After overcoming the initial feeling of awe at seeing and meeting the wolves I would be working with for several months on my first day at the White Wolf Sanctuary, I wondered to myself why the animals were not all kept in one single pack or even several smaller packs instead of their five male-female pairs. Aren’t wolves social creatures that have evolved to thrive in family units? Would it not be ‘kinder’ from a welfare point of view to allow them to live in larger groups than their current pairs?
I have briefly touched on this in a previous post where I explained that I soon learned the reasons behind the wolves being separated into pairs were extremely important for individual safety and animal welfare overall. In the wild, while forms of aggressive confrontations between wolves can be fatal, there is still the chance for an animal to escape such a situation. In captivity, however, it is physically impossible for a threatened wolf to escape, thus the chances of fatalities are far more likely.
Also, in the wild packs of two animals (a breeding pair) are common. This is in fact the basic social unit of the wolf pack: a mated pair. Packs are built off this unit – they generally include the breeding pair and their offspring. Variations to this have been seen when one of the mature adults takes on a new mate and individuals related to this new wolf are accepted into the pack as well, but it always comes down to the foundation: a mated pair. Thus, keeping the White Wolf Sanctuary wolves in pairs was a good way to encourage natural social behaviours whilst reducing aggression or threats between animals challenging each other.
They were, as previously mentioned, kept in a full pack at one stage when the young pups were not matured yet. Offspring can remain in a pack until they are anywhere from ten months of age to several years old. Different factors dictate when they are encouraged to leave a pack, such as food scarcity (which thus leads to aggressive approaches between pack members) or the desire of a young wolf to roam and find a mate. Every wolf has the innate desire to mate and pass on its genes – while multiple breeders have been observed in certain wolf packs, wolves are more often encouraged to disperse from a family group and either start their own pack or join a new one. Young wolves are usually forced to defer breeding due to competition from older animals.
There are, however, benefits offered by offspring remaining in a natal pack. For the younger animals, they are given more ample opportunities to learn hunting, foraging, social and nursing techniques from older wolves. It also, in times of food abundance, ensures they are well fed – mature adults will provide food for their offspring, from younger animals up. Benefits in having offspring remain in a natal pack for the parents include having larger hunting group numbers, having more animals available to aid with nursing new litters, and it also means their genes (i.e. litters from previous years) are better ensured survival.
Offspring may remain with a natal pack from roughly 10-54 months. Individuals mature at different rates – they may be physiologically able to breed from several months old, but can take up to five years to mature. Unless a wolf assumes a breeding position in its natal pack (which is rare) it will eventually leave its family group. Animals often temporarily disperse up to six times before finally leaving a pack permanently. Wolves then roam in search of mates, a territory and a food source.
Each wolf at the White Wolf Sanctuary had the fundamentals they would be looking for in the wild; social companionship, a territory and food source. With described factors in mind, keeping animals in male-female pairs is a naturally acceptable management technique. I would often notice short bouts of wolf-to-wolf aggression, but it would be between animals on different sides of a double fence – so while each individual was safe from the threat of a physical confrontation, it was still a demonstration at the importance of housing animals adequately for the best welfare possible.
For this and more information see:
Behavior, Ecology and Conservation
Edited by L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani