At Israeli Zoo, a Three-legged Wolf Made Her Way to the Head of the Pack

Neri Livneh
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Neri Livneh

It happened three weeks ago. Doron Tam, director of the predators’ division at the Ramat Gan Safari Park ‏(aka the Zoological Center of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan‏) was very excited when he saw Ramon climbing onto Tiltan’s back in order to impregnate her.

Ramon is a gray wolf ‏(named after the crater and not the minister accused of sexual harassment, Tam explains‏), the alpha male in the wolf pack at the safari. And he had chosen a female wolf with only three legs, proving that Tiltan had become the alpha female in the pack.

Tiltan has come a long way − and on only three legs! − since she arrived injured and close to death, with a crushed leg, at the Israeli Wildlife Hospital at the Safari Park. She has successfully changed her status from the most inferior she-wolf to the dominant one.

“Homo homini lupus est” ‏(Man is a wolf to man‏), the Roman playwright Plautus wrote, thereby beginning a long tradition of unfounded vilification of the animal that, over thousands of years, became a symbol of cruelty and wickedness in myths and folktales all over Europe.

Plautus meant that human beings behave toward one another the way wolves treat other members of their species, presumably with cruelty and out of pure egoism. Or as 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained it in his book “Leviathan”: In a “state of nature,” “man is a wolf to man” − in other words, a person lives in a situation where there is no government, in which he is forced to fight for his life against all the members of his species, and therefore the “life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” But there is no more mistaken description of the lives of wolves and members of the lupine family, which includes our pet dogs.

As opposed to quite a few men, wolves never live a solitary life. Wolves − the ancient ancestors of man’s best friend, domesticated dogs − always live in packs. The size of the pack in the wild can vary from two individuals up to 30 or even 40, depending on the habitat, and the pack will always be led by a couple composed of an alpha male and an alpha female. “Which means that the expression ‘lone wolf’ is groundless,” says safari spokeswoman Sagit Horowitz. “Perhaps what we mean when we say that someone is a ‘lone wolf’ is that he’s exceptional, like a wolf that doesn’t live in a pack,” she explains.

The fact that a wolf is an amazingly social animal also finds expression in myths that were created parallel − and contrary − to all the terrible vilifications and primeval fears we have developed toward wolves. The very common stories about children who were suckled by female wolves and raised by a pack of wolves are as ancient as Rome, which, according to legend, was founded by Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf.

It’s fascinating to learn that, a year before Tiltan was brought to the safari park ‏(by an inspector from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority‏), Sagit’s husband, Igal Horowitz − also the head veterinarian at the safari − wrote a prophetic story. His tale was about a she-wolf named Diuna, who arrives at the safari hospital with a crushed leg. After undergoing surgery and joining the safari’s wolf pack, she becomes “the unquestioned leader,” mates with the dominant male and gives birth to four cubs. ‏(“Diuna’s Album of Smells” in the short story anthology “The Animal Whisperer,” published in Hebrew by Astrolog.‏)

Horowitz, like his wife and Tam, tends toward the ethological approach to the study of animal behavior, which attributes emotions and human characteristics to animals.

Prof. Eli Geffen is a zoologist from Tel Aviv University. A scholar of social ecology who has studied the behavior of wolves, he tends toward behaviorism and rejects my attempts at anthropomorphism. “In nature the entire issue of mating, just as among us, is connected to opportunity and territory,” he says. “If you attach yourself to a male and you have common territory, there will be reproduction. The territory is meant to serve the couple’s other needs, but even in the wild, when there is no mate of the same species to be found, you mate with what there is, and there are matings within different species of the lupine family.

“For example, in the United States, in places where the wolf population is sparse and there is a large coyote population,” he continues, “there are matings between wolves and coyotes − and then, and only then, are black wolves born.” This means there is no solid basis to the myth of the big bad black wolf that will come to eat us up, like Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, if we don’t eat all our spinach. Geffen adds that occasionally in Israel, “There have been matings between wolves and dogs that joined the pack, and dogs can be accepted into the pack because they have the same smell as wolves.”

So a bitch can become the dominant female in a wolf pack?

“I don’t know, I don’t have an answer to that.”

And how do you explain the fact that a she-wolf missing a leg became the dominant female in the safari park’s pack?

“In the wild she wouldn’t have survived, because she would have been unable to carry out the activities of the inferior individuals in the pack − for example, to participate in the hunt, guard the territory, take care of the cubs. But in a cage where they all get food and are all protected in their territory, it’s possible. She may have acquired strong traits in the wild that are impossible to acquire during a protected life in a cage.”

Point of no return

Tiltan was found walking around with a limp, starved and helpless, in a parking lot at Masada about five years ago. She was brought to the safari park’s Israeli Wildlife Hospital, which is run in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority and treats over 2,000 animals each year. Like the literary Diuna, Tiltan’s leg was caught in a hunter’s trap. “After she was treated here in the hospital and Igal amputated her leg, we realized we couldn’t return her to the wild, because it’s impossible to be weak and survive there,” says Sagit Horowitz. “So the handlers here prepared a program to attach her to the pack, a plan that took months.

