Exclusive Interview With Shaun Ellis:
This interview was done over three separate days, 16 Dec 2004, 20 Dec 2004, and 4 Jan 2005, by Felix Ho and Mr Shaun Ellis from Wolf Pack Management, U.K. We thank Shaun for his time and contribution doing this interview with us.
This entire article is divided into six parts. Please feel free to visit us regularly for the next installment.
Part One - The Wolf That Speaks
I have always believed that to learn about someone or something, the best way doing it is to spend a long and intense period of time with that person or subject. One of my passions is canine behaviour and animals that belong to the Canid family. The wolf, one of the most successful hunters and brilliant predators on this planet, though he might not be the most favorite animal, the wolf’s strength, courage, intelligence, ferocity, determination, and his will to survive, are unquestionably fascinating. In fact, Shaun Ellis has taken his passion to the next level. Shaun is a British researcher and writer of wolf behaviour studies. In order to learn about wolves, Shaun has spent the last ten years living in wolf packs, sleeping, fending, playing, and hunting with them. His first book The Wolf Talk was written based on his extensive experience and studies living with wolves. To further the studies and education of wolves for the general public, Shaun founded Wolf Pack Management with three other equally devoted researchers. Shaun felt that now it is the time for his second book. So he decided once again, to live with a pack of young wolves for further studies of their learning, development, and interaction. Here is an exclusive interview between Felix Ho and Mr. Shaun Ellis.
Shaun, Yana, Tamaska, and Matsi
Felix: Thank you for taking your time out of the wolf pack to speak to us, Shaun. First, I just want to acknowledge you for your passion and dedication with your work. It is truly inspiring and extraordinary.
Could you please tell us about your background? How did you get into wolf behaviour studies? Could you tell us about some of your accomplishments?
Shaun: Thank you. It’s nice to be recognized by a member in the same field.
I began many years ago working with the native foxes that we have in Britain. I studied the reintroduction, hunting patterns, movements, and the effects of hunting on the foxes themselves. I had an interest in wild animals at a very early age. At that time, many people considered the fox, as they do to the wolf today, are possible vermin. I was only one of the few people that admired the fox, as today, one of the few people that actually admire the wolf.
Fortunately, as we’re working with the wolves now, it changes people’s attitude towards them. We recognize them to be our teachers connected to the natural world. We believe what we do at the moment, we’re trying to establish the way they communicate, what they say to each other, how they educate each other and prepare themselves for the future.
Some of the things we’ve learned is that while we work with these animals, we have to walk the same path as them, become part of their pack and community. We look into the world of the wolf. Many people observe at wolves through a fence or from several miles away through binoculars, this really doesn't’t put you into a part of the wolf pack.
We’ve worked with the Native American biologists, and like they said, you have to walk the same path as the wolves and become part of their culture and community. I believe in order to understand the wolves, you have to be sympathetic and knowledgeable to all the aspect of the field, and our field is behaviour. Part of our research is to see if the wolves would cross over the boundary between human and animal, whether they would accept somebody like myself, walking amongst them, and share the skills they need to be part of that world. So far, it has been very successful. We also have our own breeding program for the wolves’ future reintroduction back into nature. It is going quite well.
Felix: How is the park setup? How is it funded? How many people are working with you? How big is the enclosure the pack is living in? How many wolves are living there and how many packs are they divided into?
Shaun: Wolf Pack Management is a self-funding organization. Currently there are four partners that run and own Wolf Pack Management. They are myself, Angela Curtis, Kevin Curtis, and my respected partner Janet Williams. We also have a very dedicated team of volunteers. They all have to go through very strict and thorough training routines, as we want to keep accidents around wolves to a minimum. We give them a very high standard of training so they know how exactly to interact with the wolves.
We have three sets of three wolves. We have the three pups that are in my pack, three adult Timber Wolves which two of them are the pups’ parents, and then we have a pack of European Wolves. We hope to increase the number of the Europeans this year. We have to bring in a female and we hope that this bloodline is going to provide us with the animals we need to release into the wild.
