The late Stanley Young (1889-1969) trapped predators for the Bureau of Biological Survey and documented the demise of Colorado’s loner wolves.
The loners were habitual cattle killers, often trap-maimed and sometimes idiosyncratic animals with monikers like Old Two Toes and Club Foot.
The Custer wolf kept company with coyotes. Killer was coyotecidal, and Whitey had a penchant for bobbing the tails of cattle.
They were notorious at eluding federal trappers and postponing the fateful grip of the Newhouse No. 4 ½ -- a forged steel double long-spring, smooth-jaw trap with drag chain and grapple.
But eventually they erred, and the traps got them.
The longevity and killing rate of individual loners has recently been called into question.
The estimated ages of those loners whose skulls reside in museum collections are too young to account for the lifetime kills attributed to them. It’s more likely that several animals including dogs and wolf-dog hybrids contributed to the record.
But no one can deny the loners’ uncanny ability to detect the trappers’ painstaking efforts at disguise and deception. They could scent danger from minute traces and sidestepped hidden traps.
But if a trapped wolf twisted off part of its foot and escaped it wasn’t an experience it forgot. It was a powerfully painful learning experience, and relevant to discussions about the hurtful effects of camera traps.
So first let's talk about learning associated with pain.
It seems likely that, unlike children, loner wolves got the message after a single close call with fate. This is called single-trial learning
No matter how attractive the bait or lure, trap-wise loners fled trapping sites as soon as human scent was detected.
This type of operant conditioning is known simply as punishment.
Surviving a strychnine-laced bait had the same effect. We have all experienced conditioned food aversion – that long lasting food-specific loathing from food poisoning.
Conditioning can be specific to a given context. A trap-shy wolf might respond to human scent with conditioned avoidance when encountering a hidden trap, but not when encountering a flock of corralled sheep.
If the animal encounters the stimulus in a different context and doesn’t give the conditioned response, it is said to discriminate between situations.
The loners seemed to recognize the danger-laden stimulus of human scent in different contexts, and thus showed stimulus generalization. You can call this survival instinct.
Let’s compare these forms of punishment with the alleged “hurt” caused by camera traps.
Encountering a camera trap for the first time can be a surprising or unexpected experience for an animal. It may also be an alarming experience, but most of the time cameras do not evoke strong fearful responses, and initial vigilance quickly wanes.
Animals habituate to trail cameras because fear is not reinforced with painful stimuli. A repeating electronic flash may be ignored or investigated, but isn’t shunned.
All circumstantial evidence indicates that habituation is the prevailing response of wildlife to cameras left in the woods.
Gipson, P. S., W. B. Ballard, and R. M. Nowak. 1998. Famous North American wolves and the credibility of early wildlife literature. Widllife Society Bulletin, 26(4):808-816.
Young, S.P. 1970. The last of the loners. The MacMillan Company, New York.