We Always Cry Wolf

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

The big bad wolf is back. Maybe he never went away, but for a while there he seemed to have achieved a form of rehabilitation. There were programs to reintroduce him to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, and ensuring that pack numbers in the wild were maintained.

So it was something of a shock for me to read about the government of Alberta’s repeated culls of the wolf population. Wolves and ranchers out west have a long history of an adversarial relationship, with wolves being blamed for every single loss of livestock to predators.

Well, of course there is truth to that complaint, but what do you expect is going to happen when you destroy the habitat of a major predator’s prey, and offer it a smorgasbord that doesn’t have the brains to run away? If you were a wolf, what would you do? Go hungry or eat those stupid fluffy things that just bleat and don’t even fight back? That’s a real no-brainer as far I’m concerned.

It was proven that culling the pack in the neighbourhood where the attacks take place doesn’t reduce the amount of livestock that fall victim to wild attacks anyway. First of all, there are more than just wolves who are predators in this world, and secondly, you get rid of one pack, another will move in to take its place.

Anyway, that’s not even their excuse this time for killing off wolves. Nope, this time they’re trying to protect one herd of caribou that we’ve almost driven to extinction by our behaviour. The Alberta government is not satisfied with being able to boast a four billion dollar surplus, and continues trying to make more money through exploiting as much of the environment as they can to pump more natural gas.

As they push further out into the hinterlands and the tundra, they intrude more and more on the habitat of animals like the migratory herds of caribou. This was the main objection that environmental groups were raising to Bush’s plan for drilling in Alaska, that it would disrupt the caribou herds.

In a balanced ecosystem wolves play an important part in population control among prey animals. When you’re dealing with an animal as large as a caribou or an elk, most wolf packs are only going to take down the sick or the lame or the elderly, who wouldn’t survive anyway. A healthy adult caribou is not an easy take-down even for a pack; somebody is going to end up with their head caved in by a hoof or gored on an antler.

The herd in question has had its number reduced by loss of its habitat. Roads built into their territory have resulted in fatalities. The same birth defects that plague domestic stock where ranches are too close to drill sites prevent the herds from repopulating at a normal rate, and just the presence of humans in an area cuts into a herd’s potential grazing territory.

But instead of accepting that we could have had any role in the matter and cutting back on human intrusion into the situation, its been decided to blame it on our old enemy, the wolf. He’s such a handy villain, what would we do without him?

photo_wolf5Somewhere down the years, we humans have developed a mysterious, almost pathological fear of wolves. Maybe because they were the canines that told us to take a hike when we domesticated the species all those thousands of years ago, or maybe because we used to compete for the same prey, but whatever it is, no other predator has been more maligned throughout the history of Europe. (The coyote is a relative newcomer to that list, as Europeans didn’t encounter him until we showed up in North America.) Wolves have been pretty much wiped out in most places that they were native to in Europe, mainly due to the loss of habitat as man expanded and destroyed the living space for them and their prey. But there was also a deliberate attempt to destroy them out of superstition and fear.

Folklore and fairy tales have darkened the wolf’s image in the eyes of Europeans. Most of these depictions have come about through our assigning human attributes to animal behaviour. The National Wildlife Federation offers the examples of wolves being rarely seen in the wild being interpreted as secretive, hunting in packs as being sly, and howling as being evil.

Although the site doesn’t say this, it’s hard not to notice how the rise in fear and superstition about the wolf increased with the rise of Christianity. Prior to tenth century AD, wolves were not universally feared – in fact, they played prominent roles for good in mythology. Twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were saved from death by a mother wolf who suckled them as infants, founded the city of Rome, according to myth.

Other pre-Christian stories were also full of praise for the wolves, and the attributes that latter became evil were held in high esteem. Perhaps the demonising of the wolf was a deliberate ploy on the part of a new religion feeling insecure of its place in society and that needed to remove the competition. At any rate, the wolves’ reputation went to hell, so to speak, in the middle ages.

The reputation of being devil spawn and eaters of little blond girls and their grandmothers doesn’t do much for a creature’s popularity. It’s also something that travels well, especially when you come over to a new world, populated by savages living in deep mysterious forests. It was easy enough for settlers coming to North America to hold onto their beliefs of the wolf, if not being the devil incarnate, than at least a good buddy.

But you know what? In all the time Europeans have been in North America, there is not one verified account of a wild wolf attacking and killing a human. Cases in which people accuse wolves of such attacks are the result of wild dogs, and hybrids of dogs and coyotes (coydogs) that lack the fear of humans that wolves have.

