Category Archives: Wolves

Growing old is not for sissies!

Akela the wolf turned 14 years old yesterday — that’s a venerable 98 in human years!  And she shared her celebratory dinner (pig’s trotters) with Kenya the staffie (14½) and Beezus the pomchi (1½).  For Beezus, it was his first “dedicated” bone, as opposed to dinner left-overs, and his small piece absorbed him totally for 40 minutes.  For Kenya, it was bliss — he ignored the rest of his dinner (special pellets @R670/12kg bag with trotter gravy) and gnawed & gnawed on the bone with the few teeth he still has.   And Akela?  She ate her pellets and gravy, and Kenya’s too, and buried her bone!

Both Akela and Kenya are old animals now, both largely deaf.  Kenya was given the name “Oupa” by Gawie Fagan five years ago and I’ve been amazed as he’s reached successive birthdays.  He’s been riddled with cancer for years and two tumours have “erupted” in the past few weeks, the one reaching a blood vessel.  But he’s still a happy dog with a good quality of life — a voracious appetite and goes outside to pee and poo, in spite of being too stiff for any real walks — so it’s a matter of stitching him up with minimal interventions.  I don’t expect him to last much longer… but I’m sure he’ll amaze me some more!

Akela’s hindquarters are much weaker but that, and deafness, are the only signs of old age.  She still charges off at great speed when she plays outside, but her cornering is not so good and she sometimes takes a tumble.  The average age of wolves in a domestic environment is 12 years, compared to seven years in the wild, with a maximum of 15, so she’s doing pretty well.  She and Beezus (35kg vs 3.5kg) spend hours playing and she’s taught him to bury shoes and toys, only to dig them up and bury somewhere else.  And to think someone at Onderstepoort told me six months ago that it was time to think of putting her down!

There is a “secret” to longevity and quality of life.  My dad died two weeks ago at the age of 86.  For a few years, his quality of life was minimal.  His twin brother on the other hand is active, energetic and healthy, and says he’ll retire from running the farm when he reaches 90.  My dad retired 20 years ago and had little daily responsibility or demands.

Wolf Totem, and the intelligence of wolves

I’ve just started reading Wolf Totem, a million copy Chinese best-seller by Jiang Rong, and was reminded again of just how intelligent wolves are.

The book is set in the 1960s, the heyday for the people of the Inner Mongolian grasslands, and celebrates a time when an age-old balance based on culture and tradition maintained by the nomads, their livestock and the wild wolves who roamed the plains.

Authorities had decided that stone walls should be built around all the birthing pens for sheep.  But no sooner were the walls up than wolves were stealing the sheep again.  Legends were starting that wolves were flying over the walls, since folklore also has wolves, when they die, flying to Tengger, the nomads’ god..

Of course, this didn’t sit well with communist authorities and solving the problem was made a priority.

Careful examination of one of the “crime scenes” showed, with the help of a magnifying glass, two faint, bloody pawprints.

The police chief discovered” that one large wolf had leaned its front paws against the wall, rear legs on the ground, and made its body as a springboard.  The other wolves ran full speed, jumped on its back and shoulders, and sailed into the enclosure.  From inside, wouldn’t look as though they flew in?”

As soon as the stone enclosures went up on the grassland, the wolves figured out how to deal with them.  But what about the poor wolf used as a springboard on the outside, was it just so devoted to the pack that it got nothing to eat?

The police chief explained that too. “Wolves have a strong collective spirit, they stick together.  It’s not their nature to abandon one of their own.  A wolf on the inside acted as a springboard for another one, which had eaten its fill, to leap back across the wall.  Then it acted as a springboard for the hungry wolf to fly into the enclosure to eat its fill.  The bloody paw prints were left by the second wolf. How else would they be bloody?  The first wolf hadn’t made a kill when it was the springboard, so its paws were clean.”

But how did the last member of the pack get out safely?  Where was its springboard?

When the investigator went into the enclosure, sloshing through all the blood, he discovered a pile of six or seven sheep carcasses against the wall, and everybody assumed that the last wolf was one of the smartest and most powerful pack leaders.  All by itself, it had made a springboard out of a pile of sheep carcasses and flown out of the enclosure.

Lessons for a lapdog

Akela & Beezus

First lesson… see what big teeth I’ve got

One Sunday, just after lunch, the phone rang and Stephanie said she had to dash off and would explain later.  She arrived back a little later with… a really tiny dog of indeterminate breed.  It was about the size of a small hamster and looked like a cross between a hamster and a rabbit with its fluffy white fur.

Kenya & Beezus

Is tiny the word? Kenya can be a bit grumpy but most times he puts up with almost anything.

There’d been no discussion and I was more than taken aback.

Firstly, although I like all animals, I’m no fan of lapdogs and barking handbags.  Secondly, how would this tiny creature fit in with a wolf and a staffie?  A friend had a minature Yorkie and, while Akela was fine with it, there was always the danger she would step on it!  Both Akela and Kenya are senior citizens now — heading for 14 years of age – and not always too sure on their feet.  And then there’s Akela’s habit of pawing anything and everything — with enough force to squash a hamster.

Beezus, the new “dog,” was tiny.  His legs were the size of one of Akela’s nails.  Of course he was cute, a tiny bundle of thick fur.  But would he survive the roughness of Akela & Kenya, weighing in at 100 times his weight?

