Sunday, March 6, 2016

Part 3: The War on Wolves

This is the third post in a series on wolf-human conflict. The first explained why we should thank wolves for helping our ancient ancestors survive. The second described how wolves and humans are alike. But regardless of the debt we owe wolves or the similarities we share, we have hated and waged war on these essential predators for centuries. Current tactics in that war include gunning down wolves from helicopters, writing legislation that ignores science and exposes wolves to hunting, and spreading the sinister shoot, shovel, and shut up mentality. If we are ever to end this war, we must understand the deep and ancient roots of the hatred behind it. 

Magnus Johansson via flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Old World Wolf Hatred

Let's use the Middle Ages, from the 5th to 15th century, as an arbitrary starting point for understanding wolf hatred and the war on wolves. The Middle Ages was a time when horrifying rumors—some true—about rabid wolves killing humans spread across Europe. Governments declared war. In France in the 800s, the government paid an elite corps of hunters to control the wolf population. In England in the late 1200s, King Edward l ordered the extermination of wolves in those parts of the country where the predators were more numerous and easier to find. In Scotland in 1427, James l passed a law requiring three wolf hunts a year, some during denning season when wolves were least mobile.

Those wolf wars were not waged in a vacuum; our ancestors were reacting to environmental threats. Around the same time that England’s King Edward ordered wolf extermination, the Little Ice Age chilled Europe, reducing harvests and creating painful shortages of wheat, oats, hay, and livestock. A few years later, the Great Famine struck, killing about ten percent of Europe’s population. 

With families and friends starving and dying, no one would accept wolves killing livestock. I can imagine the war cry spreading across the countryside: Wolves are our enemies! Protect our families, our animals, our lands! Kill all wolves!

Then conditions worsened: The Black Death arrived. The plague that peaked in the mid 1300s killed about half of all Europeans. Once the Black Death subsided, the population rebounded and doubled by the early 1600s. This swelling population shifted the balance of power between wolves and humans, according to Jon T. Coleman, author of Vicious: Wolves and Men in America. More people meant more mouths to feed. More food meant more land for livestock and crops. More land for agriculture meant less for wolves. Wolves had to go.

By the early 1500s wolves had been hunted and trapped to extinction in England. They were eradicated from Scotland by the late 1600s and from Ireland by the late 1700s. Continental Europe went on a wolf-killing spree as well.

Wolf Hatred Sails to the New World

That European population increase that led to war on wolves, also pushed colonization of North America into high gear. When colonists disembarked in the New World, wolves probably watched from the woods; an estimated two million wolves roamed most of North America. Hungry colonists and hungry wolves: The stage was set for a repeat of a one-sided war to assure that humans had first crack at livestock and wild game. 

The New World siege started quickly. By 1625, colonists were using tactics refined in the Old World to stop predation on their pigs, cattle, and horses, according to Barry Lopez in Of Wolves and Men. In addition to digging wolf pits and building fences, they now had firearms with which they could kill from a distance with less effort and risk. They paid professional wolf hunters and passed bounty laws—the first in Massachusetts in 1630, just ten years after the founding of that colony. Other colonies followed: Virginia in 1632, South Carolina in 1695, New Jersey in 1697.

Photo by Mary Strickroth
Wolf Hatred American Style

The often told story says that even though most immigrants had never lost livestock to wolves, had never even seen wolves, they stepped off the boats hating the predators. Old World wolf hatred begat New World wolf hatred.

But historian Coleman makes a good argument that these immigrants and their descendants—our ancestors—added a uniquely American twist to wolf hatred. In Vicious, Coleman offers a common sense observation: Given the colonists’ Old World view of wolves as monsters, one would expect New World settlers to have avoided wolves. Yet Coleman discovered records from as early as 1621 that show the opposite. A settler, in one example, stumbled upon wolves at a deer kill, chased the wolves away, and swiped the meat. Coleman also uncovered documents that described colonists encountering wolves and the frightened animals turning tail.

If wolves were such cowards, why did new Americans treat them so viciously? Religion was partly to blame, says Coleman. “The biblical version of wolves with its focus on greed, corruption, and theft flourished in New England…” Colonists thumped the Bible to rationalize wreaking havoc on wolves for the crime of killing livestock.

