Predaotors in Popular Culture

Grizzly, Denali, May 2012Grizzly in Banff National Park, Alberta, by DanGrizzly, Denali National Park, by DanCree, by Bill WoodallUtah & Artemis, Great Horned Owls by Steve
Grizzly in Denali, May 2012, by Steve, Grizzlies in Banff and Denali by Dan Hall in 1990, Cree by Bill Woodall, & Great Horned Owls Utah and Artemis by Steve

One of the educational themes at the Refuge, is that while predators are a key component in our natural environment, our understanding of predators is skewed, because we receive most of our education about this environment through mainstream media, particularly from movies, and other forms of non-data-driven descriptions found in media. The goals of the MSM are financial success and market share through entertainment, which, when they are successful,  may lead to exciting stories and movies, but may also encourage a view of nature based on the exceptional rather than the commonplace.

By way of example, we mention that one of our favorite “actors” was Bart the Bear, the enormously popular brown bear, who up until his death two years ago, was the most prominent member of Doug Seuss’s group of animal actors.  In almost all of his starring roles, the immaculately-groomed Bart is mauling a hapless hiker-hunter-crash victim, as in "The Edge", or, just as unlikely, defending an unrelated, orphaned cub, as in "The Bear". In real life, it’s not unusual for a sow grizzly to have to defend her cubs’ lives against the ever opportunistic and unsentimental boar who sired them. Bart may provide entertaining cinema, but his movies give a decidedly distorted version of what is normal in the life of any given grizzly.

Wendy and I have seen about 40 grizzlies in the wild, evenly distributed between areas that permit hunting (areas of Alaska, the Yukon, BC and Alberta), and those that don’t (Denali, Yoho, Banff, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks). Bears in the former group usually ran off, while those in the latter generally ignored our presence. This may not seem like a big sample, but it’s reflected in the fact that there are about 2 or 3 attacks by Grizzlies per year in all of the western US, Canada and Alaska, most caused by unlucky factors such as alarming a sow with cubs, or unwittingly hiking near a grizzly bear’s food cache.

In other words, assuming you are not Timothy Treadwell, pushing the envelope by seeking out and living among grizzlies in Katmai, you are far more likely to be killed by lightning, a bee sting or a serious fall in Grizzly country than to be the object of a grizzly attack. None of these latter incidents would make the news, and it’s pretty clear that victims of grizzly attacks, assuming they play no overt role in encouraging them, are nearly at the top of the “world’s unluckiest people” pyramid. As a footnote, every black bear I’ve seen in the Adirondacks has immediately run away, except for those at Marcy Dam, who are happily adjusted to hikers, can’t be hunted there, and have made a living out of cleverly relieving campers of their food caches.

The point is, just as we read about jets only when they crash, we read about Grizzlies only when one of them assaults a human being, and for the average non-biologist or animal behaviorist, this becomes the store of “knowledge”, as well as the unsupported state of expectations. To say it one more time, the media won’t print, because we won’t read, any story that suggests that probably half of the 400,000 visitors to Denali National Park last year at some point saw a grizzly bear, and nothing of any note occurred, except some good photographs, and a few pilfered picnic baskets. That story won’t sell the news, and reminds one of the old George Carlin routine that the only news that we care about is essentially bad news, and the bloodier and more tragic the better. For more interesting statistical facts concerning the actual danger of grizzlies to humans, go to .

Are grizzlies potentially dangerous? Absolutely.....but are they likely to attack you? No, assuming you take the most basic and self-evident precautions. This deflating of the popular image of the grizzly as a ruthless predator who invariably attacks, is even more instructive in the case of wolves. Most “wolf attacks" involve wolf hybrids, pets who are too often owned by irresponsible people who shouldn’t own dogs, never mind a dog who has any percentage of wolf in them. By contrast, see the essay at our web site, for our very positive experiences with wolf hybrids, raised with care in a favorable environment:

Common sense suggests that when you combine the genes of a dog which displays a propensity to aggression with the strength and jaws of a wolf, and then encourage it to be aggressive, you’ll end up with a dangerous animal. On the other hand, since wolves are afraid of people they are unfamiliar with, this strategy often backfires. Wolves make lousy watchdogs, because experience teaches them to run from strangers.

