No, seriously — I’m like one of those insane dog lovers.
Before he passed last year, I had a basset hound named Bernie that I still consider the best friend I’ve ever had. Despite his limited canine lifespan, I don’t think I could count two-hands-worth of people that would have beaten Bern-dog in a “Sophie’s Choice” type of situation.
I’m guessing I’m not alone in that this quarantine is giving me lots of time to think these days. Probably too much time.
Between mindless daydreams of how I’ll fare in the post-coronavirus apocalypse, poking around Twitter for the next thing to jolt my heartrate a few ticks, and wandering the abandoned streets of downtown Las Vegas for a little sun, — like presumably everybody else – I watch documentaries.
It was after getting caught up with ESPN’s enthralling docuseries on MJ’s “Last Dance” with the Bulls (what a bum Jerry Krause is, by the way) that I reached “peak quarantine.” I was reading an article titled What Animals Think when it hit me:
Not that this was the first time I’ve ever pondered this question…
I can remember watching Planet Earth or Our Planet — one of those phenomenal high-definition timewasters and having a similar idea. Hippos were doing battle in a small pond; mating rights were on the line. I’ll never forget the aerial shot of that poor dejected loser slinking away in defeat.
I think I related to him on some level.
Whatever the case, since then, I’ve often wondered:
- Who is the Mohammed Ali of hippopotamus pond dueling? Surely there’s some legendary fighter with a decades-long unbeaten streak and the biggest harem of hippo groupies the world has ever seen.
- Who’s the Wayne Gretsky of silverback gorillas?
- What’s the most remarkable come-from-behind underdog story ever told on the Serengeti? A zebra whose perfectly timed kick turned out a pursuing lion’s lights like Buster Douglas in Japan, perhaps?
The Michael Jordan of Gray Wolves
An excerpt from Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel appeared in a 2015 edition of The Week. In it, the author makes one thing abundantly clear: there was, in fact, a Michael Jordan of the gray wolf kingdom in Yellowstone National Park – his name was Twenty-one.
The thesis of Safina’s piece deals with the complicated inner lives of animals – “who” they are and how conscious they may be of their place in the world – or at least their position within their social arrangements.
It features Rick McIntyre, a man who’s dedicated his life to observing the wolves in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley and “can glance through a telescope at a wolf on a ridge a mile away and instantly tell you who it is by name, and recite its life.”
That’s especially true when it comes to Twenty-one — the GOAT.
As Rick sees it, wolves and humans must deal with similar life problems, “such as figuring out when to face the risks of leaving home, finding your place in the world. There are endless similarities,” he says. He notes, though, one difference between wolves and himself: “Certain wolves I’ve known — they were better at being a wolf than I’ve been at being a person.”
“And if ever there was a perfect wolf,” Rick says, “it was Twenty-one. He was like a fictional character. But he was real.”
The article paints a picture of a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, “big-shouldered,” “utterly fearless in defense of his family,” and possessing “the size, strength, and agility to win against overwhelming odds.”
“On two occasions, I saw Twenty-one take on six attacking wolves — and rout them all,” Rick says. It “was like watching Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan — a one-of-a-kind talent at the top of his game, the extreme high end of the skill set, talent outside of ‘normal.'”
Now we’re talkin’!
Twenty-one waltzed into the family known as the Druid Peak pack less than two days after the Druids’ alpha male had also illegally been shot. The Druid females welcomed this prime male wolf; their pups loved the big new guy. He adopted the pups and helped feed them. With no hassle at all, Twenty-one had left home and immediately become the alpha male of an established pack. It was his big break in life.
Speed, strength, agility, broad-shouldered, and capable of leading his own pack immediately upon entering the league?! Sounds like a young Lebron James.
And an incredible leader to boot?!
Check this out:
Twenty-one was “remarkably gentle” with the members of his pack, says Rick. Immediately after making a kill, he would often walk away to urinate or lie down and nap, allowing family members who’d had nothing to do with the hunt to eat their fill.
One of Twenty-one’s favorite things was to wrestle with little pups. “And what he really loved to do,” Rick adds, “was to pretend to lose. He just got a huge kick out of it.” Here was this great big male wolf. And he’d let some little wolf jump on him and bite his fur. “He’d just fall on his back with his paws in the air,” Rick half-mimes. “And the triumphant-looking little one would be standing over him with his tail wagging.”
“The ability to pretend,” Rick adds, “shows that you understand how your actions are perceived by others. It indicates high intelligence. I’m sure the pups knew what was going on, but it was a way for them to learn how it feels to conquer something much bigger than you. And that kind of confidence is what wolves need every day of their hunting lives.”