Back in the 1950s, Canadian author Farley Mowat was working for the government in the wildlife department up north. He was sent out into the field to gain evidence to support a proposed policy to cull wolf populations because they were decimating the caribou herds and the large prey populations in general.

His discoveries, which were popularized in the book and movie Never Cry Wolf, did the opposite of what was wanted. He found, through observing the wolves, that their primary source of food was mice and other small prey animals. The only time that they would hunt the larger prey was when an animal was easy pickings, the sick and the elderly that the herds of deer, caribou or whatever were abandoning to their fate.

It just wasn’t worth the effort to track down and hunt a healthier animal, and they would take the easier way of feeding themselves by going after the lesser creatures that we consider pests. This of course goes a long way to answering the age-old question of “What purpose do they serve?”

Humans have this wonderfully selfish attitude of only seeing the world from their own point of view. An animal is judged based on what it does for humans, not on the fact that it is a part of the mystery known as creation. We don’t seem to want to accept that things haven’t been created solely for our benefit, but have a role to play that in the world that doesn’t take us into account.

The large predators of the world serve to keep prey populations in check so as to prevent the spread of disease and ensure the balance of a local ecosystem. Look at all the parts of North America where we have to have annual culls of the deer herds because they have no natural predators. Populations of deer in many states have become riddled with illness, like in Pennsylvania where the risk of Lyme disease is so high that it is a crime to touch deer that are road kill.

It’s become obvious that punishment of wolves is not a deterrent when it comes to protecting livestock and extermination is an unacceptable alternative, not just on tree-hugging moral grounds, but based on the key role they can play in keeping the population of pest animals under control. In fact farmers and ranchers could, if they work it right, put the wolves to use for them preserving their harvests and grain stores from rats and other so-called vermin.

What they need to do is develop systems of making their livestock less attractive as prey. Like in the case of the wolves observed by Farley Mowat, farmers and ranchers could make the effort involved not worth the payoff. In Ontario you can’t drive by a flock of sheep any more without seeing a donkey or two installed in the field with them. It turns out they make great guardians for the flocks. A couple of donkeys can fight off wolves and coyotes with ease.

It is important that we get over ourselves and learn how to co-exist with nature sooner rather than later. So far we’ve been able to prove that our current idea of dominance is not working out so well. Maybe for those who have been able to line their pockets and who don’t have any children it doesn’t matter what shape the world is in when they leave, but the rest of us might like to have some of the wild spaces preserved.

The most important lesson that we as a species need to learn is the one we can be taught by examining our relationship with the wolf. We can’t look on animals and impose human values, characteristics, or expectations. We can no longer continue to look upon any creature as separate, including ourselves.

The sooner we realize that all life is interconnected the better our chances of keeping the wild spaces alive and vibrant for all. What better place to start than with the wolf, to whom, of all creatures in the West, we owe the biggest apology. If after hundreds of years of animosity we can work out co-existence arrangements with them, it will be a huge step in the right direction.

Powered by

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Actually there was a recent fatal attack in North America. Kenton Joel Carnegie, a 22-year-old geology student was killed hiking in Northern Saskatchewan in early November, 2005, by a pack of 4 wolves. It is the first recorded instance of healthy, wild wolves killing a human in North America.

    It should also be noted that it is thought that the wolves may have been fed by local residents previously, so they may have become habituated to human presence, and hence, led to the attack.

    There have been other documented attacks by wolves on humans but the above one is the only known fatality caused by wild wolves.

    There was an incident at the Haliburton Forest & Wildlife Reserve Wolf Centre in 1996 where an employee was killed by the pack of non-socialized, born-into-captivity wolves that the centre maintains, however they were not wild wolves.

    Be that as it may, I agree with the concept of co-existance with the natural world but it is often a fine line between the two…

  • Deanno: It’s always a problem when any large predator loses its fear of humans, look what happens when people are stupid enough to feed bears or not bear proof camp sites. The smartest thing we as humans can do is leave all of them the f**k alone.

    I knew a couple up in and around my area who had two wolves they had raised since cubs. They had a special licence to keep them, and they were being used for educational purposes. Well only one was, cause she was completly socialized. Had been badly mauled by a coydoy when young and left to die, so I think she really bonded with humans. Even so she couldn’t be trained to do obey any commands or anything.

