Jason Badridze is a cult figure among ethological scientists. For several years he lived with a pack of wolves and passed on important knowledge about each other to both species. He told people about the culture of animals. I taught wolves to avoid humans and livestock. His stories are similar to a fairy tale because Jason descends into those layers of consciousness in which ancient myths were created and in which people and animals were still able to hear each other.
Jason – a smart, simple, and charming man. He looks much younger than his sixty – it is clear that he spent half his life in the forest. Communication with him evokes a strange feeling: it seems like we are just sitting and talking, but the feeling is that we have gone out into nature. She seems to be looking through him.
For a year and a half, the famous scientist has been sitting in an apartment in Tbilisi. In the mornings, he goes by jeep in the surrounding mountains, watching the packs of dogs. He has nothing else to do, since the scientific base is in Russia, and they do not give a visa. From the forced idleness, Iason began to write memoirs.
When I was about five years old, my father took me to the Borjomi Gorge in the fall. We lived there at the edge of the forest – and strange sounds came. And when I asked, the owners told me that it was a deer screaming. “Why are they screaming?” – “Well, now they are screaming, and in the spring there will be deer …” They could not explain to the child why they were screaming. Well, I knew that children are found in cabbage. I think: there is no cabbage in the forest, which means they are found in the bushes. I expressed my opinion – everyone began to laugh, I was terribly offended …
Then my father and I came to the forest – and we heard the howl of a wolf. And it was a terrible experience, something amazing! Everything in my soul turned upside down.
And until now, as I hear a howl, some excitement comes, I want to run somewhere, it’s hard to explain … From this, apparently, everything started. And when the question stood squarely, what to do, I chose them.
Have you lived with a wolf pack for two years?
Yes, I was originally an experimenter, I studied the physiology of behavior. But I soon realized that we are studying the mechanisms of what we do not know the meaning of. The life of the beast in nature was almost unknown, there were almost no publications about the wolf at that time. I tried to study the group behavior of dogs but soon realized that they had lost many behavioral traits. And then I decided to live with the wolves. I went there, to the Borjomi Gorge, and found one family. I was interested in how behavior is formed, how they teach wolf cubs to hunt …
Wait. How did you meet them, gained trust?
First, I had to define their main paths.
What is it like?
Well, I knew how to track (follow the trail, hunting slang words), I was fond of hunting in my youth – then I tied the barrel with a knot. So, I found out the paths, took the old diapers (my children have already grown out of this), wore them on myself so that they would be saturated with my scent. And he began to lay these pieces on the paths. The matter is white, very contrasted – and the wolf has a very strong neophobia …
Neophobia – they are afraid of everything new. On the other hand, they really want to explore it – they live in such a conflict all the time. The wolves began to walk around these pieces from afar. It was interesting to see how the distance was gradually closing – and in the end, they began to tear these pieces. I then started putting pieces of meat in there. When they started eating it up, it meant that they got used to my smell. This all lasted about four months.
All the time in the woods? How?
Yes, okay: a burka, a backpack, bowlers. I didn’t take the tent. If it was necessary to light a fire, I left for the river. In the mountains, the air flows along the stream, so that the smoke did not bother them. I already knew all their paths, I knew where the daytime rookery, the rendezvous site …
But you didn’t go to them?
In no case – so as not to scare. And then I decided to meet. One morning I saw on the trail that they had passed – mature, male and female – they were looking for a den for the wolf cubs. And he remained to wait for them, about fifty meters from the path. They returned around noon. And when they saw me, the female stopped – and the hardened one went straight at me. He came up to five meters and looked. This state was, I’ll tell you! When at such a distance the beast looks into your eyes. I am unarmed – and he knows it, they know the smell of weapons well.
Why were you unarmed?
Weapons make a man arrogant. He takes risks, to complicate the situation – knowing that he has a weapon behind him. I know, I had a whole arsenal at home, my father had an amazing collection, I got used to handling it since childhood. And my father once taught me: to run away from the beast – there is nothing worse, he will still catch up. So he stood, looked, looked, then barked, turned around – and onto the path. And they quietly left. And I can’t move my tongue, as if my tongue was out. Well, it did, it really did. But it has already become clear that this number will pass with them. He tried me – how I would react. I saw that I would not attack and that I was not going to run away either.
