole wolf cubs. They then trained these cubs mainly to protect the settlement from predators, especially against the greatest predator of all, other humans. These cubs would also grow to hunt alongside our ancestors to create a forceful and skilful coalition. In return they had comfort and security and no reason to leave, not dissimilar from the canines we know today.

More recently and less romantically scientists are claiming a second theory. 11,000 years ago settlements began to farm which created large amounts of starch based food in concentrated areas. Wolves would scavenge and those that were better able to digest starch would stay nearby, over time associating more with humans and perhaps then becoming “pets”. A genetic comparison between present day wolves and dogs has shown a distinct difference in their ability to digest starchy foods. Dogs have evolved to master the skill of extracting high amounts of energy from such foods, hence the popularity of the starch filled dog biscuit, where wolves have not. This suggests the dogs we know today are the descendants of those wolves that by chance were more genetically suited to scavenge human crops.

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Wild Bolivian fox with pointy ears and downturned tail

And then there’s the alternative truth proposed by Schleidt and Shalter who in their paper ‘Co-evolution of Humans and Canids’ reveal an emphasis on companionship over human superiority in domesticating the wolf. This provides a far more desirable alternative, especially for those looking for an explanation to their strong human-canid bond. Wolves show more advanced cooperation, maternal warmth and nurturing than any other species in nature and give the closest approximation to human morality we can find. This and that the predating and fearful canid would have been an unlikely choice for our ancestors to domesticate suggests humans and wolves evolved together, bonding over close moralities, with not one overpowering the other.

In all theories genetically advantageous traits to living alongside humans would have been bred and naturally selected. Traits such as the wolfs’ ability to digest starch post farming era and if they had characteristics which appealed to the human; strong territorial behaviour, an ability to hunt symbiotically and then being compatible in nature with humans which eventually would become ‘affectionate behaviour’. These characteristics are among some that would have increased survival rates and the chance of reproduction and therefore the ability to pass on advantageous genes needed to succeed in the wolf/human coalition.

Over 1000s of years the wolf descended into the dog, yet all of those wolves that didn’t fit the necessary mould to make the transition continued living in solely canine packs mostly in dense forests. In the middle ages livestock was introduced to agriculture, to the wolf it meant easy steal-able prey and they became villainised and deemed a menace on human society. This led to brutal culling’s and they are now scarce in the wild. A series of bounty systems were administered by medieval kings and by the reign of Henry VII (1485 – 1509) they are thought to have become extinct or close to it. And so came the rise in the deer population and a drastic change to many ecosystems. Recent reintroductions through a process of ‘Rewilding’ have proved successful, such as the wolf to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

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Domesticated dog, with floppy ear and pie bald fur

The antithesis of rewilding we could say is domestication, exactly the process that brought us dogs from wolves and many other tame animals from their wild ancestors. From the wolf we have created the chihuahua, proving the power of the domestication process. We also have the cow, the cat, chicken, pig, goat, horse, llama and many more. A striking study spanning 60 years in southern Siberia led by scientist Lyudmila Trut looks into the relationship between genetic characteristics in foxes and their success in becoming domesticated, friendly towards humans. Over decades they have selectively bred foxes with desirable characteristics to create the domesticated fox. They have also bred foxes with undesirable, aggressive characteristics to draw a genetic comparison.

One theory by scientist Leif Andersson of Uppsala University proposes that genetic mutations can make particular individuals within a species more suitable or desirable for domestication, such as the potential mutation which allowed dogs to breed multiple times in a year in any season compared to wolves which reproduce once a year in the same season. Those animals that we have successfully domesticated share physical characteristics such as floppy ears, upturned tails and pie bald fur. It is suspected but not proven that the genes guiding the domesticated animals’ ‘tame’ behaviour do so by altering chemicals in their brains which in turn impact on the animals’ physical appearance.

A profound finding from the Siberian fox study comes from a chance event. One snarling extremely aggressive fox was born to an aggressive mother unable to feed its kit so was raised by a tame mother, yet the fox still expressed undomesticated behaviour defiant of its raising. This therefore heavily suggests that the foxes’ response to humans is more nature than nurture, and is dependent on genetics.

The dogs that are so embedded in our society have become so by genetically changing under environmental pressures through generations, those advantageous genes changed the wolf into the dog. Now the dog, whether through theft by humans or a choice of its ancestors, does not possess the qualities or even the social structure to survive without us. The pig is different to the wild boar and the dog is no longer the wolf. This would explain the separation anxiety expressed in my own rescue dog and the reason why the surplus of domesticated foxes from the Siberian study need to be rehomed with human families and why the roaming farm animal doesn’t leave.