We’re now extending the pup enclosure down the bottom, and once it is extended, it will be 500m by 300m. That’s the enclosure I live in with the pack at the moment. In this small world, we have to provide all the enrichments they need in the environmental point of view, and also the learning point of view for hunting and defending.
Shaun and colleague Angela Curtis in icy Poland during a wild wolf research excursion
An European Wolf paw print in comparison to a human hand print
Felix: Could you tell us about your daily and weekly schedules living with wolves?
Shaun: Basically for the pups at this stage, we try to orientate them towards some of the things they need to achieve in the future through hunting. We do what we call a four-day split feeding routine with the pups, which means on day one, the kill is actually made, so that would mean each wolf, including myself, has access to the individual organ we need to maintain our diet. To myself, that would mean defending and getting to the high quality organs such as the heart, liver, and kidney, since I’m the Alpha right now.
Along with that diet, we would have a good supply of fresh meat as well. I have to maintain that at the top. The next wolf in the pack would feed on good quality meat as the main source, he wouldn’t have access to the important internal organs. And then we would go down to the pack order and the lower ranking members would have an introduction into meat and stomach content.
There’s a very fine balance that we need to achieve which is that we need to assess our social order that keeps one animal above the others internally. But we also have to make sure that each wolf is fed as well because their survival depends on their ability to defend, which comes from their odor.
Felix: How do you behave around them? Do you behave like a wolf completely? What do you bring into the enclosure with you?
Shaun: We behave exactly like a wolf and it needs to be as authentic as we can be.
We believe the key to a future reintroduction will be for the wolves not to be sociable to each and every human. The way that we feel works the best is if a human acts like a wolf around them, then they won’t see the same language and familiarization from every other human. So this is kind of our way to separate our world from theirs. But in doing so, we can also give them a glimpse of our world that they need to occupy.
So we believe that for the wolves to accept the presence of a human without disrupting their natural behaviours, but to also relate to the human as a partner of their pack, we need to behave like a wolf in every aspect. From the facial expression to our vocalization, even smell has to cover the social order that we actually hold, and in this case, being an adult dominant animal, my odor is very important. I’m literally eating for survival.
Felix: How often do you come out of the enclosure? How do you eat, sleep, move around, and relieve yourself? What do you teach them as the Alpha Wolf? How do they behave around you? How does the pack act towards strangers including wolves from outside the pack?
Shaun: What we do is we try to keep the leaving of the pups at this vital stage down to a minimal. If we do come out, what we normally do is to combine this with a hunting trip from myself.
The food is given to the pups in two ways. One of which is by team members where I would be defending food that is brought to us. The second way is I have to go hunting for myself and bring food back. So I become a provider and a defender. The only time I come out is to combine that with a hunting trip. The time I come out would vary according to the hunting trip. Sometimes I would have to stray further in the field to catch food. Sometimes I can catch it quite quickly. The length of time would vary so the wolves won’t get into a pattern routine.
Shaun has been teaching young wolves to fish as North American Timber Wolves would eat migratory salmons at certain times of the year, which would help to boost their scent pattern
Felix: So, you mean the hunting trip is something that you set up to convince your pack members that you actually go out hunting?
Shaun: Yes, we make the wolves believe that I actually catch them food, that’s the idea of it. I’ll also take back to them the hunting information as well. What I teach the pups is that I provide the food, so the elements of the territory, the animal I catch in it has to be taken back in the form of smell, usually on my feet and my hands.
I then also have to show them the food source itself and how it’s brought down and killed, that’s usually done after the first feed. Most importantly as well, we have to show the wolves the danger or the pit falls that can come with the prey animals as well. That would be done by either taking back the weaponry that the prey possesses or may be even by taking back some of the danger of that area. So the information I bring back to the pups after the hunting trip is like their newspaper. There’s a certain way I roll or set my body to take back all the necessary information of the pups’ need.