And after that, it became possible to walk with them. They are walking – I am at a distance of fifty or a hundred meters behind them. Where they are – there I am. Burka, my bowlers, and all sorts of things in my backpack – and ran after them. I was in good shape thanks to my father: he was the founder of the local school of stuntmen, and I was engaged in acrobatics since childhood, knew how to control the body – how to jump, where to fall. But all the same, of course, it was difficult to keep up. And they generally gave up on me, at first they ignored me before being insulted as if I did not exist in the world.
That is, you moved to live with them?
Yes, I went with them all the time. Where we stop – there I stay to sleep. Once I slept in a burka wrapped at a rendezvous site – I hear water gurgling, something is being poured onto the burka. I looked out – a seasoned one with a raised leg, he marked me …
And what was that flock?
A wonderful family, the best of them all. The eldest there was an old wolf, then a couple – a father and a mother, three pereyarks (grown-up puppies of previous years), then cubs appeared. The old man no longer hunted, there was a small hillock on the rendezvous site – and he lay on it all the time because the view was good, you could see it from afar. The she-wolf brought him food – belched up after the hunt. Wolves have an interesting ability – they know how to regulate the secretion of the stomach. If the meat is needed for storage or to regurgitate an adult, it is absolutely not digested. Just a shell of mucus and that’s it. This mucus is bactericidal – the meat in the ground does not deteriorate, in the worst case it will dry out a little. And they bring the puppies half-digested – already half an hour after the hunt. And so the old man was fed by a mother she-wolf and one of the peyarks.
This pereyarok, Guram – he also fed me when I was sick there. I severely injured my leg, I was lying, I could not accompany them on the hunt. They were returning, Guram would come up, look into my eyes – and oops – half a meter away from me the meat would burp. Guram was my closest friend, we were engaged in mountaineering together, he died – and I named him this peyarka in honor of him. Really looked like – so tall, light, much lighter than the others. And the character is very good. There are quite often fights between the young. And in them this Guram always won – but at the same time, he never provoked them.
And they all received you the same way?
The adults accepted after that meeting, watched the parents, realized that I was not dangerous. And then the puppies were born – they didn’t know at all that I shouldn’t be there. The point is that these wolves saw me much earlier than I saw them. While I was studying their traces, they already knew me physiognomically. And they realized that my presence provides them with a quiet life from the gamekeepers. There was terrible poaching: they constantly set traps, chased them – they gave fifty rubles for a wolf. And I agreed with the gamekeepers under the threat of a massacre: while I am here, do not touch any wolves.
And how do they live, what do they do?
They rest for a fair amount of time. They must minimize energy costs. On the day, where the whole family gathers, they mostly lie, exchange glances, a seasoned dog and a bitch can lick each other. No adult play. And young people play a lot. Play, rest, and hunting – they don’t do anything else.
Do they sleep at night or during the day?
It is impossible to predict, depending on the situation. If a good prey is flooded, a large deer – they get drunk, they feed the puppies or a bitch that does not hunt after giving birth, they bury the remains, make pantries – and can wallow for days.
What kind of relationship did they have?
Very good. The Pereyarks take great care of the puppies. Everyone also approached the old man, licked him, flew. The only thing is that they determine their status. Young people often fight, at first, it comes to blood; and then they learn to ritualize aggression – a year and a half when the young enter the social system of the elders. Adults also have a state of aggression – but it is ritualized. I can show my fangs, grab – but there won’t be a scratch. It is very important.
How do they hunt?
Well, for example, an old wolf jumps up, sits down, and starts calling others. They rub their noses. He turns around, leaves about fifty meters, listens, comes back, again some kind of contacts – rubs their noses, looks into each other’s eyes, sort of conferring, ring and go hunting.
They descend along the path, stop, again look into the eyes – and everyone disperses. Functions on the hunt are distributed: one runs better, drives, the second attack better in ambush. For example, there was a huge meadow – a she-wolf and her daughter go into the forest, to the edge, an old wolf attacks a deer and chases him, someone blocks his path, they try to drive him closer to the edge – and there the wolf flies out.
And how do they agree, who will be where?
