Depending on where you live, your wild neighbors are probably on the small side: squirrels, geese, songbirds, maybe the occasional deer. In some parts of the United States, though, we’re lucky enough to share our land with North America’s native carnivores. Wolves, black bears and mountain lions have played essential roles in our ecosystems for millennia, but they’re often maligned, misunderstood and hunted just for a trophy. These creatures have rich social and family lives, and we here at the Humane Society of the United States think they’re worth protecting for that reason alone. We’ve gathered some surprising facts about these species to share with you, and we hope you pass them along to help others see these animals in a new, more compassionate light.

Wolves support new mothers with gifts of food

Just like you might swing by your neighbors’ house with a casserole to welcome their new baby, members of a wolf pack sometimes drop by a new mom’s den with gifts of food. Once the pups are old enough to leave the den, Mom moves them to a more open spot nearby where the pups can play and hang out with other members of the pack.

To protect songbirds, you’ve got to protect native carnivores

By hunting deer, elk and other prey (including individuals who are sick), mountain lions and wolves keep those populations healthy and in check. Otherwise, these species become overpopulated and overgraze on fragile ecosystems, making them inhospitable to small mammals, amphibians, birds and even butterflies.

Close up of a mountain lions paw
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Mountain lions have webbed feet

As mountain lions stalk their prey, webbed skin and fur between their toes help muffle their footsteps. Once they start running, they can sprint up to 50 miles per hour and bound up to 40 feet horizontally. Mountain lions have powerful thighs, too. “When they crouch a little, they kind of look like kangaroos with these large thighs and long tails,” says Haley Stewart, HSUS program manager for wildlife protection. All that power means they can jump up to 18 feet vertically.

Wolves seem to mourn their packmates

After a mountain lion killed a low-ranking female in one Idaho wolf pack, the remaining animals seemed less spirited. Observers noted that individuals sang alone in a low tone—rather than howling together as a group—and held their heads and tails low when they came upon the site where the female was killed.

Photo of a bear hanging on a bird feeder
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Alamy Stock Photo

Black bears have big brains

In fact, bears have the largest relative brain size of any carnivore. One study even suggests an ability to “count” the number of dots on a screen. Black bears put all that brainpower to use in the wild, where they’ve got to be resourceful to find new sources of food in a landscape that can change drastically from year to year.

Bear poo spreads seeds ... and feeds other animals

Bears eat lots of berries, and they have to come out eventually. Those droppings help spread seeds. Mice and voles then feast on bear scat, eating the seeds and in some cases dispersing them farther. Bears help create a balanced forest ecosystem in other ways, too: Their urine adds valuable nutrients to the soil, as do decomposing logs that come apart as bears search for grubs. Bears even help bring sunlight to the forest floor as they break branches in search of fruit.

Wolves can learn to fish

Thanks to trail cameras and GPS collars, researchers in northern Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park made a surprising discovery: Wolves can fish. Although wolves in northern coastal areas have been known to eat spawning salmon, this was the first time wolves were documented hunting freshwater fish. The researchers also spotted wolves eating blueberries during the summer months, suggesting the animals adapt their eating habits to the food at hand. 

Wolf with fish in its mouth
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Wolves have strong social structures

Although we’re used to hearing the term “alpha male” to describe a wolf pack’s leader, Amanda Wight—HSUS program manager for wildlife protection—notes that the scientific community now prefers the terms “breeding male” and “breeding female.” Think of a wolf pack as a family unit, with the breeding pair at the head, a litter of pups and often a few adults from the previous year’s litter. All the members depend on one another, and if a member of the pack is killed, the pack often falls apart or has trouble finding enough food.

Black bear and cub
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Alamy Stock Photo

A mother mountain lion spends up to two years caring for her kittens

Born without survival skills, mountain lion kittens need Mom to teach them to hunt, forage and survive on their own. Newborns spend a few months in a den, where Mom nurses them and occasionally ventures out to find food. If a trophy hunter kills a nursing mother while she’s out hunting, her kittens could die from exposure or starvation. Orphaned kittens who survive might try to find easy meals like chickens in nearby coops, leading to conflicts with human neighbors.

Black bear moms have endless patience

Compared to cubs of other bear species, black bear cubs are wild, fun-loving … and probably pretty draining to parent, says Wendy Keefover, HSUS senior strategist for native carnivore protection. (Cubs have even been spotted swinging at playgrounds.) Keefover—who spent years visiting Yellowstone National Park to observe and photograph black bears—notes that mama bears tolerate all that play with gentle care. “They’re just infinitely patient with them. They never seem to get mad at them. It’s incredible to watch.”

Beauty shot of a wolf
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Do your part

  • Speak out against trophy hunting, where animals are killed for their parts or bragging rights.
  • Use bear-proof trash cans, enclose compost and keep your barbecue grill clean to avoid conflicts with hungry bears.
  • Push back against unsporting hunting methods such as hounding, trapping and baiting, where hunters lure bears with doughnuts, pastries and other irresistible treats.
  • Find more opportunities to protect native carnivores in your state. 

From our magazine

This story originally appeared in our award-winning magazine for members, All Animals. Get informative and inspiring content like this delivered right to your door.

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