“Wolves have only one dominant male and one dominant female in each pack, and we thought that if she became an alpha female, it would be something symbolic that demonstrates the importance of inner strength, and not only exterior strength,” says Horowitz, who turns out to be as much of a romantic as her husband.

The Horowitzs have three daughters and are unquestionably the safari park’s dominant couple. They met there, like Tiltan and Ramon. At the time Sagit was one of the guides − similar to Tiltan, who started out in the pack as the inferior female ‏(“I hate the expression ‘inferior,’ but that’s the zoological term,” says Horowitz‏). She rose in the ranks over the years to the role of spokeswoman, and turned out to be so good at her job she managed to turn the lives of the animals into routine news items.

“I understand why, of all the she-wolves, Tiltan turned out to be dominant − like a story that means it’s possible to see what’s beyond the exterior,” says Horowitz, who is, in total contrast to Tiltan, blessed with an abundance of external beauty. “I think Ramon felt that she’s very strong because she came from the wild,” she adds. “Incidentally, after he mated with her, he went and sucked up to two other females, Levana and Ora, who were once the dominant females.”

The title “pack” does not do justice to the complex social structure in which a group of wolves lives. In effect, the lives of wolves are more like communal life, because they have a hierarchal class structure. As in American coming-of-age movies, the race to the pack’s dominant roles take place separately and in parallel among the members of both sexes, when one male ousts the previous dominant male, and the dominant female is removed from her position by the new queen of the class.

However, the changes in leadership among the sexes don’t always happen in parallel, so that Ramon − who a few years ago ousted the previous dominant male, Eitan − has already mated with Levana, who ousted Ora before being ousted herself by Tiltan. At least Ramon, unlike his human-male counterparts who replace their partners with new editions, has the decency to feel guilty and sucks up to them.

Prof. Geffen relates that wolf packs are created in the wild when a male and female wolf without blood ties meet and mate. What they need is territory, a living space of their own. “Their offspring remain with them for another year or two, and after a year additional offspring are born, and after another year more offspring, and that’s how a pack is created in which the parents are dominant, and behind them there’s a hierarchy down to the youngest offspring.”

And the offspring don’t mate among themselves?

“In the wild they don’t. Even if that were to happen, if a female gave birth in the territory of the pack where there’s another dominant female, her cubs would not survive: Either she herself would devour them or the dominant she-wolf would turn them into food for her cubs. That’s why, when the offspring have an opportunity, they leave the pack and go to search for new territory and a male or female partner.”

The lives of wolves in captivity or in a cage, Geffen adds, are totally different, and the structure of the pack is disrupted. “There was a very famous study which proved that among kibbutz children, those in the same age group don’t marry among themselves, even though they’re not related.” He says this is a vestige of a mechanism that prevents reproduction in the wild among animals that are blood relatives. “Among wolves in the wild there’s no reproduction within the pack − in other words, the family − but in captivity they have no choice. The offspring can’t leave the pack to look for mates. If you’re in a cage with five wolves who are all your siblings, you won’t have a choice and you’ll mate with one of them.”

Horowitz says that, although they came from different zoos, all of the wolves at the safari park were actually all related, until Tiltan arrived. “That was another reason why we really hoped she would become dominant and mate, and enrich and improve the pack’s gene pool.”

The dilemma

The genesis of the wolf pack, Tam relates, was the couple Bobby and Sue Ellen − they received their names at the Tel Aviv University zoological park, during the period when “Dallas” was a hit and broadcast, in black and white, on the single Israeli channel. They arrived at Ramat Gan 25 years ago. All the members of the pack, except for Tiltan, are related to them.

“They saw her for a while hanging around near the garbage cans in the parking lot [at Masada], and tried several times to catch her,” says Igal Horowitz. “When they brought her here, her leg was totally crushed and, in effect, half amputated. Our objective in the animal refuge is to restore the animals to the wild, but I realized there was no choice but to do a clean and higher amputation. Then we had a dilemma. We thought it would be impossible to return her to the wild, so, after she recovered from the operation, we decided to transfer her for absorption in the wolf section.

“We knew in advance that this was a particularly complicated process, because she was coming from an inferior status. We just hoped the fact she had come from the wild meant that her skills were better developed than those of the individuals that grew up in the cage.”

They decided to call her Tiltan ‏(Clover‏), after the clover that has three leaves instead of four, as is common in most plants. On a fine winter’s day, when you watch the three-legged she-wolf moving gracefully and efficiently inside the large cage, dominating the other she-wolves, you get the impression that a fourth leg is just a luxury.

The absorption process

“Part of my job as manager of the predators,” says Tam, “is to create social manipulations. In the wild, a female who is missing a leg would never become dominant or survive in the long-term. So what did I do? First of all, I transferred all the individuals to a different yard and we cleaned and sterilized this yard and got rid of all the smells. We brought Tiltan here by herself.

