Debunking Myths: Studying the food Chain
by Jackie Gould
Why study the wolf? After all, the wolf is just like any predator, only worse, or so it seems in all those fairy tales. And that is exactly the point. According to Honey Loring, a teacher who has been involved in bringing live wolves into classrooms all over the U.S., the wolf is an enigmatic species only because our myths have made it so.
Wolves are similar to people in many ways. They live in packs, which are like extended families. They are playful and "sing" when they are happy! They hunt for their food.
"No one has ever been attacked by a healthy wild wolf," says Honey, "but a rabid or caged wolf is a different story." Myths about wolves she said came over with immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. The animal became the embodiment of the worst fears and nightmares of people who lived closer to nature than we do today. Consequently, the wolf has a bad reputation. In our classroom you have an opportunity to bring the wolf back into perspective as an important and necessary part of the balance in the natural food chain.
The wolfa necessary link in the chain
"A lot of people think that one less wolf means one more deer, but we need large predators or herbivores become too prevalent," Honey stated. When there are too few wolves (predators) in a particular natural habitat, the herbivore (prey) population increases and becomes weakened because the individuals in the prey species compete for what become scarce resources. This over-abundance of one type of herbivore would then affect an entire habitat as it overgrazed other plant species. Different predators, dependent on other types of herbivores that had suffered losses of their food sources would then diminish in population as well. The whole food web becomes out of balance as one species becomes eliminated. The balance in predator-prey relationships influences plant life. And as we are beginning to find out, tampering with the biomass of large wilderness areas affects global water supplies, weather patterns and thereby may increase global warming.
The wolf in the classroom
To begin a study of wolves in your classroom, you might start by having the students list all the things they know, or think they know, about wolves. Keep the list for later reference as the students become more educated. It will be great for the students to come back to their list and differentiate myths from facts.
Think about all the expressions that malign the wolf. For example, "a wolf in sheep's clothing" or "wolf whistle" both perpetuates the image of a wolf as sneaky. However, the predatory nature of the wolf is necessary to preserve the balance of species within a habitat. When the class has learned more about real wolf behavior, it would be fun to make up new metaphors and similes as well as other myths and fairy tales that accurately reflect the character and behavior of wolves.
Wolves are very smart as John Harris, the founder of the first traveling wolf education project, observed. He began the Clem and Jethro Lecture Service after taking care of a wounded wolf that his wife brought home. A neighbor complained that his chickens began disappearing when the wolf arrived. John couldn't see how the wolf was to blame since he was chained too far from the chickens to prey upon them. One day John observed that Rascal (the wolf) was throwing his food out to the chickens so that they would come closer. But then, this reinforces the myth that wolves prey on domesticated animals, that wolves are bad for farmers and ranchers. In fact, it is the other way around.
Experiments have shown that, given a choice, wolves will always choose a wild animal for food over a domesticated one. Wild meat is leaner. Once a farm or community begins to clear and develop an area, the wolf moves out.
Wolves are very social. They mate for life. They are very dependent on the pack for hunting large wild game. When one member of a pack is eliminated the ability of the entire pack to hunt an ample food supply is affected. When wolves leave a territory, coyotes or other smaller predators will move in. They don't need a pack to hunt as they are smaller and prey on smaller animals. Inaccurate stories about coyotes abound as well and can become part of the study of habitat and the food chain.
A wolf visit
Honey Loring, who traveled with John Harris bringing wolves into schools, says with total clarity that, "Once you meet a real wolf, the myths are dispelled." One way that you can re-educate your students is to bring a live wolf into your classroom. The Clem and Jethro Lecture Service makes tours around the country visiting schools, libraries and community centers. Visit http://www.searchingwolf.com for contacts regarding wolf visits and education.
Honey reminds us that wolves do not make good pets. In fact, that is the way that wolf sanctuaries often get their wolves. People who are drawn in by the allure of these beautiful wild animals try to tame them. But they are wild animals and do not belong in homes. They need large areas to run. Each of the wolves that she traveled with required 24-hour-a-day care, no time off. Because of this, would-be owners abandon them. They need sanctuary because once they have been domesticated, they do not have the hunting instinct to be returned to the wild.
Once wolves are used to being taken care of by particular people, they become afraid of people they don't know. Because of all the myths and the negative image of wolves they often need to be protected from uninformed strangers. Slick, one of the traveling wolves, was shot one day after being cut loose mysteriously from his chain while at the home of a sponsor.
"The wolf is the symbol of all endangerment, of all the things that need to be part of the web of life," Honey states emphatically.
When you give students the opportunity to learn about these elegant creatures and how they fit into the food chain you enable them to see the larger picture. With new perspectives on this delicate balance perhaps students, our future citizens, will make choices that more carefully consider how each of us affects the resource known as wilderness. After all, we are one of the larger predators, as well. By looking at the wolf, we can begin to look at ourselves.
©1991 Teachers' Laboratory (Synergy Learning International, Inc.). All rights reserved.
- Jackie is an experienced elementary school teacher and at the time this article was written was the Associate Editor of Connect magazine.