Yet settlers aided and abetted the predators’ crimes by grazing docile livestock in wolf country without the manpower to oversee the animals. Coleman reveals that colonists entrusted their herds to teenage boys “short in stature and attention span.” Wolves—hungry because settlers had over hunted their natural prey—took their share of livestock. This scenario moved west with civilization: Everywhere settlers brought livestock, wolves came to dine. And settlers fought back. They didn’t just kill wolves; they ravaged them.

“Why,” Coleman asks, “did Euro-Americans terrorize wolves? Why was death not enough?” His answer: “…Euro-Americans fantasized that planting a civil society in a wilderness required acts of extreme brutality. To overpower savagery one must lash out savagely.”

Coleman found that part of lashing out involved lying and creating fantasies that were the opposite of reality. Colonists portrayed wolves preying on humans. In reality, humans preyed on wolves. Colonists described wolves surrounding humans and inducing panic with hideous howls. In reality, humans surrounded and panicked wolves. This savage wolf—a figment in minds fed with lies and fantasies—prompted vicious treatment that led to eradicating real wolves. By 1840 wolves were extinct in Massachusetts and vanishing from other states. 

Wolves did not fight back. The natural intelligence, speed, strength, and teeth of wolves were no match for our big brains and big arsenals. By the mid 1800s, that arsenal included more powerful and accurate rifles as well as strychnine. Poison enabled Americans to escalate the killing of wolves to an industrial scale: With a poisoned carcass, hunters could kill an entire pack. In the end, this war brought to wolves a fate worse than the colonists’ ancestors had suffered with the Black Death. All in a one-sided battle for territory and food.

By Gustave Dore (1883). Public Domain
Wolf Hatred in Literature

But eliminating wolves was not enough. Even as the wolf was vanishing from the countryside, we did something that only Homo sapiens can do: We kept the wolf alive, feared, and hated in literature, especially children's stories.

One of the most famous collections was Grimm's Fairy Tales. Though wolves were almost eradicated in Germany by 1812 when that book was published, it contained "Little Red Riding Hood," with its infamous, conniving wolf.

Around the same time—on a continent almost devoid of wolves—Europeans resurrected Aesop's Fables, originally told more than two thousand years earlier. These stories contained tales such as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," with its wolf that destroys the flock of a lying little boy, and "The Wolf and Dog," with its wolf that refuses to give up its freedom to become a collared, well-fed pet.

In 1886—more than three hundred years after the wolf was exterminated in England—“The Three Little Pigs" was published in The Nursery Rhymes of England. In that tale, a wolf with an insatiable appetite manages to eat two of the pigs before the third kills and eats him.

Stories such as these led new generations to fear and hate wolves that didn't even exist. Childish words and pictures produced powerful propaganda.

Stopping the War on Wolves

The real danger for America’s wolves today lies in the anti-wolf propaganda which fans the anger and fear and hatred that sailed from the Old World to the New, underwent a uniquely American twist, and became imbedded in our national psyche.

This propaganda was institutionalized in the early 1900s by the U.S. Biological Survey—our government’s first wolf-killers—so that the agency could raise money for eradicating predators. Once the funds flowed, the Biological Survey and their prodigy, Wildlife Services—today’s secretive and out-of-control wolf killers—almost cleared the Lower 48 of wolves. Thanks to the embattled federal Endangered Species Act, wolves made a comeback. But even after seventy years with few wolves, the lies and fantasies survived and today spawn vicious anti-wolf acts. Lies and fantasies also breed intolerance of wolves and the Endangered Species Act. 

Wolves suffer most in states where they are no longer under federal protection, where states have the final word in “wolf management.”  In some of those states with powerful livestock industries, management is a vow to kill all wolves except the minimum number that federally approved wolf management plans require. Plans like those do nothing to reduce wolf hatred or wind down the war on wolves. Worse yet, they give the false impression that wolf survival is just a biological issue, a matter of the number of surviving breeding pairs. 

Looking only at numbers obscures the truth: To protect wolves, we must transform our nation’s culture from one that wages war on wolves to one that respects wolves. Wolf hatred was centuries in the making and will not succumb to reason quickly. Until then, wolves need federal protection. 

Part Four in this series will delve into how we can create a culture of wolf respect.

To read Part One: We Should Thank--Not Hate--Wolves
To read Part Two: How Wolves and Humans Are Alike


In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 225 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller


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