In the wild, wolves are "apex predators", meaning top of the food chain predators, in much the same way as are  loons, fishers and the Eastern Coyote, in the Adirondacks. Wolves are also "keystone" predators, meaning that their impact in a given ecosystem, will have ramifications far beyond the animals they prey on. For example, who suspected that the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park would improve the survivability of trout and beaver? Before wolves were reintroduced, elk tended to congregate around the streams, lakes and rivers in Yellowstone, over browsing cottonwoods and willow, and trampling streamside vegetation, causing erosion, thus making creeks broader and shallower, cutting down the shade which helps keep water at the cooler temperatures trout prefer. Today, since the wolves frequent water sources, not simply to drink, but to  look for elk and other prey species, the elk tend to avoid  the water sources, except to drink and then warily depart.  As a consequence, creekside vegetation has bounced back, helping the trout, but also, with aspen and other trees being left to mature, providing nesting sites for song birds, and food, along with den and dam building materials, for beaver, whose numbers increased, even though they are occasionally taken by wolves. See the excellent article on the return of wolves to Yellowstone, and their impact in Idaho and Montana, at

We are avid readers of L. David Mech and Rolf Peterson, whose landmark studies of wolves in the wild have helped define the direction of wolf studies, progressing from the days when most studies were based on morphology, literally trying to interpret behavior through anatomy and function, through studying the behavior of captive packs of wolves, studies which were flawed because they took no account of the fact that captive wolves could not leave the pack, thereby limiting their options and altering their behavioral possibilities.

Morphological  studies were flawed by the fact that creatures change behavior to adapt to changing circumstances. Homo sapiens was anatomically described as a “frugivore” by Linnaeus. Frugivores are animals which evolved to eat fruit and seeds, but we were able to spread around the globe by learning to eat meat and other staples. On the other hand, while grizzly bears are clearly carnivores from an anatomical perspective, 90% of what they eat is roots, berries and other vegetable matter. In short, it can be misleading to predict behavior from anatomy alone.

The concept of “alpha” wolves arose during the period when captive wolves were studied, but has, ironically enough in light of the phrase, been considerably attentuated after the recognition that the majority of wild wolf packs are comprised of “Mom and Dad”, the pups of the year. the sexually immature but physically mature (in terms of size) pups of the previous year, and perhaps a straggler or two from the year before. Wolves generally leave the pack upon attaining sexual maturity at about 2 years of age, and if they don’t, Mom and Dad kick them out, the main exceptions being areas where game is so plentiful that the breeding pair allow their offspring to begin breeding, which can lead to opportunistic, wandering wolves being accepted into the pack as mates, or replacements for deceased mates. Early wolf studies claimed that the only wolves in the pack alowed to mate were the alpha male and female, but, as stated above, it turns out that other members of the pack, may be older siblings who are physically mature in terms of size, but not sexually mature.

While it is not unusual for wolves from territory-bounding rival packs, to be killed in territory infringement-type disputes, there is almost no fighting within the pack itself, because roles are clearly established early on through play and dominance. At the same time, there is a tremendous amount of “threat” behavior and posturing in relationships between  wolves within the same pack, with the baring of teeth and growling, submission and groveling, etc.  But the older notion that a healthy “alpha” male, for example, will be driven out by a more dominant outsider who takes over the pack, seems more the exception than the rule. In fact, when one considers how all observers, regardless of disagreements on other points, cite the unswerving loyalty, affection, empathy (as reflected in “whimpering” behavior), special consideration by all adults within the pack for pups generally, and other family bonding traits, one is tempted to call wolves the real “family values” creatures, as they demonstrate in action what we too often only profess. At the same time, wolves are extremely intelligent and naturally develop individual personalities over a wide range of possible personalities.

Mech and Peterson did much of their ground-breaking early studies of wolves on Isle Royal National Park in Lake Superior, a 400 square mile island populated by about 1,000 moose and about 20 wolves broken into two or three packs. The numbers of moose fluctuate by factors such as tic infestation, the mites that cause mange and cause moose to rub their fur off, hot Summers, deep snow in Winter, availability of browse, the osteoarthtritis due to malnutrition by lack of available browse when moose numbers are too high and other factors you'd expect. The wolves are affected by parvo virus, distemper, mange and their success in hunting moose. The wolves of Isle Royal are also affected by inbreeding, due to the island's isolation, and consequent lack of exposure to the gene pools of wolves from Canada and the U.S. Mech and Peterson pioneered following wolf packs in small aircraft on Isle Royal and collecting data about wolf-moose interaction, which leads to a more accurate understanding of wolves in the wild.

Among the more surprising results revealed by the data, in areas where the wolves prey on moose, their success rate, in terms of how many moose were killed and consumed,  was only about 10% of moose who were approached, and this included calfs and extremely shaky, older animals.  The emerging pattern suggested that if the wolves couldn’t succeed in getting the moose to run, the hunt was over before it began, because wolves are reluctant to approach a mature, confident moose, head on, since an adult moose is about ten times as massive as your average wolf. In turn, if the moose was healthy and in its prime, it had no reason to feel vulnerable, and, almost comically, pretty much ignored the approach of the wolves. From our personal experience, we’ve been mildly threatened by a few of the hundreds of moose we’ve encountered in the wild (in each case a cow with calf, basically warning us from approaching), but I can’t recall ever having a moose run away as though it sensed danger in our presence. In areas where prey less formidable than moose are plentiful (e.g, deer, beaver, etc.), wolves tend to favor going after those prey.

