What I learned from the leader of the pack
by Jodi Picoult
Jodi Picoult thought she had created a unique character in her new novel, Lone Wolf—a man who studies wolves by living with them. Then she met Shaun Ellis, who spent a year living with wolves in the Rockies. During a visit to Ellis’ wildlife park, Picoult got up close and personal with these feared animals.
The first thing Shaun taught me was the rankings of a wolf pack. The first wolf you’ll encounter is not the alpha, but a beta—tough, comes rushing up to you, responsible for discipline in the pack. Betas are expendable; they are the thugs in the Mafia family. The alpha will hang back. Wary. The brains of the group, and too valuable to put him or herself in danger—he’s like the king not going into battle. The alpha is the one who tells everyone—including the big tough beta—what to do. An alpha can hear the change in the rhythm of your heart rate from six or seven feet away. An alpha female can terminate her own pregnancy if she feels that it’s not a good time for breeding in the pack. She can keep the other females from coming into season, so that she is the only one breeding. She can create a phantom pregnancy, which puts all the adult wolves on their best behavior, trying to be picked as nanny—and then when everyone’s acting on their best game, she reveals that she isn’t pregnant at all.
Next is the diffuser wolf—the low man on the totem pole, the one who eats last, the one who seemingly is picked on by the other wolves. There’s a tester wolf—the quality control dude. He’s a nervous wolf, always on edge, who makes sure that everyone is doing his job. Then come the numbers wolves, which fill in the pack with strength of size.
One of the things Shaun taught me to do was to howl, so that I could communicate with wolves. Howls are like wolf email. They use them to communicate with other packs, telling them how strong their pack is.
Shaun showed me that there are three types of howls: a rallying howl, which is a vocal beacon to bring back a missing member of the pack; a locating howl, which is like a voice message to give the placement of any pack that’s in the area; and finally, a defensive howl, which is used to protect your territory. With my son and my publicist in tow, Shaun taught us the melody that an alpha, a beta and a numbers wolf would use. I started as the alpha—a deep intermittent tone, howling for five or six seconds and then listening to make decisions based on what I hear. My son’s beta howl was three times longer than mine—it was all about strength, to let those listening know how tough he was. Finally, my publicist, as the numbers wolf, created the illusion that there were many of her, with a howl that circled and pitched between the tones my son and I were using. The most amazing thing happened: The packs all around us began to howl back. It was the coolest feeling to know that we had “sent” out our position, and were getting responses because we were speaking their language.
Read a review of Lone Wolf.