Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wolves of Southern Italy

Oh, Oh,
Ninna Nanna, Ninna Nanna, Oh,
Lu Lupu S'ha Magnata La Pecurella, Oh,

Pecurella Me' Como Facisto, Oh
Quanne "Mmocca A Lu Lupe Te Vedisto, Oh ?

Go To Sleep, Go To Sleep,
The Wolf Has Eaten The Little Lamb, Oh

Dear Little Lamb, How Did You Do, Oh
When You Saw Yourself 
In The Mouth Of The Wolf? Oh!

Many a southern Italian child has heard and felt as vibration through a mother's body this soothing lullaby. It is known throughout Italy in one version or another. This one was sung by my Barese grandmother and is probably one of the first songs I heard as a newborn.

The lyrics above are from Molise, but are very similar to the version we are familiar with, as testified to by the excellent memory of my brother.

Don't let your nodding eyelids and the sweet smelling warmth of the blankets fool you into thinking that all is safe and sound. There are beings out there lurking in the dark and you'd better beware.

Lullabies seem to serve two functions. To apply some evolutionary psychology, one function is to calm the infant and the other is a self reminder to the mother of the threats facing her newborn. The wolf still hunts nightly and not only in our folk memory.

Central Park Zoo fence inspired by Aesop's Fable

The Italian wolf, Canis lupus italicus, is increasing in number throughout the Apennine Range. From as few as 70 to 100 individuals in the 1970's the population is now estimated to be as high as 800. It is also expanding into the Alps and southern France. There are wolf populations in the Mount Cervati area close to my ancestral town of Sassano, as well as in the Pollino Parco area which straddles Calabria and Basilicata. They also can be found in the high range of the Apennines in Abruzzi east of Rome.

In 1921 a naturalist by the name of Giuseppe Altobello suggested that it was a subspecies of  the Grey wolf, Canis lupus, based on a lower hindquarter and different shading on the front legs. The Italian wolf is also smaller  in size, ranging from 55 to 90 pounds in weight and 40 to 50 inches in length . Genetic testing has confirmed that it is indeed a distinct subspecies and also the breed of wolf with the least amount of other canine admixture as wolves are capable of breeding with dogs and coyote.

It is thought that the Italian wolf population became isolated from the rest of Europe in a refugium on the southern part of the peninsula during the last glacial maximum or ice age( it is only in remission at the moment). Another theory is that the divergence came about with the deforestation and human settlement in the north of Italy causing a barrier to the different breeding populations.

The Italian wolf is a protected species in Italy as it should be. However, many are killed each year by cars and by people defending their livestock.
As we attempt to adapt to the presence of wolves they in turn are adapting to our increased presence, but not always in a positive way. University of Rome biologist Luigi Boitani estimates that between 60 to 70 per cent of a wolf's diet is now human refuse. Expect to see wolf packs trotting the slopes of Vesuvius in the near future as they have also been spotted only 25 miles from Rome.

The photo above was taken by a friend of a friend's uncle somewhere in southern Italy. It appears to be from the 1950's to the best of my estimation. The uncle and his hunting companions were out on a rabbit hunt with their hounds when the dogs were attacked by the wolves. They were forced to kill the wolves to protect themselves and the dogs. An unfortunate occurrence but one ruled by the seeming immutable laws of nature.

Predators at the top of the food chain are supposed to serve the function of limiting the numbers of those species below them whose increasing numbers would threaten the balance of the entire ecosystem. As an example, our forests here in New Jersey will never grow to what they once were even in areas not threatened by development. The deer population has grown so large that  tree shoots on the ground are quickly consumed.

Large predators at the top of the food chain are incapable of establishing  a population large enough to reduce the number of deer. While there are coyote capable of preying on young and  lesser deer they cannot increase in population due to the presence of man. As the number of human hunters continues to decrease dramatically, the situation will only worsen. Of course it will all reach a balance at some point but it may not be as some would want it. This begs the question of "what is the desired balance".

As the wolf was once at the top of the food chain, the  vanity of man being at the top could also change. Is there a species lurking out there waiting for it's turn at the top? Will certain subspecies someday be a hunted remnant at the edges? There have been nobler specimens of man who have disappeared, as well as nobler species. And could there be higher beings out there who consider man as a lamb? Oh well, sweet dreams. Maybe you will wake up and not have to "see your world from the mouth of the wolf" someday.

Posted by Il Saccente



  1. The wolf hunting pic is of 3 of my great uncles in Italy. They were out rabbit hunting back in the late 30's, early 40's. The dogs were hunting when they started baying very different than when they were on a rabbit. My great uncle, standing on the passenger side running board, took off running towards them and found that they had encountered a pack of wolves. By the time he got there the wolves had already killed one of the dogs. My uncle raised his side by side and took aim at the first wolf. By the time the smoke cleared and his gun jammed somehow, he had killed three wolves. When my other uncles arrived the remaining wolves had run off. Needless to say it was a day that they wouldn't forget for as long as they lived. The only remaining great uncle still alive is the gentleman standing on the driver's side running board. He's in his mid 90's now and I call him every deer season from camp to tell him that we're there and he loves to hear how we are doing and how many deer we killed. He hasn't hunted in years but he loves to hear the stories. Least I could do is call him and let him live it through us.

  2. Hello Anonymous,
    Thanks for the whole story. It's a great picture.
    Any idea where in Italy this was taken?

  3. i love the twilight zone reference. i use it often when pointing out certain individuals arrogant assumptions about man's place in the scheme of things. thank you for such an interesting and intelligent blog. my ancestry is southern Italian-Puglia, Molise and Sicily. it was a joy to find this!