Week of May 29, 2022

Wolf Down These Facts


The story of “The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf,” that timeless cautionary tale to liars and false alarmists, actually goes back to Classical antiquity.


Fans of werewolves (or maybe Harry Potter) know they are sometimes called “lycanthropes.” This derives from the grizzly Greek mythological Legend of Lycaon, who angered the god Zeus by serving him a meal made with the remains of a human boy. Lycaon was punished when he and his sons were turned into wolves.


They’re called “werewolves” because of the obsolete Old English word “wer” meant “man,” so “werewolf” means “man wolf.”


Domesticated sheep are famously mild and docile, and wild wolves (who often eat livestock) are less so, so the image of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” whether literally or as a metaphor for deceptive people, appears in both Aesop’s fables and the New Testament.


The scientist who coined the term “alpha wolf” for the leader (or leading couple) of the pack later abandoned the term. What was called the alpha male and alpha female are the sole breeding pair in the pack, and did not necessarily get the job by fighting or physical dominance, as the name implies.


You might have heard of a defeated or embarrassed person said to “slink off with his tail between his legs.” Tail position communicates a lot in the animal world, especially with wolves, where down-pointing and tucked tail position is used by the lowest-ranking pack members.


For all the human fear of wolves, fatal wolf attacks are exceedingly rare. In all of North America, for example, there have been only two documented deadly wolf attacks since 1970.