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He's the Leader of the Pack Researching Wolves

Charles Hillinger's America

May 17, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

ASHLAND, Ore. — John O. Sullivan is a silver-haired, mustachioed, lanky professor affectionately known as "Wolf Man" here at Southern Oregon State College. A behavioral and evolutionary biologist, Sullivan, 53, is one of about two dozen wolf researchers in America.

The gray wolf ran in packs throughout North America when only Indians lived here, Sullivan said. But with newcomers from other countries, wolves in time were systematically eliminated in 48 states to protect livestock from the foraging beasts.

"Coyotes eat small animals--birds, mice, rats and lambs. Wolves go after big game. Packs of wolves kill deer, caribou and moose. They look for weaknesses in the huge moose. They test them. If they detect vulnerability they will kill the moose. Deer are easy prey," Sullivan added.

Studies indicate there is a division of labor among wolves in pack, he noted. As for the predator--prey balance, "I would guess there are about 10,000 wolves in Alaska and Canada. Wolves, caribou, moose and deer evolved together over millions of years.

Good for the Caribou

"As an evolutionary biologist, I know the wolf keeps other animals in balance. The wolf, according to Eskimo proverb, is good for the caribou. It keeps caribou herds strong by eliminating the sick and old. If wolves overate or the balance got out of control, the wolves would starve."

Wolves are making a slight comeback in America. Dave Mech, a U.S. Forest Service wolf expert, reports that there are about 1,000 wolves running wild in northern Minnesota. Montana, Wyoming and Isle Royale in Michigan have small numbers of wild wolves. Grey wolves have been moving south from Canada.

"This gets into politics," Sullivan said. "People are afraid of wolves. They don't want them around. Yet, there are proposals to reintroduce grey wolves on Washington's Olympic Peninsula and in the Adirondacks of New York. Red wolves have been introduced to islands off the Carolinas. It's a controversial subject."

Two Medford truck drivers, Sandy Liddell, 28, and Phil Beaber, 39, contacted Sullivan recently to ask if he would buy their wolf dog, Timber, three-fourths wolf, one-eighth malamute and one-eight German Shepherd. The answer was yes.

Six-month-old Timber was eating his furniture and could no longer be controlled, Liddell told Sullivan. "We fear one day he may hurt us."

The truck drivers brought Timber to Southern Oregon State's science building. He snarled, barked and bit at Sullivan's pants, missing his leg. To calm the animal, Sullivan waited until nearly sundown and then ran back and forth across the deserted campus with the leashed Timber in tow. Then he grasped the animal firmly with his left arm and scratched Timber's neck with his right hand.

'Kill and Eat'

Sullivan, the owner of four wolf dogs, is about to begin a wolf dog study. "No one in his right mind would have a wolf dog as a pet. It is highly probable that Timber would eventually kill dogs and cats and probably attack humans if the animal had a chance. Timber is more wolf than dog. Its main purpose in life is to kill and eat," he said.

In addition to the wolf dog, there is also the coydog--a cross between a coyote and a dog. A wild canine existing in northern New England Forest is thought to be a cross between a wolf and a coyote.

Male gray wolves average around 100 pounds, though a gray wolf weighing 175 pounds was killed in Alaska. Sullivan said the dire wolf that lived during the Pleistocene age was twice as big as today's animal.

He traces the werewolf legend--man turning into a wolf during a full moon and preying on people--to medieval times when peasants were bitten by rabid wolves in forests.

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