Carl Safina

What a true alpha male is like

By observing wolves in free-living packs, the writer concludes that the leadership of the ranking male is not forced, not domineering and not aggressive to those on his team.
By observing wolves in free-living packs, the writer concludes that the leadership of the ranking male is not forced, not domineering and not aggressive to those on his team.PHOTO: US FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE

MEN often face pressure to measure up as alpha males, to "wolf up" as it were. Alpha male connotes the man who at every moment demonstrates that he's in total control in the home, and who away from home can become snarling and aggressive.

This alpha-male stereotype comes from a misunderstanding of the real thing. In fact, the male wolf is an exemplary male role model. By observing wolves in free-living packs in Yellowstone National Park, I've seen that the leadership of the ranking male is not forced, not domineering and not aggressive to those on his team.

"The main characteristic of an alpha-male wolf," veteran wolf researcher Rick McIntyre told me, "is a quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance. You know what you need to do; you know what's best for your pack. You lead by example. You're very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect". The point is, alpha males are not aggressive. They don't need to be. "Think of an emotionally secure man, or a great champion. Whatever he needed to prove is already proven," he said.

There is an evolutionary logic to it.

"Imagine two wolf packs, or two human tribes," McIntyre said. "Which is more likely to survive and reproduce? The one whose members are more cooperative, more sharing, less violent with one another; or the group whose members are beating each other up and competing with one another?" Thus, an alpha male may be a major player in a successful hunt but, then, after the takedown of the prey, may step away and sleep until his pack has eaten and is full.

McIntyre has spent 20 years watching and studying wolves in Yellowstone for the National Park Service. He rises early, uses radio telemetry to pinpoint the location of a pack with a radio-collared member, then heads out with his spotting scope to observe them, keeping careful notes of their activities. In all that time, he has rarely seen an alpha male act aggressively towards the pack's other members. They are his family - both biological and adopted.

This does not mean that alpha males are not tough when they need to be. One famous wolf in Yellowstone whose radio collar number, 21, became his name, was considered a "super wolf" by the people who closely observed the arc of his life. He was fierce in defence of family and apparently never lost a fight with a rival pack. Yet within his own pack, one of his favourite things was to wrestle with little pups.

One year, a pup was a bit sickly. The other pups seemed to be afraid of him and wouldn't play with him. Once, after delivering food for the small pups, 21 stood looking around for something. Soon he started wagging his tail. He'd been looking for the sickly little pup, and he just went over to hang out with him for a while.

Of all McIntyre's stories about the super wolf, that's his favourite. Strength impresses us. But kindness is what we remember best.

If you watch wolves, it's hard to escape the conclusion that perhaps no two species are more alike behaviourally than wolves and humans. Living as we do in families, we can easily recognise the social structures and status quests in wolf packs. No wonder Native Americans recognised in wolves a sibling spirit.

The similarities between male wolves and male humans can be quite striking. Males of very few other species help procure food year-round for the entire family, assist in raising their young to full maturity and defend their packs year-round against others of their species who threaten their safety. Male wolves appear to stick more with that programme than their human counterparts do.

Biologists used to consider the alpha male the undisputed boss. But now they recognise two hierarchies at work in wolf packs - one for the males, the other for the females.

Doug Smith, the biologist who is the project leader for the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, said the females "do most of the decision-making" for the pack, including where to travel, when to rest and when to hunt. The matriarch's personality can set the tone for the whole pack, Smith said.

Or, as McIntyre put it: "It's the alpha female who really runs the show."

Clearly, our alpha-male stereotype could use a corrective makeover. Men can learn a thing or two from real wolves: less snarl, more quiet confidence, leading by example, faithful devotion in the care and defence of families, respect for females and a sharing of responsibilities. That's really what wolfing up should mean.

NEW YORK TIMES