That’s it. There is sound, smell, and visual communication. But there is also some kind of non-verbal connection, telepathic. This is very clearly seen before the hunt: they seem to be conferring, looking into each other’s eyes, such a fixed look – and the animal turns around, goes, and does what it turns out to be adequate to do at that moment. And when all the barriers were gone, I also had this. So I go out hunting with them, the old wolf turns around, looks in the eyes – and I run where I need to. And then it turns out that I went right and closed the path for the deer.
And your consciousness did not bother you?
At first, it got in the way while I was thinking what to do and then – no, absolutely. Within a few months. And after eight months I could already accurately describe what the wolf was doing behind me. Because after all, there was tension all the time: these are wild animals, you need to control. And, apparently, this tension awakened the third eye, or whatever it is called.
Then I set up an experiment. Here I am teaching a wolf indoors: light – a signal to the right, sound – to the left. There’s food in the trough. Training requires, for example, ten experiments. Then this animal remains in the room – I bring in a new wolf. He does not see or hear the first one, I know for sure – I had a microphone that felt from 5 Hz to 35 kHz. No sounds. The second wolf is trained in five experiments. I bring out the first, trained – you need ten or eleven. By what means? After all, this is connected with food: the animal gets excited when it hears conditioned signals, and, apparently, mentally repeats everything that it really had to do. And this is somehow transmitted …
In general, over these two years, a lot of questions have accumulated, which had to be answered experimentally. It was food for the mind, for experimental work.
And often they manage to catch this deer?
It’s good if every fourth hunt is successful.
Infrequently. And how long does it take?
For several days. I said they make pantries. But it turned out that the wolves do not remember the existence of their storerooms. But why do it then, right? I set up experiments. It turned out that the function of these pantries is not to feed themselves, but to create the most stable food base for the puppies. Because the likelihood of accidentally finding your own or someone else’s pantries is so great that you do not need to memorize. It’s good that they don’t remember them, otherwise, they would have eaten them themselves, but we must leave them to the puppies so that they do not starve. If the cubs are malnourished, they grow up mentally ill, excitable – and their aggression is not ritualized, it always remains real. When the she-wolf is on the drift, the family begins to intensively burry the prey. They will bury and forget. This is an incredibly adaptive inability to remember. “Adaptive failure” sounds absurd – but it is.
Did you want to understand how they teach wolf cubs to hunt?
Yes, all large predators teach children to hunt. From birth, they do not know-how. Mussels, for example, hunt rodents, there they have one technique, it is genetically determined. As soon as the young marten has left the nest, she can hunt, her parents do not teach her. A wolf cub can kill a rat in the game – and immediately lose all interest in it, and can die of hunger next to this rat.
I think that large predators have a very large species diversity of prey. They have some innate instinctive elements: a positive reaction to the smell of blood, the pursuit of moving objects – but this is far from being able to hunt. If an untrained wolf falls into a flock of sheep, he will simply be in a panic. He has no idea that this is food. Hunting for them is a culture, a tradition. Moreover, each family has its own. Families who know how to hunt only moose or only deer can live in the same area. On the one hand, this is a smart division so as not to compete. But on the other hand, this is a classic example of tradition. If a wolf cub is not taught to hunt a moose, he himself will not learn – he does not even know the smell of it.
Where we lived with them, in the Nikolaev times there was an imperial hunting farm. And at that time one unusual hunting technique was described among wolves. In general, normally they try to let the deer go downhill, and he tries to go upstairs. For deer, this is an instinctive reaction: it is easier for them to escape at the top, and going downhill is one hundred percent death. And then the wolves specifically drove him uphill – which ended in an abyss. The deer fell there, and they calmly bypassed this mountain and hunted it there. The same reception at the same particular place was with me. Passed down from generation to generation.
So maybe they don’t need to negotiate then?
There are no absolutely standard situations. Old experience should be applied in a new situation – that is, to think. I was always interested in whether animals are capable of thinking or not. I set up experiments to apply old experiences to new conditions. In different experiments, everything looks different – both visually and physically. But the animal is able to catch the logic of the problem itself. On a hunt, a beast cannot do anything without the ability to think. It is only necessary to extrapolate the direction of movement of the victim dozens of times per hunt. This is a fairly simple level – but you have to learn it, the wolf from the zoo will not be able to. And they are capable of a higher level: to predict the result of their actions, to act purposefully. I’ve had experiments that prove this.
