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Grief Is Not Uniquely Human. Wolves Mourn Too.

The practice of mourning a loved one is at the heart of the social structures of many species, most notably humans. We offer condolences on the passing of virtually any individual, no matter how small our connection to them may be, because we understand that their absence is felt deeply and profoundly by others. Comfort can be found in a reassuring hug, a gently worded note, or simply commiserating with others about the devastating loss. But what of those individuals that are isolated and alone, left to mourn the passing of a mate with no company but their own?

The Wolf Conservation Center experienced a devastating loss on September 24th when our very own F1397 (Hazel) passed away, leaving behind a contingent of human admirers and her devoted mate. We grieved for the red wolf with a fierce spirit and an utter devotion to her family, a red wolf that should have witnessed the breathtaking beauty of a wild landscape and enjoyed the freedom to run as far as her lithe body would allow. We grieved so deeply, in fact, that we seemed to forget that our pain at her passing was surely magnified ten-fold by her faithful mate, M1566. Armed with a spirit as fierce and as wild as F1397, M1566 served as the perfect companion to the feisty female. The pair spent two blissful years “protecting” their enclosure from staff photographers and guests eager for the chance to see an elusive canid known as “America’s wolf.” But then tragedy struck, and M1566 was no longer part of a dominating duo bent on keeping their perimeter human-free; our scrappy male was suddenly and abruptly alone.

Wolves are social animals, much like humans, and monumental occasions are shared with the entire pack. But what of the wolves that live alone, secluded in their own peaceful territory? How would they mourn the death of a loved one; would they even feel any loss at all? Critics and naysayers would deny the ability of animals to feel any emotion, let alone ones as complicated as love and loss, but F1397’s passing was felt very strongly by her mate.

Those who are privileged to hear a red wolf’s call know it as a screeching, yapping howl, nothing like the stereotypical howls heard in movies. But on the night of F1397’s passing we heard an eerie, sorrowful howl – the sound of a mate searching for his confidant, hoping for a response in the silent night. Alas, no answering howl pierced the sky but M1566 was relentless in his quest for communication. Surely F1397 would reply but if not her, maybe another wolf was experiencing the same sense of loss and abandonment? These heartbreakingly one-sided howls continued for several minutes and then slowly tapered off, as though M1566 finally realized that for the first time in two years he was utterly alone.

So as we mourn the loss of F1397 and share stories and pictures and listen to videos of her unique howl, let us also remember the wolf who is experiencing far greater pain than us with no hope of comfort in sight.

~ Regan Downey, Wolf Conservation Center Youth Education Coordinator