Although the people who study politics have been baffled by recent events in Washington, the people who study animals see no mystery. Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, an animal behaviorist who works for the ASPCA in New York, finds similarities between humans and other social animals, such as wolves and apes.
We asked Zawistowski to help the Sun staff probe the nature of some of those groups to help explain what's going on in the nation's capital:
Who gets to be leader of the pack or group?
Wolves: The alpha pair is usually the strongest and healthiest of the pack. They are the first to eat and the only ones to breed.
Apes: A mature female plays a lead role along with a dominant male who mates more than any other male in the group.
Washington: A mature female plays a lead role along with a dominant male who mates more than any other male in the group, which occasionally leads to a constitutional crisis.
What's the role of subordinate group members?
Wolves: They do what the alpha tells them to do. They follow the leader even though they may not like it.
Apes: When they are not mating, dominant males spend a lot of time posturing, either showing their teeth or smiling submissively.
Washington: They spend a lot of time posturing, either showing their teeth on "Nightline" or smiling submissively to ingratiate themselves to voters.
What happens when the leader is weakened or sick?
Wolves: Fights erupt to establish a new order. Once an alpha male is chosen, the pack resumes what passes as polite behavior.
Apes: Juvenile males may try to pick up a more delectable piece of fruit than usual. They may push out a weakened leader. Family alliances come into play. Fortunes can rise and fall.
Washington: They engage in ritualistic vote-counting until one of the alpha males has a plurality. Then everyone will join the new leader's side and say they always liked him best of all.
What happens to the old leader?
Wolves: Sometimes he leaves the pack or is generally ignored.
Apes: He becomes a fringe presence, although he might still be cared for by some group members.
Washington: He cashes in: writes a book, lobbies for a multinational corporation or becomes host of a talk show. He also starts dating again.
How long does this take?
Wolves: Challenges and succession are likely to occur quickly and usually in relation to an annual breeding season.
Apes: Hard to say. Alliances can shift back and forth, the power of dominant males can ebb and flow.
Washington: Until everyone outside the Beltway is ready to blow up their TVs.
Pub Date: 12/17/98
Political animals and their animal instincts; Behavior: In social organizations, alpha males of whatever stripe have much in common.