Felix: Could you go into this a bit more? You mentioned the prey’s weaponry. Do you mean you bring back the prey’s horns to the pack?
Shaun: Yeah absolutely. For example if the prey animal is a deer, it would possess a large set of antlers and it would have very sharp strong hoofs. These are what we call the prey’s weaponry and they can break through a young wolf’s skull very easily. So what I do is to take back this weaponry as a form of play toy, the same way as most dog owners would use a rubber ring or squeaky toy, or may be even a rag to play with their dogs. This is to teach the young wolves about survival. So this is the same type of play toy but used in its natural form. This is the weapon that could be used against the pups. So what we have to do is to show the pups this is the danger they will come across this animal for food.
Felix: So you want them to be familiar with the prey’s weapon?
Shaun: Yep, the way we actually do it is, we would take a set of antlers for instance. We would run around with the young pups and we would establish their prey drive. Prey drive to the wolves is, as you know, anything that moves away from the wolves, parallel with the wolves, or in a zigzag way in front of the wolves if you want to put on more pressure.
By using this method, the young wolves learn that in order to really successfully catch the animal they need to get the animal running away in a prey drive manner. If the animal decides to turn and face them for whatever reason, or to run towards them, this can be quite dangerous to the young wolves. They could be trampled, they could be kicked, or they could be stabbed by the sharp antlers. So we use a mixture of turns and twists to first show the pups how to bring down the quarry, and then, we show them how to use their defensive quality by moving the antlers towards them. Again, this is something in Schutzhund that you would be very familiar with.
Shaun stimulating prey drive to teach pack members hunting techniques
Shaun and fellow researchers in Poland. European Wolves live through hostile winters
Felix: This is very similar to what we do in developing a young dog. The weaponry we use, instead of the horns and the hoofs; we use a stick or a whip. And the prey object we use, instead of a part of the animal, we use a tug or a sleeve. These wild wolf and domestic dog training techniques are very in line with each other. The only part in our training which goes against nature is we condition our dogs to attack the decoy frontally in a trial to show their courage, instead of the wild wolves’ attacking their prey from the side in order to avoid the antlers. So when you teach the young wolves to hunt, you teach them to avoid the horns and the hoofs and attack from the side, don’t you?
Shaun: We do. Yeah, you got it spot on with what you said. As a natural instinct to the wolves, any animal that faces them head on is dangerous to the young pup. See, sometimes it can be quite difficult for people working with dogs, we’re always lead to believe that behaviours are either learned or instinctive, but whether it’s a learned behaviour or an instinctive behaviour, it still has to be conditioned in a correct way. And sometimes we work our dogs in a way that takes us away from natural instincts. It’s important not to forget what the young animal needs. If you’re going against instinct, you might need to do something a bit smarter to develop the behaviour, but it will come through if you establish the correct behaviours from the start.
Felix: So how do you eat, sleep, and move around? Do you actually eat the same diet as your pack members?
Shaun: What we do for the food is, we need to first to obtain, and then maintain and defend the order that keeps me at the top of the pack. Whichever day we feed on, I need to get the best quality food from that food source. That’s how I get identified as the dominant member.
Normally the food source for myself would be prepared by one of our staffs Angela because she’s familiar with the diet. She helped me to discover my diet and the best possible food source for me living in a wolf pack. What I normally do, to avoid illness, infection, or parasite, we usually cook the food slightly but still maintain the odor, which means we can’t add anything to it like seasoning. Sometimes we might add a few natural herbs in it, something that the wolves would naturally use to try to get rid of internal or external parasites.
Also, the pack has to see me maintaining and defending that food source as part of the learning process. So what we do is, a large deer or a similar animal’s carcass would be brought into the enclosure. That would be the food source for us. The heart, liver, and kidney of the animal would first be removed and cooked slightly for myself. Then the organs would be put in a bag and replaced back into the animal’s carcass where you would naturally find them. It would be up to me to defend those areas to establish myself as the dominant animal.