Well they were inquisitive and cautious, but started off by trying to avoid him.  I’m sure they sensed our concerns and rather kept away.  Slowly we allowed them to get closer and Akela frequently lay down, to get a better view and be less intimidating.

The difference in sizes and strengths made its point one day.  Akela lay down in front of Beezus, and Beezus sprung forward (he did seem to hop like a rabbit at the beginning) just as Akela swung her paw.  Beezus went tumbling… and lay dead still.  I rushed to pick him up and there wasn’t an iota of movement.  I was terrified and preparing to rush to a vet.  I stroked his chest and massaged him, but there was no response.  I breathed into his tiny mouth and he squawked, and slowly started moving… and I felt his heart beat.

He’s doubled in weight and size since then — with most growth in his ears and tail — and, after what seems like a long time of always watching the animals while they’re together, he seems able to more or less hold his own now.

Neither Akela nor Kenya are vicious or aggressive animals.  While we lived in Hout Bay some years ago, a group of pet bunnies escaped from a hutch somewhere and were rambling around the weir at the end of the property.  My two went up to sniff them and then left them alone.  Neighbourhood dogs descended on them a little later and killed them all just for the fun.

Akela’s behaviour to the puppy has been fascinating.  Firstly, there were her growls whenever she went near him.  I learnt when she was young that Akela’s growl has a very different meaning to a dog’s growl.  It’s a sound to get attention, and she’d come up close to my face snarling, but then her tongue comes out to kiss my cheek.

But with Beezus, her snarls and growls became something else.  They grew into the sound of a gentle wolf howl, and one could see the telltale way in which she pursed her lips, ready for a full-on howl.

And then there was the performance every meal time.  After she had eaten, Akela would fetch Beezus to take him outside and then regurgitate a small amount of food.  The first time she did this, Beezus run up to eat but Akela took his whole body between her jaws and moved him aside.  She licked at the food and then allowed him to eat… her first lesson in manners to the tiny dog.

Beezus eating Akela's regurgitated supper

Akela fed Beezus every night with her regurgitated supper

Since then, he’s allowed to eat as soon as she regurgitates.  Beezus knows not to bother either animal while they eat.  He’s allowed to eat from their bowls after they have finished.

Maybe, just maybe, Beezus will grow up to be a well-mannered dog after having been raised by a wolf!

Happy Birthday Akela!

Akela is 12 years old today!  That’s a venerable 84 in human years although, in the wild — where wolves are challenged by the elements, illness, starvation and injury — wolves only live an average of 7 years.  In a domestic environment, they live up to 15 years. We’ve been together since she was five weeks old.

She’s still as active and mischievous as ever, and behaves more like a three-year old dog.  It’s difficult to believe that Kenya the staffie is only six months older.  He’s grey, stiff and deaf.  I’m starting to wonder if wild animals don’t maintain peak fitness until far later in their lives, and then age very suddenly at the end.

Here are some of the most memorable photos of her from the past year.

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I just love this photo of Akela. She was totally at ease with Rachel and content just being stroked. I love that smile and the glint in her eye.

You can see that she’s shedding here — her hindquarters have lost most of their very fine, soft winter fur. It comes out in chunks which need to be plucked; combing or brushing just doesn’t work. In the wild they run through thickets to pull the old fur out. In Lapland they collect this fur to make their bonnets — it’s the most waterproof fur you can get.

Look at her thin almost dainty legs.  That characteristic sets wolves apart from dogs.  Together with her narrow chest, this helps wolves run faster through very thick snow.

Wolves like apples too!

Wolves like apples too!

Akela running through the orchard with Granny Smith between her teeth!

She also likes Top Red and Pink Ladies, but doesn’t care that much for Golden Delicious.  Those are just a few of the apple varieties around here.

She picks them up and carries them rather gingerly between her teeth, having discovered that they get impaled on her rather long canines.  When she’s ready to eat the one she chose very carefully, she lies down and nibbles away at it with her front teeth.

The Staffie, on the other hand, just crunches away as soon as he finds one he likes, and he’ll frequently eat two apples a day.

Akela has peculiar tastes.  She loves olives straight off the tree and anyone who has tasted a fresh olive will know how bitter and ghastly they taste.  She recognises olive trees out of season and heads straight off to them to look for olives.

History is made

In the wild, wolves mate or bond for life and I have become her dominant male and Kenya is part of her pack. 

Akela is now 9½ years old and, while she makes friends with women and children (sometimes with embarrassing affections), she has never let men touch her.  She just backs off; even from men she has known all her life.

The only man she ever expressed a very cautious interest in was Lindsay Hunt  who owned Solole Nature Reserve near Kommetjie. He’d been sleeping with a baby buffalo or somethething that he was acclimatising to its new home, so maybe that was the reason.  But he also has a rare empathy for animals.

But she’s met someone on the farm who has treated her differently from all others.  The first time JP met her, he lay on the ground to stay lower than her.  He has always respected her reticence and never tried to sneak in a quick stroke.

Today we rode into town with JP in his bakkie, part of the journey in the back and part in the cab with him.  I left her in the cab with JP when I went into the shops and was astounded to find her rubbing up against JP when I got back, enjoying his attentions.