Then I also found out that wolves can count – up to seven and a multiple of seven. They often have to solve problems that consist of a large number of sets, and they can. Well, that is, he can easily find the third bowl in the fifth row. But, if the number is more than seven, it gets lost …
In short, they think all the time. And if something happened during the hunt – once is enough, and they begin to apply this technique. Somehow the roe deer climbed into the bushes – and could not move there. And instantly she was crushed. In the next hunt, they purposefully try to drive her into the bush.
And how do they teach wolf cubs?
First, they bring pieces of meat, then pieces of meat with skin – they teach puppies to the smell of prey. Moreover, they do it strictly according to age. At four months, adults begin to call the cubs to their prey. They will get a deer – and howl they call, show what it looks like. Then they teach to take the trail and trail. At first, the puppies do not understand in which direction to run on the trail – but after a few days they are already tracing correctly. But if they catch up, they run away: up to nine months they experience an overwhelming fear of the deer. Then they begin to go hunting with adults. At first, they just run around, they are even more afraid, then they start to drive, then bite – and gradually they master the techniques, by about one and a half years. Everyone has their own techniques – it depends on the strength, character. Someone rushes on the croup, someone on the side. If the wolf is weaker, it will choose tactics where there is less effort, if the cowardly, it will act as it is safer. And the roles add up: one drive, the other directs, the third is in ambush …
And besides, the cubs have been playing with each other all this time. If we compare how the wolf cub attacks during the game – and then on the hunt, it turns out that it is the same. At the same time, they learn to feel, understand each other. And then these skills are honed on real objects. They start with a small one, with a hare, learn how to take it best. Moreover, the training starts from one time: once you make a mistake, it will not repeat it the second time.
Did this family change in any way while you lived there?
Only one was kicked out. He had a very difficult character, all the time some conflicts arose – and they kicked him out. A seemingly aggressive individual should become dominant. But if this aggressiveness crosses some line, then the entire social system, with all low-ranking individuals, unites and expels it. This is a mechanism that stops excessive aggression. And this beast will never be able to find a sexual partner. Thus, if it is a gene for aggression, it is excised.
And where did he go?
Well, out of bounds. For wolves, the territories do not touch, the system is not closed. The border from the border is two to three kilometers, there are neutral zones so that individuals can go out. A family cannot grow indefinitely. Although only one pair breeds, the dominant one is a hardened wolf with a she-wolf. As a rule, peyarks do not even have heat; to reproduce, they must either leave or wait for their parents to grow old. But all the same, the litters are large – and about once every four years, the family reaches a critical number, it becomes cramped. All mammals have a need for a certain number of social contacts. And as soon as this amount goes beyond the norm, a noise begins in the group, conflicts arise. The distance during sleep increases – this is the first indicator. Normally, they sleep closely. The number of aggressive interactions increases, the social distance increases, and groupings is formed. One group has little contact with the other, and eventually, someone has to leave. The dominant group remains.
Where are those?
How lucky there. If you enter someone else’s territory, they will kill you. But it happens that you can join others – if their group is small, they do not have enough social contacts. Or he will come out to a person and start slaughtering sheep.
Pereyark was kicked out and the old wolf died. It was just the time when the cubs come out of the den. Wolf cubs are born in a den and do not want to get out, they have neophobia. And the lair is always set up somewhere else, secluded, not at the rendezvous site. And so in the evening, we all gathered there, except for the old wolf. At dawn I was awakened by a screech – the cubs are hungry, their mother did not feed them for almost a day. Just glance at them for a minute – and back, lie down in front of the den. And the older sister too. And the rest are sitting around, waiting, tense. Already the day before I could see that the wolves are worried, waiting for something. It lasted four hours. In the end, faces emerge from the hole, such charming ones. It was a very exciting moment. I remember catching myself whining with delight too. Mother crawled, licked them, came back – and then they made up their minds. The little ones fell out of there, limped to their mother, sucked. They were all surrounded, sniffing …
And suddenly we heard a terrible howl, just terrible. It was immediately clear that something terrible was happening there. We ran back – the old wolf sat on the hillock and howled, heartbreaking, some cry of despair. And then he left – that’s all.