Felix: So you actually eat with the wolves from the same carcass?
Shaun: Yes I do. I would direct the pack what needs to be done. Some days I would allow them to eat in a close distance with me, instigating the fact that they still need to be respectful even under the distraction of food. Some days I might want the pups to move away from me so I might defend the food completely, and don’t let the pups take the carcass until I let them. There are different types of training we need to use to establish the social order over these guys.
Felix: So what exactly do you do in these situations?
Shaun: What we normally do is, to teach all the aspect, I’m sure you would agree, to get the dog or wolf to do something that it has already been taught to do, in order to re-establish your leadership. We show them all the aspects of their world through socialization. That includes teaching them the correct food source, where to find that food source, when to recognize it is time to be defended. For example, sometimes I want the wolves to come and chase the food. Other times, I might want to defend that food for myself. So we make a clear definition when we are defending and when we encourage the chase.
When we want to establish our dominance or defense over a certain object, we would hold that object right in the middle. If we want a young wolf to come and chase, and to bring up prey drive, we would hold the article so it dangles from the hand or the mouth. Many people come across behavioural problems with dogs that have defensive aggression towards articles or towards food. One of the main toys they give the animal is the tennis ball. But the entire tennis ball can be held in the mouth by the dog. So if you have a dog that is already possessive towards objects, the tennis ball is one of the worst toys you could give the animal because he can defend the ball by consuming it in his mouth. With a dog like that you need to give him a toy which cannot be held entirely in his mouth, such as a string attached to the ball, because the dog then can’t dominate the entire object.
Angela spending time with the pack as the adult female
Felix: Alright, so where do you sleep? Do you sleep with the pack? What’s your sleeping arrangement?
Shaun: Yep. We have three main roles as the dominant animal. One of the main problems people have with their dogs or wolves is, people would go into different ranks at certain times.
An example is an inexperienced dog handler. The first hour when he gets up in the morning he might be a dominant animal. The second hour he might be a Beta animal. By noon he might become a Mid ranking or a Mid-Low ranking animal, with the types of behaviours he is showing the dog.
The thing is, many people don’t have the concept how a dominant animal should be, and how to maintain that throughout the day. This is one of the things that we want to show with the research that we are doing with the wolves.
To be a true Alpha, you need a lot of components. The three main roles of the Alpha are, he is the decision maker of the pack, he also protects the pack, and because of those two qualities, he then earns the right to pass on his genes alone to future generations. He has to always maintain that he makes the decisions and of what happens. So for movement and also for sleeping arrangement, they are parts of the protection elements. What I do is, I would position myself nice and high in the enclosure, often resting my chin on my forearm, and then I would point myself directly at the wind source with however flow that would be. Bear in mind in the wolf world, we all smell of each other, every rock, every path, and every tree in our territory all smell of us. We actually re-scent them on daily basis. So anything unusual comes into that area is instantly picked up by our senses, even with my poor sensory as a human. You will be amazed how quickly we can smell people coming into the enclosure.
So early recognition for us and where we sleep and different formation of the pack is very important. We also have our specialist in the pack and that would be a naturally suspicious animal. That wolf would hold a role in the pack. It would normally be Mid to Mid-Low ranking. To the general public, this animal would be the ideal pet to take home with into a family, because it is a follower. It looks for somebody who can make decisions and it will also do things that the people want. So it would be the ideal pet candidate for most people. The one distinctive quality this animal would have is, it’s naturally suspicious of things that it is unfamiliar with. So that means anyone that walks pass the house, any person that comes to the door, friend or intruder, this animal would signal to the decision maker that there’s a problem, and it will always be on its guard, and always be suspicious on new things. This animal would alert you at any given time, that’s its instinct. You can make the decision when this animal can bark and how long it can bark for, and when it should stop, and you should teach it the bark command and stop command very early.
