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for people who care about the West

The "perfect wolf" and the cognitive complexity of crows

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


“With more than 7 billion people, we’re crowding wildlife off the planet,” warns the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. So Leigh Moyer, the center’s population organizer, came up with a little something that American men could do to help wildlife — while also ending unplanned pregnancies. Guys were asked to make a pledge on Nov. 13 to go to a doctor and get a vasectomy, a simple surgical procedure that involves cutting the two tubes called the vas deferens. This keeps sperm from getting into semen and thereby prevents conception. The promised reward was better than a lollypop; vasectomy-getters received free T-shirts bally-hooing their brass. The shirt’s front features a picture of a polar bear wielding a giant pair of scissors, and on the back there’s some no-nonsense advice: “Get whacked for wildlife.”

One of the profoundest statements about character that we’ve ever read comes from Rick McIntyre, the “alpha wolf watcher” of Yellowstone National Park. Every day for the last 15 years, McIntyre, a biological technician for the park foundation’s Yellowstone Wolf Project, has gone to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley to train his telescope on the ridges where wolves down elk and raise their families. What he learned, he told Carl Safina, author of the new book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, was that some wolves “were better at being a wolf than I’ve been at being a person.” McIntyre, 61, justifies his provocative conclusion by telling the saga of a “perfect wolf” called Twenty-one, who was “like a fictional character, but he was real.” Fearless and huge, Twenty-one twice defended himself against six attacking wolves, routing them all. Watching those battles was “like watching Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan — a one-of-a-kind talent at the top of his game.” Twenty-one was just a 2-and-a-half-year-old when he took over the Druid pack after its alpha male was shot. Over the years, McIntyre watched Twenty-one play-fight with his many pups, always pretending to lose, falling “on his back with his paws in the air.” Twenty-one also showed an unusual magnanimity, sparing the lives of any wolves that attacked him, and caring for a “sickly little pup” that the other wolves had been avoiding. McIntyre especially loved how Twenty-one singled out a weak pup for special attention. “Strength impresses us. But what we remember is kindness,” points out Safina, whose book was excerpted in part in The Week magazine. Wolves rarely die of old age; humans, other wolves or starvation usually kills them. But when Twenty-one reached the ripe age of 9, he left his pack, climbed a high mountain ridge, curled up in the shade of a tree and died peacefully, alone.

Some people may find it disconcerting to learn that some animals “talk” to each other about death, spreading the news, showing alarm, and in some species, apparently experiencing intense grief. Now, years of research on the streets of Seattle reveal that crows join animals such as dolphins, chimpanzees and elephants in the club of “cognitive complexity,” says The New York Times. As part of her doctoral research at the University of Washington, Kaeli N. Swift has studied how the corvids react to a human who routinely delivers food to a particular spot. If the human held a dead crow, Swift says, “Almost every time, the crows mobbed the corpse-bearing volunteers.” That’s no picnic, Swift adds: “If you’ve ever been dive-bombed by a crow, it’s really terrifying.” But the birds failed to react this way when a dead pigeon was brought, while if the visitors were empty-handed, the crows just moved away for a while before returning to their meal. “It’s amazing to think a crow — a bird — is doing something like this that so few other animals are doing that we know,” Swift says.

Hats off to 94-year-old Betty Reid Soskin, the “star attraction” at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Soskin is the oldest park ranger still on the job, and she enthralls visitors to the San Francisco Bay park with her stories about working nearby in 1942 as a file clerk for the segregated Boilermakers Union, getting involved in the Black Panther movement, and later on, working for local politicians until 2007, when, at 85, she became a National Park Service ranger. A wonderful moment in her long life came in 2009, she says, when she attended the inauguration of President Barack Obama, reports Vanessa Hua for National Parks Magazine, the publication of the National Parks Conservation Association. Soskin stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial with a picture of her great-grandmother, who had been a slave, in her breast pocket. “So much history, so much change in four generations,” Soskin says. “That’s how fast the time goes.”