On an island as small as Isle Royal, it is likely that the wolf packs go through a process of testing the individual moose they encounter from time-to-time to see how vulnerable they might be. The same moose who confidently ignores the approach of the pack one year, may find himself, five or ten years later, stumbling through Winter, beset by a terrible infestation of tics, and lacking the confidence he'd flaunted before the approaching pack in years past. Perhaps this time the pack smelled puss in the moose's tracks, and felt more encouraged by the moose's vulnerability. Since most wolves die before their fifth birthday, with starvation being the main culprit, the pack's numbers may turn over two or three times, before they finally take our aging moose.

What is interesting about all this, is that it paints a different picture of predator-prey relationships than the popular notion of ruthless, blood-thirsty predators going after hapless, helpless prey, and it undermines many of the arguments about predator control.  I believe there are solid reasons why we view the predator-prey relationship, and more generally, the role of predators in nature, through this prism.

If I can be forgiven a little amateur psychologizing, civilization is enabled to a certain extent, by the restraining and channeling of certain instincts within us, instincts, for lack of a better word, which encourage us to do pretty much what we want, or what we feel is in our immediate best interests. With some exceptions driven by extreme religious, political and cultural values, physical violence against another, is considered criminal, morally reprehensible, and basically “uncivilized”. In addition, because it strikes at the very heart of the victim’s existence, physical violence, is viewed in an extremely personal way. Small wonder that we are frightened, titillated and entertained, by cinema depictions of attacks on people by real and imagined creatures. What could be more negatively personal than a direct threat to your life? In nature, on the other hand, physical assaults are not only completely impersonal, but extremely practical, in the sense that they generally represent the attempt to capitalize on an opportunity for sustenance.

At the same time, potential prey creatures in the wild routinely posture and pose to try to dissuade other creatures from attacking. I was somewhat amused when I went looking for mountain lions in Big Bend National Park by myself years ago, to receive advice from a Ranger, who suggested that, if a lion fails to run away (not an encouraging sign, since it probably means you're being sized up as a potential target), I should put down the camera, and pick up a large stick and attempt to appear larger than my actual size, in the hope of persuading the lion that an attack on me might result in injury for them. While I didn’t see any lions, I was amused because this is pretty much what many creatures do in the wild, if they feel cornered and unable to escape.  Look large and forbidding, and hopefully dissuade attack.  Some others feign death, for example the hognose snake, while still others feign injury. Wendy was once called to the scene of an injured mallard, who was just fine, except that he was trying to lead his “rescuers” away from the nest, as though they were predators.

(It should be noted that this entire discussion often takes place in front of the wolf enclosure, while Cree and Zeebie accommodate us by demonstrating some of the points we are making. For example, if Cree doesn’t recognize visitors, he sends Zeebie into the safety of the den he dug under one of his “doghouse” enclosures, and then paces in front of the den. If Zeebie approaches “big brother” Cree, and nuzzles or nips at his neck, Cree may regurgitate undigested food for the puppy to eat. If Zeebie fails to display the proper caution in any given situation, Cree will growl at him, and mouth him with his teeth, and give him a “what for”, without ever actually harming him. Finally, Cree, who at the time was five times Zeebie’s weight, indulges Zeebie’s play overtures, letting the puppy pretend to stalk and attack him, chase his tail, etc, pretending to fight back, but again without using the power in those jaws to inflict real harm. The discussion up this point is generally a seg-way into talking about more advanced hunters, namely raptors, whose enclosures we now go to.)

We are fascinated with keystone predators like wolves, bears and mountain lions. Perhaps this is partly because they’re large and impressive, often very majestic looking, and partly because we realize they can be threats to us. They are also mammals like us, with obvious, differing personalities like us, playful and easily entertained by the simplest simuli, and their reactions to us are less mysterious than those of say, reptiles or raptors. What is also interesting is that when we compare them to reptiles and raptors, they are not as efficient as predators.

For starters, while the larger predators do at times execute ambushes, their prey are typically aware they are under attack, even if only briefly, which increases the danger to the predator that they may be intentionally or inadvertently injured by their prey.  Birds of prey, particularly owls, on the other hand, depend more on stealth, employing quick, silent or hidden strikes, which frequently kill the prey before they are aware they’re in any danger.

But, here again, with raptors, Hollywood gives us an edited, “improved” version of the way things are. All of us have seen movies which include the flight of a bald eagle. Classical music plays, majestic mountains form the back drop, and then the eagle screams, and we all sigh. The only problem is that eagles actually have a fairly ugly raucous scream, so the movie makers substitute the cry of the red-tailed hawk, which has a beautiful cry.

Cree "punishes" Zeebie for interfering in Cree's affectionate interaction with a handler. Zeebie submits.
These bloodless displays look and sometimes sound violent, but it's all posing, in effect, big brother reminding little brother who's boss.
Photos by Denys Bulikhov

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