So by taking on the role as the decision maker, we can use this animal’s credential. As an Alpha, I would recognize this animal has certain criteria that I need, and that is to alert me with any possible danger. So when we’re resting, what I’d do is to keep a nose or an eye on this animal that is naturally suspicious, because it will be the first wolf that can recognize any sign of danger, and according to its body posture, or its scent or vocalization, would be whether I make a decision to react to what it will be telling me.
So you can see how we operate in the wolves. It would alert me about anybody or anything, for instant our partner Angela might be coming with our food source. The suspicious Mid ranking wolf would alert me that someone is coming. Then I can identify who it is and make a decision on the pack. So depending on the circumstance, in this particular case it means food, so I would instantly get up and go through the re-establishing of who eats where on the food carcass. What I do is, I lead the pack directly to the other end of the enclosure, as far away as I could from the distraction, and then we would re-establish the bond and who eats where through the ranking structure.
Felix: So the pack would do a lot of jumping around and mounting at this sort of situation wouldn’t it?
Shaun: Yep, everybody has to establish his rank. Again, there would be lots of excitement. Bear in mind that wolves can speak a language without making a sound. What we’re looking at is a subtle change and it usually comes through odor. What can happen is the wolves communicate with their tail posture. So we look at the tail posture as it is raised, lowered, moved from side to side, or moved around in a circle. But also, the wolf’s tail is a conductor of a language through odor, and every animal holds a posture that releases an odor or a cocktail of odor in the air. So very often they communicate through scents or they use their vocalization or facial expression. But if we can give our point across through odor, that means we don’t have to use forceful discipline on the wolves.
Shaun stimulating prey drive with fish in freezing dam to teach pack members how to hunt
Shaun and Tamaska boning after the hunt. Tamaska means mighty and kind
Felix: Could you give me an example of this form of communication?
Shaun: Certainly. In your field with the working dogs, through your ranking as an Alpha, it should be up to you to make a decision, not the dog. That is something very important to what you do in your training. Your handlers have to establish that they always make the decisions. It is very important to the dog and the wolf. If you fail to do that, sometimes you act as the Beta and sometimes you act as the Mid ranking animal.
Our rank can be easily altered by us failing to recognize the subtle changes in our dog’s body posture, or failing to recognize his change of odor because of our lack of sensory, and the dog will go into self-preservation. Self-preservation means when your dog asks you questions about his duty or his territory, only to find you’ve answer these questions, but then when you go out, you actually let him down. One of the best way to describe it would be, for a person in the general public that has a dog, the dog would often ask the handler questions, but the dog is often labeled to be disobedient or failing to understand the command. For instance, when a dog sees the lead and collar being picked up, or a pair of boots being put on, would instantly go into a frenzy, chasing the lead, biting it, etc. What the owner sees is, a lack of control or disobedience by the dog. This is of course, the dog’s anticipation for the walk because he has been conditioned to the stimuli. But also, the dog is actually asking his handler a series of questions.
The question is, “Are you still able to make a decision to keep me and you safe when we get outside the boundary of what could be our territory?” Only when the person starts reinforcing his dominance and ranking over the animal by making him sit, heel, or lie down, or one of the commands that has been taught to the dog as a young pup, he is answering the dog, “Yes, I’ll protect you.”. The dog then says to the person, “Are you still worthy enough to be my leader, and if you are, are you going to protect me?” The only problem with that is, because of our lack of sensory, if the handler lets his dog off lead in the park, and the dog gets biting or disciplined by a rival dog coming into the area, then the handler fails his part, because the person first said, “I’ll protect you.” and because his lack of sensory, and unable to detect something that could have cause the dog harm, and that could break the trust of the animal about his handler’s leadership. The dog will then go into self-preservation, meaning from now on he has to look out for himself because of his handler’s lack of leadership.