    I’ll tell you though there’s nothing that matches having a fully grown timber wolf come up to you and do the paws on the shoulders lick your face, all the while grining ear to ear.

    They are so different from dogs in their whole manner it’s hard to believe they are same species or at least genus… they move and hold themselves like a differnt animal, and all their weight is in their head and their chest, very thin otherwise.

    Thanks for the comment and the info, I had known about the Haliburtan incident, but not the more recent one. I had gotten my information from the International wildlife site link in my post, so it might not have been updated recently enough for that attack.

    The thing is as we push deeper and deeper into their territory, they are going to feel more and more threatend and maybe we will start to see more attacks in the future. It’s like the increase in Bear attacks out west, they happen when we intrude where we probably shouldn’t be going. They are defending their territory from the enemy.



  • Makes me think of when I saw Never Cry Wolf. I was living in a small town and after the show was over I walked home. It was a full moon and I felt so elated at the celebration of wildness that I felt like howling. Maybe it was a Hollywood version of Mowat, but at the moment it didn’t matter. I was just filled with that inarticulate sense of life that can only be expressed with a deep primal sound.

  • Any wild animal, compressed by urbanization will respond, the only way they know how. Wolves, bears and coyotes can live in harmony only to a point.

  • Eric

    I agree with the entire article, and had already formulated similar opinions beforehand. My only objection is the comment on the link between the fear of wolves and Christianity – I have never heard such a comparison drawn before, and see no basis for it. Wolves are not even prominent in the Bible. The argument is similar to another in the “religion” concerning the Flying Spaghetti Monster, drawing a relationship between global warming and a decrease in Pirates. Sure, it matches up, but in reality there is no connection.

  • I know that the decreasing territory that the wolf populations now have in North America has allowed the coyote to spread as far as New York.

    The problem with the coyote is that is has interbred with the dog and this means the fear of humans has decreased and the fertility has increased.

    In my area, it is fashionable to have a wolf-hybrid, as if we didn’t have enough problems with human-aggressive dogs as the recent pitbull attack on a woman should indicate.

    Of course, wolf-hybrid behavior is unpredictable.

    As for wolves killing people, as the above should indicate, this would be true of any dog pack–domestic or otherwise.

    And yet, people don’t see the problem with dogs as much, perhaps because the fear of wolves as you have suggested is a traditional European fear. I am sure that as with most semi-rural and rural areas, dog packs are a threat and perhaps more of a threat to humans now than wolves.

  • Purple Tigress. You’re point about coydogs is a really good one. The part of Ontario I live in is pretty much across Lake Ontario from upstate New York, and we have the same problem. You can tell people till your blue in the face, that there are no wolves around here wild anymore but they’ll swear up and down that they saw one, “right up close”

    That of course is the first clue it wasn’t a Wolf, but more likely a coydog. No Wolf would be willing to let a human get “right up close” except by extreme accident, and seeing on in any built up area is extremly unlikely.

    Most attacks on livestock in our area are most likely to be coydogs, which are far more dangerous than even coyotes, because they are bigger and have even less fear. Coydogs are thicker than wolves, wolves are very skinny from the shoulders back, and have round ears. Aside form that it is almost impossiple to tell them apart.

    The packs of wild dogs that roam rural and semi-rural areas are by far more of a danger than annthing else because of their lack of fear. Aside from donkees farmers are also using geese as alarm systems in our part of the world. A good flock of geese will not only make a hell of a lot of noise, they are damn visouse.

    I doubt very much that anybody in and around the Upper New York State, or Eastern Ontario region is seeing wolves, they were long ago hunted away to nothing. This created a vacancy in the large pretador category, that could only be filled by an animal capable and willing to deal with humans.


    richar Marcus

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    In the book, “The Sixth Winter” a science fiction novel from the 1970’s that covers much of the same ground as the movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” wolf behavior is examined carefully.

    What I know about wolves comes from that book, and essentially, it indicates that the wolf is one of the only predators that was a serious competitor for food in the latest Ice Age. Wolves hunted in large packs working together to bring down mammoth and other creatures that would provide a decent meal.

    A team of ten or so humans hunting could easily be beat out by a large pack of 30 or 40 wolves. I suspect that it is from the Ice Age that humans learned to fear and hate the wolf. Today, facing different prey, the wolf packs have shrunk in size.

    WEere the weather to suddenly cool down on the planet, I strongly suspect that the wolves would react to the climate change by resuming hunting in large packs – and we would be the prey.