The next wolf took his place only a month later. During the month I did not go up there. As if some kind of commemoration, I cannot explain. I’m afraid to anthropomorphize. But I can imagine: firstly, the smell of death is a very powerful thing for animals. They are not afraid of death in advance, they do not know what death is. But the smell of death, while the wolf is dying, while rigor mortis has not yet set in, they are afraid of panic.
And they say that wolves eat the sick, the old?
Yes, these are all fairy tales. Young people often die from fights: they get injured – bleeding or infection, they will not be able to move, they will weaken. Only half of them survive to the age of one. But purposefully they never kill. And about cannibalism is a bluff. Of course, you can bring it.
In fact, they have fantastically developed mutual assistance. They saved my life too. We were returning from the hunt, but the hunt was terribly unsuccessful. Now a few deer have left us, then something else. All-day long and towards evening, we can barely drag our feet. And the wolves are tired, but you can imagine me. And about five kilometers from the rendezvous site, a huge boulder lay. I go up to him, I have to sit down, really no strength. And from there the bear rears up. And the distance is like you and me. I don’t remember now: I screamed or he made some sounds – but the wolves heard and rushed. Although one of his blows could rip this wolf. The she-wolf took him by the heel – and then the poet’s soul could not bear it, he went down the slope.
Then for the first time, I thought about altruism: what is it? This means that this is the realization of a biological need. What will happen – the beast does not think about it. And then I realized that all that we have, what we are proud of – it was not we who invented it, it all comes from there … But it is interesting that they do not protect the wolf cubs from humans – they understand that it is better for the manufacturer to remain than to perish. And this is acquired, culture. The cubs are protected from any other animal – from lynx, for example, or from neighbors, other wolves.
Does it happen that others attack?
This rarely happens when there are territorial wars. If food is drying up in that area for some reason – as a rule, because of a person.
Did your wolves howl at the moon?
They are not howling at the moon, it is just that the full moon causes a surge of emotion.
Why are they howling?
Communicate with other groups, this is social contact, “touch”. In addition, this is information about the distance to other animals, about the status, about the emotional state. Each has its own party – and, apparently, they are strictly functional.
How do they know how to howl?
Generally, there are two categories of sounds. Congenital, to which the reaction in others is also congenital. For example, the sound of danger is such a snorting bark. Puppies hear him – run away, although no one taught them. And there are acquired sounds taught. Moreover, there are dialects: for example, a Kakhetian wolf is unlikely to understand a wolf from Western Georgia. I was in Canada, at the invitation of John Teberge, came to the national park. I began to hammer (howl invitingly), turned around – ul-lyu-lyu – in Georgian, let the curls go – and generally, the wolves spat on me. I was terribly offended. And Teberzh was just a clarinet like this – uuuu – and that’s it, they went crazy, they began to shout.
And what do all these curls mean? What do they say to each other?
If I knew, I would have compiled a dictionary. These questions are also terribly interesting to me – it’s a pity, there is no opportunity to study. Different information is transmitted. For example, I found that parents, when wolf cubs call for prey at a great distance, then howl explain how to go. There are also paths, it is impossible to go straight. The old wolf walks to the turn – howls, the puppy hears. Then, until the next one, he will howl there. At four or five months, the cubs already understand, this zigzag is formed in the imagination, they can easily find it. There is a howl for gathering a flock – when the group disperses and the wolf gets bored. This sound is easy to distinguish – it induces such melancholy, turns the soul inside out. To be honest, there are many different views on this topic, but so far it is not clear enough.
And you sat with them for two years? Can’t get out?
No, when you sit for three months in the forest, the soul requires human communication. Sometimes I returned home to Tbilisi for a few days, it was impossible longer, so as not to lose the habit.
And with the wolf family, how did it end?
It was impossible to settle there forever, I would love to, but it was impossible. And a year later I returned – and it turned out that before that, fifty-four wolves, including mine, had been exterminated there. It was very difficult …
And after that, the reserve was filled with feral dogs, because there was no one to keep the borders. Then I tamed others to myself, I had five more families – but that turned out to be the most important for me. Further, we had more distance, and not so interesting, to be honest. Basically, those wolves walked with sheep, wandered to winter and summer pastures. And these are psychologically completely different animals, an uninteresting life.