The most common way to do that is scent rolling. Often we see a dog scent rolling in fox droppings, or cow dung. The handler’s natural response is to get his dog home as quickly as possible and wash him. He is far more concerned at what the dog has rolled in, than what the dog is trying to tell him. The animal is actually trying to heighten his rank by altering the pattern of his coat in order to protect himself from the rival dogs.
Individual wolves in the pack have their own coat patterns, which represent their ranks. The distinctions of their coat patterns are particularly noticeable at the facial area, the muzzle, the back of the ear, the hackle, the saddle of the back, and through the tail. As a wolf reaches higher position, his pattern changes to reinforce his new rank. If you watch the dog where it scent rolls, it would use exactly the same technique, firstly it would drop its cheek bone onto the substance either side, then it would turn over to roll with the back of its ears, then it would go right down along the back, and finish off at the tail. The dog is then able to height its rank to protect itself because the handler has failed to protect it.
Felix: Wow, that is amazing. Do the young wolves in your pack do that?
Shaun: Some members would do it sometimes to heighten their ranks, but that’s not necessary to me, it could be to one of the members they come into contact with regularly in the pack. There are different meanings to the behaviour. That was only one example. But the bottom line is the animal feels that at some point he needs to increase his status quite naturally. But if we do have a problem within the pack, if one wolf is seemingly trying to raise his rank for whatever reason. The best way to identify that is to put oily fish or smelly fish into the enclosure. The animal that is causing the problem and wants to increase his rank will instantly scent roll on the fish. So we can actually establish which animal has got the problem within the group by bringing in a very strong smelling substance into the enclosure.
Tamaska the Beta pup in the pack. He is the enforcer and team builder instructed by the Alpha
Shaun having a quiet moment with Matsi. Matsi means sweet and brave in Native American
Felix: So in this case, that’s a subtle way to challenge you, isn’t it?
Shaun: Yes, it is. You’re quite right with what you’re saying. With your field of work in Schutzhund and law enforcement, I would say there are certain individual ranks that you guys can use with special qualities in what you do with your dogs. Those ranks would be more suitable for your tasks than others. The problem being is that what we’re asking the dogs to do sometimes, we’re going against instincts. Think about the job specification, the animal that makes the decision should come from the dominant member – the handler. But often because of our lack of sensory, we encourage the dog to think for himself, then we would have to choose a rank that naturally does that. The rank that would follow orders from one person, but can also think for himself, is the Beta rank – the one just below the Alpha. If we choose the Alpha for whatever reason, the problem will come when the dog tests the handler.
We know that the Alpha is the decision maker, but also more important is to protect the pack. So what will happen is, the dog will ask a series of questions, but now at a certain age when the animal reaches full maturity and full capability with his sensory, what he will do is, he will go out and set out a completely different scent pattern from what he normally sets out. This is then to test the handler or the dominant member.
The way that the dog would look at it is, if the handler or the owner can’t recognize the challenge from a member of his own pack through scent, then how can he recognize a challenge from outside the pack? So one of the handler’s components and criteria for a dominant member has certainly failed because his lack of ability to sense through smell. So we have to find the balance for our dogs, because they are so much in tune with their environment than us. We have to be careful which animal we choose for a specific task.
In Part 2 of our exclusive interview, Shaun will share with us more of his research and findings living within wolf packs. The subjects he will talk about include the Hierarchy Structure and Territory Management in the pack. Don’t miss it!
Wolf Pack Management is a self-funding organization located in Britain. As you read in the interview, the members of W.P.M. have devoted their hearts and souls in researching and studying wolf and canine behaviour. Endeavor like this is rare in the world, not to mention the knowledge and skills these people have to offer. Naturally, a project with such intensity and commitment requires a stable financial establishment to continue on. If you would like to support, sponsor, or if you would like further information from Wolf Pack Management, you can visit their website at www.shaunellis.org