Thinking back on the “ The Last Dance,” and every story I’ve read about super-competitors like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, I’m not sure they’d ever show their team’s rookies such mercy.
(Though, to be fair, their respective approaches to parenting are undoubtedly a different story – and plenty gentle, I’m sure. The comparisons between life-or-death in the wilderness and human sports stars/teams only go so far since, for the animal, teammates and family are synonymous.)
Here’s where my mind turned to the potential brilliance of betting on nature and these incredible stories:
Wolf territorial fights resemble human tribal warfare. When packs fight, numbers count, but experience matters an awful lot. Juveniles can seem lost in the confusion. Wolves often target the alphas of the rival pack, as if they fully understand that if they can rout or kill the experienced leaders, victory will be theirs.
The second most common cause of wolf death in the Rockies is getting killed by other wolves. (Getting killed by humans is first.) Twenty-one distinguished himself in two ways: He never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished wolf.
Safina goes on to detail Twenty-one’s historic run, creating the most massive wolf pack in recorded history:
Early in Twenty-one’s run as an alpha, three females in his pack gave birth. That was extraordinary. Usually, only the alpha female, or “matriarch,” breeds. The three litters reflected the unnaturally abundant food supply. An astounding 20 pups survived, swelling an already large pack to a hard-to-believe 37 wolves, the largest ever documented. Because the pack’s size resulted from a food base so artificially swollen after seven decades devoid of wolves, the three-dozen-member pack might have been the world’s all-time largest.
“Only Twenty-one had what it took to run an outfit that large,” Rick comments. It wasn’t all peaceful. The high density of wolves likely produced unnaturally high wolf-on-wolf conflict. In territorial defense and in pursuit of expanded territory, Twenty-one participated in plenty of fights.
Incredibly, “MJ of the Canis lupus subspecies” dominated the Lamar Valley until he was nine years old, before retiring on his own terms.
That last day, it seems, Twenty-one knew his time had come. He used the last of his energy to go up to the top of a high mountain. In a favorite family rendezvous site, where he’d been with his pups year after year, amid high summer grass and mountain wildflowers, Twenty-one curled up in the shade of a big tree. And on his own terms, he went to sleep for the last time.
The Greatest Stories Never Told (or Wagered)
Is that not one of the great legends of leadership, kingdom building, and general excellence? And that’s just one species of animal in one specific region of the world!
Every major sports league on the planet is currently suspended. People are relying on virtual sports simulations, professional athletes competing against each other in video games, politics, and entertainment to get their betting fix. And while those are all fantastic, how would wagering on Twenty-one’s next battle for alpha supremacy not be superior in every way?!
Every national park and wildlife preserve already has someone like Rick McIntyre, dedicating their entire existence to the goings-on within their little slice of Earth. They’re already tagging the animals, tracking their movements, and recording the details of their stories.
I’m talking about blending the most compelling facets of the two best documentary genres – sports and nature.
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat — only, the stakes are considerably higher: the losers frequently die!
Not Limited to Wolves
The legacy of Twenty-one and the Druid pack isn’t the only top-tier story/performance I’ve discovered.
“He Who Greets With Fire”
The first time I became enamored with an individual character in a nature documentary, I was watching the National Geographic documentary Eternal Enemies, about the never-ending blood feud between lions and hyenas in the Serengeti.
What starts as a relatively typical nature documentary takes on a new shade of awesomeness when Ntwadumela appears. “He who greets with fire.”
Ntwadumela is quite possibly the most gangster lion ever to be captured on film. Throughout the documentary, whenever hyenas are getting out of line, this psycho appears on the horizon, trots in like a superhero, and annihilates everyone.
Without fail, he swoops in, identifies the hyena matriarch, and dispatches her with an effortless swiftness before heading back to his napping tree. You’d think a name like “he who greets with fire” the hyenas would know not to mess around, but you know how hyenas are.
Now, imagine what happens if you put six Ntwadumela’s in the same pride. The Mapogos were a band of South African lions in the Sabi Sand region of Kruger National Park. The group was led by Makulu – believed to have latched on with the aptly-named “Sparta Pride” after the first coalition lost a male lion of a similar age.
Makulu grew larger than the rest of his pride. Along with five brothers — Rasta, Scar, Pretty Boy, Kinky Tail, and Mr. T – Makulu’s Mapogo coalition not only gained control of the Sparta Pride; they took over an entire 170,000-acre region, killing over 100 rival lions and cubs in the process.
