A New ‘Aversive Conditioning Tool’

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Alan Armistead was at my ranch at Canyon Creek, NM for the second time that spring of 2001 to investigate wolf attacks on livestock.

He had been there just two weeks earlier to investigate an attack on my cattle, and now I had another wolf-kill for him to investigate. Alan was a Wolf Management Specialist with the USDA Wildlife Service and was working with the program to reintroduce the Mexican Grey Wolf into Arizona and New Mexico.

The wolf team had collars on their wolves with transmitters that sent out a radio signal so they could track the animals, but they couldn’t seem to keep them away from my cattle.                                                                       

“Just how much harassment can I legally deal out to one of these wolves, when he is running off with my calf, Alan?” I ask him.                                                                                           

“You can do about anything that doesn’t cause him injury.”

“Can I constrain him?” 

“How would you do that?” 

“Well, I guess I’d rope him.” 

“You wouldn’t want to rope a wolf,” replied Alan. Then he began to speculate about how a wolf might react to being roped. 

“Alan, I have a pretty good idea what a wolf would do on the end of a rope. What I want to know is, what would be the legal ramifications?” 

“Well, Jinx, you saw him running away carrying a dead calf. You could do anything that doesn’t cause him physical injury.” 

“So I could rope him if he didn’t drop the calf?”

“Sure, I don’t see why not, but he might come right back up the rope at you!”

“I pretty much know what he would do.” I replied.

“What’s that?”

“Well, I can see it all in my mind’s eye, just like it was yesterday. As soon as he felt the rope pull tight, he would drop the calf and have a claustrophobic attack.

“He would launch himself into the air like one of those marlins you see on a TV deep sea fishing show when they take the hook, jump out of the water, stand on their tails and shake. Then he would hit the ground snapping at the rope and rolling into that little paint mare I’ve been riding.

“I’ve never even roped a calf on that mare, so she would come unraveled. I would have my hands full for a while. Directly, though, I would get her straightened out and facing him again, then I would just pitch the tail of the rope to him and let him run. He would take out after his mate, alternately running like a Greyhound with his ears laid back, then bucking like his skirt was tight.”                                                                                  

“You roped him? You got a rope on him!” 

“Well, you told me we had to have more evidence than just my say-so last time you were here. I couldn’t let him get into that canyon country or we would have lost him and the evidence for sure.” 

“I couldn’t understand why we didn’t pick up a signal from the wolf,” admitted Alan. “That sure explains it. That is about the best example of aversive conditioning that I have ever heard of.”  

Aversive conditioning, I figured out before long, meant how to send a tame, hand-fed wolf to the wild bunch.

I got the calf remains and we went back up to where the wolf and calf parted ways, then on to where I first jumped the wolves.

We walked back to Alan’s pickup, where he skinned out the remains of the calf and measured the distance between the canine tooth marks where the calf was bitten. Well, of course it was a wolf that killed the calf, and Alan assured me that he would write it up as a confirmed wolf kill. 

 Alan called Brian Kelly, who was head of this whole shebang of a Mexican Wolf Program and tried to give him an oral report. He told Mr. Kelly that I had discovered a new Aversive Conditioning Tool.

This drew a momentary response of dead silence, followed by the question, “Him?”

Alan replied, “Well, the wolf was packin’ a calf, and Jinx was a’ horseback, so he just lit afire to him and...”

“What? He set him on fire!” 

Just in case this yarn falls into the hands of someone not familiar with cowboy terminology, I should explain. When a cowboy says ‘I lit afire to something,’ it means that he proceeded toward it with all possible haste and quite possibly scorched his dewclaws getting there.

— Como Siempré, Jinx

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