“When did I know it was possible to continue with the absorption process? When she began to mark the territory: that’s the first sign of claiming ownership. When she began I brought over Eitan, who was the dominant male, because we assumed that she was 18 months old − meaning she still hadn’t had a chance to be dominant, and Eitan could teach her how to do so. At the time there were 12 individuals in the pack − today there are eight − and when I saw Tiltan and Eitan getting along, I started to bring only the males here. Why? Because the males know that Eitan is dominant, and would therefore treat her accordingly.

“I moved one male every three or four weeks, and after all the males had accepted her, I started moving females. There were four at the time: Efrat, Yael, Ora and Moriah. The first three accepted her and then when I brought in Moriah, I saw that she was causing chaos and I had to take the females back to the second cage. It took two months until we managed to put the females into this cage again. In all, from the moment Tiltan entered the cage until the entire pack was living together with her took nine months. She soon began to exhibit signs of dominance.”

What are the signs of dominance?

Tam: “A tail pulled straight back. Among wolves, as opposed to dogs, there’s no raised tail. She was also next to Eitan all the time and was aggressive toward females who tried to get near him.”

And how does the male know he’s supposed to mate with the dominant female? Is it like the elections for the prom king and queen?

“No. It happens because only the dominant female secretes pheromones.

So what are the signs of inferiority? A lowered tail and an absence of pheromones?

“That too, but a more interesting question is the role of the inferior animals in the pack. One of the roles is marking territory. In the wild, when a pack’s territory can reach a radius of 15 kilometers, it’s a Sisyphean task.

“Another role, mainly of the inferior females, is to take care of the cubs of the dominant female. In the wild, the pack is created because in a group it’s easier for wolves to get together to devour an animal larger than themselves. In captivity that’s meaningless.”

Territorial concerns

Tam, a trained zoologist, believes that in the wild the advantage of social animals over solitary ones, which are gradually disappearing, has been proved. Horowitz disagrees.

“In Israel, wolves have a big problem obtaining territory,” Horowitz says. “There are two species in Israel: the northern species that lives in small packs; and the southern species that lives in larger ones. The [dominant] pair that maintain the pack have to find territory with a reasonable number of predators that eat the same food, and where there is no other wolf pack.

“The northern wolf has a problem finding territory because the areas are becoming increasingly populated, and uninhabited areas become firing zones, so the wolves are forced to wander southward. They’ve already come from the Golan Heights to the Carmel,” Horowitz notes. “The southern wolves have a dual problem, because in addition to the built-up and agricultural areas and the firing zones, there’s a problem of abandoned dogs who join the wolf packs, mate with the wolves and dilute the gene pool.”

You have to remember that dogs are wolves that underwent a process of selection by human beings approximately 10,000 years ago, based on the nurturing of traits that make domestication possible. This weakens the traits that enable them to be hunters and predators.

Tam says that, less than a year after arriving at the safari park, Tiltan mated with Eitan but did not conceive. “I think it was because she wasn’t mature enough,” he explains, adding, “A situation in which the dominant female doesn’t conceive creates great chaos in the pack and prolonged battles over the status of the dominant she-wolf. What happens when the females fight among themselves? What do you think the males do?”

They sit, watch and enjoy it, and hope the females will do it in mud?

“Exactly, just like human males. So there was a tremendous riot among the females. In addition, several months after Eitan and Tiltan mated, Eitan was ousted by Ramon, who jumped on him and became the ruler. Meanwhile, Tiltan continued in her battles with the other females − two of them mated with Ramon without any offspring being born, and six months ago she finally succeeded in becoming the dominant female and to establish her kingdom.”

The dominant she-wolf is at her weakest point, and most sensitive to an attack by other females, during the actual mating itself. At that time she has the alpha wolf on top of her and is unable to move. “We have an amazing picture in which you can see how Tiltan mates with Ramon and at the same time exposes her teeth to another female,” Tam reveals.

“The male and the female also become more attractive when they become dominant,” says Tam − like it’s not unjust enough that they’re the only ones who get to have sex and the chance of having offspring. “Even Tiltan became beautiful, despite the fact that she has only three legs,” claims Tam, who sees the story of Tiltan’s victory over all the four-legged she-wolves as “a story that really requires personification, because there’s a very clear parallel here to all kinds of situations in human society − and this parallel usually works to the detriment of human society.”

“I thought about the statement ‘Man is a wolf to man,’” writes Horowitz in his story, “and I wondered whether the words ‘if only’ were missing: “If only man were a wolf to man.”

Tiltan (Hebrew for 'Clover') at Ramat Gan Safari Park. Credit: Tibor Yager
The term 'pack' doesn't do wolves' complex social structure justice.Credit: Tibor Yager
Glances with wolves: 'The male and female become more attractive when they're dominant.'Credit: Tibor Yager