Ultimately, Makulu crippled Mr. T when the latter challenged for the crown – sending “T” and his brother Kinky Tail off to fend for themselves. Shortly thereafter, the brothers took on five Majingilane intruders.
The exiled “Spartans” managed to isolate and kill the encroaching pride’s leader, but later that same night, a camera crew witnessed the surviving four return. In a scene from any classic gangster movie, the four young Majingilane “caught Kinky Tail slippin’.”
Despite being separated from his brother, Kinky Tail charged all four of them by himself. Unfortunately, as is the case for all warriors and combat sports athletes, Father Time is undefeated. Kinky was getting older, and all four opponents descended upon him at once, snapping his spine in the process.
Mr. T limped into the fray in an attempt at a daring rescue, but he was outgunned and too late. The legendary Mapogo coalition member was forced to flee while the invaders finished off his brother.
AND THERE’S WAY MORE TO THIS STORY!!!
If there are already camera crews documenting this action, how is it possible that we aren’t getting play-by-play updates and betting odds?!
Then extend the coverage beyond lions and wolves. Where are the silverback gorillas; the hippo battles for pond supremacy; the fierce and brutal chimpanzee wars; the kangaroo kickboxing matches?
Admittedly, as an animal lover, the thought of wagering on animals fighting to the death disturbs me — but here’s the thing: humans aren’t interfering in any way. Do I get sad when the Planet Earth narrator calmly provides play-by-play as a thousand Komodo dragons poison and dismember an adorable baby wildebeest? Of Course!
But that’s part of appreciating the savagery of the animal kingdom. It’s still magnitudes better than what’s going down in dilapidated backwoods barns, with Mississippi opioid addicts “yipping” excitedly, spitting, and setting pit bulls on each other.
Whatever happens in Yellowstone National Park or Sabi Sand in South Africa is going on regardless. We’d just be paying attention, analyzing the data wildlife experts are already collecting, and making predictions.
Not only is that exponentially less reprehensible than dog, bull, or cockfighting, I’d argue that it’s more responsible than even the most accepted animal-related sporting events like greyhounds or horse racing.
Animal Kingdom Battles vs. Horse Racing
Revisiting the gray wolves of the Lamar Valley, the article highlights a rival prospective alpha named Casanova:
IN TWENTY-ONE’S LIFE, there was a particular male, a sort of roving Casanova, a continual annoyance. He was strikingly good-looking, had a big personality, and was always doing something interesting. “The best single word is ‘charisma,'” says Rick. “Female wolves were happy to mate with him. People loved him. His irresponsibility and infidelity — it didn’t matter.”
One day, Twenty-one discovered this Casanova among his daughters. Twenty-one ran in, caught him, and began biting and pinning him to the ground. Various pack members piled in, beating Casanova up.
“Casanova was also big,” Rick says, “but he was a bad fighter. Now he was totally overwhelmed, and the pack was finally killing him. Suddenly Twenty-one steps back. Everything stops. The pack members are looking at Twenty-one as if saying, ‘Why has Dad stopped?'” The Casanova wolf jumped up and — as always in such situations — ran away.
Now, imagine – after this particular run-in – the odds you could get on Casanova ever being the alpha of the famed Druid pack.
Nevertheless, after Twenty-one passed away, Casanova managed to do just that:
Fast-forward to after Twenty-one’s death. Casanova briefly became the Druid pack’s alpha male. But he wasn’t effective, Rick recalls. He didn’t know what to do, “just not a leader personality.” And although it’s very rare for a younger brother to depose an older one, that’s what happened to him. Casanova didn’t mind; it meant he was free to wander and meet other females.
Eventually Casanova, along with several young Druid males, met some females, and they all formed another pack. “With them,” Rick remembers, “he finally became the model of a responsible alpha male and a great father.”
Is that story too cruel to bet on?
Wolves had to fight (and in most cases, one must die) to make it happen – but it’s merely nature, playing out as it always does.
They produce a thoroughbred foal with a nice deep chest, long legs and neck, tiny hooves, and a million-dollar pedigree – built for speed. The trainer spends a couple of years finely tuning the remarkable animal to compete.
The public hears little else of the horse’s personality, and its existence requires minimal social skills — other than being referred to as “hot-blooded” from time to time and knowing not to stop on the track and start biting the other runners or jockeys. It starts racing and maybe wins a couple “gimmes.”
Before anyone’s ever heard of the damn thing, the poor beast loses its balance on a track, stubs its million-dollar hoof, or catches a mild horsey cold. Because it’s been so overbred and over-specialized for speed, the thing’s basically too fragile to endure any of it.
