Monday, January 31, 2022

The Are No Wolves at the Circus

"Prof. J.A. Damrel & Five Timber Wolves pulled wagon for
"CREAM of RYE", Minneapolis Cereal Co, Minnesota, 1912"

As I have noted in the past,
wolves and dogs have crossed into each other's gene pool rather routinely over millennia, but that said, there are still no wolves at the circus.

The code inside a wolf is so very different from a dog that while they can be tamed, they are not  reliably biddable until a pretty high percentage of dog is coursing through an animal's veins.

How different are wolves and dogs?  

Very.  They communicate differently (howls v barks), signal pack order and dominance differently (through different urination protocols), come into estrus at different times and amounts, and digest food differently.   

That said, wolf cubs have been dug out of natal dens and turned into imperfect pets since the beginning of time, and there's every evidence that this was how the first transition from wolf to dog was initiated, as it's a thing that still occurs.

One semi-famous example can be seen in the above promotional card for "Cream of Rye" cereal from 1912.

The Minneapolis Cereal Company (now called General Mills) employed "Professor" J.A. Damrel and his team of canids -- sometimes listed as "five timber wolves" -- to go "coast to coast" advertising their product.

The story has a few holes, however

For one thing, there is no evidence this team of five wolves ever got out of the orbit of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois, much less traveled from Seattle, Washington, as trumpeted in the few remaining advertising circulars of the era.

The real story appears that Professor Damrel and his wife started on the road on May 15, 1912 from their general store in Ashland, Wisconsin, and by July 30th they had reached Racine, a distance of about 374 miles in 76 days at an average speed of about 5 miles a day.

On October 17th, The Decatur Review reported that J.R. Damrel and wife drove a team of wolves into Decatur, Illinois, and that the team "is composed of three Siberian wolves, one husky, one large Alaskan dog and one timber wolf". Though Mr. Damrel said he expected to reach New York City by the middle of December, and that his dog team averaged 40 miles a day, the actual distance between Racine, Wisconsin, and Decatur, Illinois is just 277 miles, a distance traversed in 79 days at a speed of about 3.5 miles a day.

So what's the real story?

It appears Mr. Damrel dug out a litter of wolf pups near Cayuga, Wisconsin, raised at least one or two of them up for a year or two, and trained them to pull a wagon with perhaps the addition of one or two wolf-like Alaskan sled dogs. He then sold the folks at the Minneapolis Cereal Company on a promotion for their new rye cereal, danced up a fancy story to help grease the promotion circuit (and perhaps get a free room along the way), and made a 700-mile trip of it over five months, never once tripping over his own tail in an era of weak reporting and poor long-distance communication.

How were Mr. Damrel's wolves different from a true dog team?  

Well for one thing they were poor enough at their job that they could barely do it. Three to five miles a day pulling a wagon is a truly pathetic pace -- about what a team of real sled dogs could be expected to accomplish in 30 minutes.

And, to put a point on it, this "accomplishment" has not been repeated, though there is no shortage of  captive wolves, and despite the fact that prior to World War II, dog-powered carts and wagons were pretty standard fair in much of the world.

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