Crying wolf.

Did you know that wolves have a sense of smell between 10,000 and 100,000 times more sensitive than humans? No, neither did I. It doesn’t help that it isn’t true. And how could you possibly know something that isn’t true. When I first heard it I felt compelled to start writing this immediately; it just presented itself as something that was impossible to ignore, courtesy of ‘Animal Park’, a programme specifically designed to guide the unemployed gently from the shallow sea of early morning news and Frasier repeats and into the vast, empty, bottomless ocean that is the rest of their day killing time in front of the telly. One could argue that they can say anything they want on ‘Animal Park’, because if you’re already inert enough to be watching it you’re unlikely to have even the slightest nip of energy left necessary to start wasting the time you’re already wasting by fact checking. Facts relating to the sense of smell possessed by your average lupus lupus are just another way of filling the seconds while you’re trying to avoid Eamon and Ruth or, worse still, Jeremy Vine.

There were two things that struck me, almost simultaneously, about the sense of smell of a wolf according to the good, misleading people at ‘Animal Park’. The first was just how ridiculously more powerful it is than a human beings. Even at the low end of the scale – x10,000 – that’s a staggering mark up. What, if applying some logic, would a wolf make of a particularly ripe sample of Époisses or a long out of date sardine? I expect they would be sent reeling back on themselves with horror, howling to the moon as their moist nostrils clogged up with a smell beyond all reason. Or what about one of those smells that is occasionally left lingering in the bathroom? The sort of smell that would leave the next occupant rather reluctant to brush their teeth for quite some time? Surely that kind of ungodly stench would be enough to blow a wolf’s mind altogether or in extreme cases make them drop dead in an instant. Surely, even at x10,000, let alone x100,000 – a sense of smell like that would implore every wolf on the planet to scratch off their snouts, not to spite their faces but just for some sweet relief.

The second thing was just how unreasonably vague and massive a window of error those figures allow us. A wolf could have a sense of smell 10,000 times stronger than a human. Or it could be 100,000 times stronger; we’re not quite sure. Well, ‘Animal Park’, that’s just not good enough, and I kind of want to partly blame Ben Fogle, the narrator and co-presenter, for saying it in the first place. Have we not all been persuaded to trust Ben Fogle? Is he not one of the good guys? The sort of well meaning, nicely polite young man who could also make your granny’s knickers drop to the floor from a hundred yards? Ben Fogle has made a career from being utterly inoffensive – even I don’t find him all that annoying – and the sort of person you might like on your team in a crisis, but if he’s going to start flinging around wishy washy statistics like shit in a monkey enclosure then I’m afraid his number’s up. Frankly, the more I thought about them the more ludicrous they became, and I thought about them for several seconds before I decided it was time to take action.

A little bit of research will tell you that the sense of smell in wolves (it is the wolf’s strongest sense, whereas in humans it is the sense of failure) is roughly one hundred times greater than it is in humans. I’m not sure whether it is worth distinguishing between strength and sensitivity but I suspect there isn’t much difference; Ben Fogle was probably just trying to make it sound more delicate and caring so that pensioners would keep sending him lavender infused face cloths in the mail. This figure came up in pretty much every search I made, including the second one. As a flat statistic goes this is still pretty impressive but there is also (and I’m sure you can feel it too) something of a sense of disappointment having had fat numbers like 10,000 and 100,000 passed around like numerical whores in Fogle’s fact brothel. Suddenly wolves don’t seem quite as scary, though I only say this because as far as I know there is not a wolf in my house at the moment (if the next sentence ends abruptly you may assume that I was wrong about this).

I now also wonder what other lies have been leaked out on ‘Animal Park’, to an audience which at that time of day could be adequately described as ‘easily pleased’: that otters can do algebra; that male llamas can get two erections at once; that toucans have the ability to accurately predict changes on the FTSE 100; that, if provided with the correct equipment and enough time, silverback gorillas can turn base metals into gold. I have never watched a whole episode of ‘Animal Park’; I’m not sure that before today I have watched any of an episode of ‘Animal Park’. My love of animals remains undiminished and no doubt there is something soothing, gently educational and quite irrelevant about the day to day goings on at Longleat Safari Park, but what chills me to the bone is how an effort to misinform the public about how well a wolf can smell has forced to me to question everything I ever thought I knew about the natural world. Fancy that: mid-morning TV has suddenly made someone think, albeit by accident. I expect it’s just a blip; I have a keen sense for such things.

G B Hewitt. 23.08.2021

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