The whole process is like a deranged Nazi eugenics program, so concerned with creating the fastest runner; they built the equine equivalent of a car with a Ferrari engine, tin foil chassis, and boxcar derby breaks. The wind blows on it wrong, and you’ve paid hundreds-of-thousands of dollars (or more), so two uninterested mutant horses could have sex and sire the world’s most expensive batch of glue.
Not only does that story suck, but it’s also considerably less humane. Get these humans and the weird breeding regimens and the unnatural competitive conditions and all the mint-julep-sucking Kentuckians the hell out of the way.
What nature is providing is superior!
Give me Casanova and Twenty-one, their complex rivalries and backstories, harsh battles for dominance, and the occasional tragic ending over a long-necked abomination having to be prematurely eviscerated because a hard sneeze blew its whole spine out of whack –
Every. Single. Time.
Conservation: A Win-Win for Everyone
Do you know what else following and betting on animals in their natural habitats generates? Dramatic gains in the public’s interest in conservation efforts!
For the first time ever, legions of handicappers and sports fans will know the names and day-to-day activities of wild animals half a globe away.
Better than being relegated to the odd horror story of another overweight American dentist paying $500k for three African guides to poison a lion so it’ll lay there and let him waddle over and shoot it in the face (obviously not really the face, since that’d ruin the “look what I killed” trophy picture).
Instead, we’d grow attached to our favorite animals/packs/prides/families and their unique stories of tragedy, triumph, and heroics. Maybe the sportsbooks who cover nature/animal kingdom betting can chip in part of the action to the relevant parks and wildlife preserves. Those donations could pay for improved tracking, securing more land, setting up more cameras, and funding anti-poaching systems.
If you want to put an end to poachers once and for all, let a stone-cold handicapper find out their promising 20-to-1 lion was illegally shot and killed because some maniac wanted to mount its head on the wall of their law offices. Or maybe grind its claws into powder for use in some antiquated homeopathic erectile dysfunction “medicine.”
Within six months, there’d be an entire industry built around wealthy bettors traveling overseas to hunt and kill poachers. “Live by the sword, “and all that…
If you want to change things in a hurry, those are the ingredients to make it happen.
The stories are out there! They’re happening all the time! Right now, there’s a kangaroo in the outback riding a 50-fight win streak with all knockouts going wholly unappreciated! A next-generation Mapogo coalition is sweeping every opponent their encounter on the planes.
If Makulu’s original six were the 97-98 Chicago Bulls, this new group is the dynasty Warriors. Is there a small-ball, three-and-D, switch-everything equivalent to lion warfare? We don’t know, nobody is amplifying what the hell’s going on out there, nor are oddsmakers setting lines!
How Hard Can This Be?
The animal kingdom is out there telling the world’s most compelling, thrilling, and heart-wrenching stories every hour of every day of the year, whether we’re focused on the action or not. We all love when a new documentary or docuseries comes along highlighting these incredible tales but is that amount of content adequate in such pressing times?
There are no major sports, we’ve all already seen Tiger King, and ESPN makes us wait a week between dropping two new episodes of “The Last Dance,” each Sunday.
In politics, the field of competitors is already down to Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump – one’s dealing with a national pandemic, while the other is potentially hiding his own Easter Eggs (and, I’d imagine, struggling mightily to find the ones he’s hidden).
Election Day isn’t until November.
Meanwhile, there are park rangers, wildlife experts, and camera crews out there documenting the greatest dramas/stories/performances for which we could ever wish to consume.
- Choose the species and regions to cover.
- Collect the data from each area’s experts and organize it in a central location.
- Publish maps of the chosen regions, broken up into sectors.
- Publish bios for each animal that’s already tagged and under observation, as well as what’s at stake.
- Decide the terms: are we betting on individual animals becoming alphas of their own packs, groups/families/prides taking control of turf, or both?
- Convince the top online sportsbooks to compile the data that’s collected, follow the action, and set betting odds.
- Ensure a portion of the action goes towards improving tracking, camera coverage, land acquisition for national parks and wildlife preserves, and fighting illegal poaching. The least we can do is create a better situation for the performers in exchange for all this entertainment and content.
I’ve discovered the future of handicapping, and it just-so-happens to have been right in front of the human race’s collective faces all along.
Why wait for high-priced production teams to package and deliver a few meager hours of fresh nature footage every few years?
The next Michael Jordan’s, Tiger Woods’, Muhammed Ali’s, and Tom Brady’s are out there right now, painting their respective masterpieces in silence!
There’s a global quarantine in place, people; how much longer can we afford to wait?