Once on the brink of extinction just a few years ago, wolves have made a comeback. Unfortunately, there have always been a few whose diet occasionally includes livestock, which is why wolves are now facing bounties, aerial shooting and other threats.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wolf predation of livestock is actually a relatively uncommon behavior, but the return of the wolf population and the predation of livestock by wolves have sparked a debate that is fraught with ambivalence. Some people would like to see the wolf eliminated completely; others don’t want even the livestock-killing wolves relocated.
Defenders of Wildlife have a new slogan for their ongoing campaign to save America’s wolves: “Not demon. Not idol. Just wolf.” The new slogan is a succinct reminder that humanity has alternately persecuted and romanticized the wolf for a long time. The campaign suggests that the best strategy for protecting this charismatic and controversial animal might be to strip away all our lupine projections and simply consider the wolf—the real wolf.
Wolves are gregarious, intelligent canids who live in packs consisting of a mated pair, their offspring, and sometimes other, unrelated juvenile wolves. They have a relatively complex social structure, which requires vocalizations, facial expressions, and scent marking to communicate rank, relationship and emotional status. As a predator, the wolf has great strength, endurance and speed, and uses cooperative strategies to take down its prey.
Native Americans have always admired the wolf for its hunting skills and loyalty to pack, family and mate. Because they learned so much about survival from the wolf, many Native American cultures considered the wolf to be a teacher. The wolf taught not just hunting strategies (such as when to advance, retreat or deceive), but also the value of social cooperation and the benefit of playing one’s part in society.
In contrast with the Native American perspective, the Western psyche had, for a very long time, cast wolves as the villains of fairy tales and folklore. Rather than being regarded as respected teachers, wolves were perceived as bloodthirsty and reckless predators who killed for sport. This attitude inspired stories of wolves who deceived grandmothers and ate little girls, and legends about werewolves who could convert their victims with a single bite.
How, with such contradictory perceptions—from the big, bad wolf of fairy tales to the totemic symbol of loyalty and cooperation—can we ever get to “just wolf”?
Most biologists believe that the answer is education. The more we know about the wolf, the real wolf, the easier it will be to frame the debate and find solutions based on fact, not irrational fear or sentimental symbolism. One way to learn about wolves is to visit a wolf sanctuary that offers educational programs.
The best wolf habitat resides in the human heart, and there’s no easier way to make room in yours than to experience wolves firsthand. Visit timberwolfinformation.org/info/listing.htm to discover where the best sanctuaries are located in your state.
BELINDA RECIO, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.