I find myself getting hugely frustrated at reading news articles about the constant rollercoaster of animal and conservation rights. Media is an enormous battleground through which people with the most diverse opinions can proclaim their judgements and views, and there will never be any fully mutual agreement on any issue.
Us humans often determine what can and can’t exist in an ecosystem. Sometimes decisions are even made in regards to populations of other humans. We have intentionally driven groups of species out of particular areas, and completely eradicated them from whole regions. Of course the wolf is no exception, and the ongoing wolf-human crusade is an infamous one.
Humans are a major cause of wolf mortality in much of the wolf’s current range. For many people the wolf is the ultimate symbol of wilderness, a respected and even revered creature. Others however see wolves as a sign of economic loss, a symbol of nature out of control, or even an intentionally evil beast.
Throughout the history of the human-wolf relationship since our introduction to their species, our perceptions of them have greatly changed and varied. Likewise, the wolf’s range has waxed and waned thanks to this. Very often historical persecution of the wolf has been out of proportion to the threat it actually posed to people.
It has been proposed that we, as humans, are genetically built to feel fear and disdain in regards to certain natural situations and stimuli in order to help us to survive. For example, many of us have an instinctual fear of snakes and poisonous insects, which could be due to years of evolved thinking leading to an inherent response. Ethnographic studies have shown that many early cultures did not fear wolves, and in fact treated them as equals; respecting them for their social bonds and admiring them for their hunting skills. Nomadic indigenous people of North America regarded wolves as spiritually powerful, intelligent and socially-complex animals. Yes they were hunted and trapped, rarely with guilt or malice, and often with rituals and apologies to the spirit of the wolves. Wolves were not spoken harshly about, these indigenous peoples did not brag about their ability to capture and kill wolves, nor would they announce their intention to hunt them (to do so could offend wolves or other animals). The wolf did not evoke fear, and yet they were eventually set out in early western literature as wicked, immoral creatures.
The changes in Western thought about the environment fully turned the generally positive views of the wolf. Humans switched from considering themselves part of the natural world, to ‘master’ of it. Even scientific writings before the mid-twentieth century typically portrayed the wolf in a negative light. For example, from The Natural History of Quadrupeds published in 1828:
“Wolves are such ferocious and useless creatures that all other animals detest them, yea they even hate each other, and therefore scarcely ever live together, each one in its own separate hole… Perhaps of all other animals, wolves are the most hateful while living and the most useless when dead… The continual agitations of this restless animal renders him so furious, that he frequently ends his life in madness.”
It was not until the mid-twentieth century that Western culture considered the wolf worthy of scientific inquiry.
During the late 1800s, settlers and market hunters decimated many ungulate populations with barely a thought, and large numbers of sheep and cattle were introduced into open range in the American West. Wolves and other large predators, with a lack of natural wild prey, were forced to increasingly turn to livestock to survive. This, of course, led to a human determination to have these animals killed. In 1915 Congress established the federal Bureau of Biological Survey and its Division of Predator and Rodent Control (PARC) with the mission of eliminating wolves and other large predators from all federal lands. The threat to livestock became the strongest argument for killing every last wolf at taxpayer expense – even in areas far from livestock range. By 1930 wolves had been almost completely exterminated from the American West.
By 1940 a proposition was put forward to restore wolves to Yellowstone National Park, where they had been eradicated by the government only a decade earlier. This pushed for more, concise scientific research of the wolf, and by 1960 more and more researchers were presenting objective and balanced information about wolves and argued for their conservation.
The 1963 book Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (a wonderful read, in my opinion) was the first positive presentation of wolves in popular literature (even though much of its ‘fact’ was actually fiction) and a Disney film based on the book reached millions. From here, attitudes toward the wolf became increasingly favourable, which coincided with a general change in the perception and care of wildlife and the environment. Legal protection of game animals was finally extended to various predators, and bounties were gradually eliminated.
Now, however, there is a different story. We are bombarded with massive extremes of opinions – in favour of and opposing wolves – and everything imaginable in between. Agriculturists (farmers, ranchers, etc.) hold the most negative views of wolves – often regardless of whether they live near a wolf population or not. The most positive and protectionist views of wolves are held by urban people and members of environmental organisations. Some studies have indicated that greater knowledge and factual education of wolves is related to a more positive attitude about them. However, many urbanites with little knowledge of wolves are highly positive about the animals too. People favourable toward wolves and their restoration tend to cite values related to ecosystem completeness; the right of the wolf to exist; and recreational value. Reasons for opposing wolves or their restoration include the expectation of attacks on livestock, pets and humans; cost; declines in big game populations; erosion of private property rights; and fear of more restrictions on the private use of federal land.
I want to be one of the more educated people who are able to form clear, well-informed opinions on wolves and their interactions with the environment. I am admittedly biased, but I do like to think I keep myself informed where possible so I can still feel confident about any education I pass on to others.
Wolf biologists face a variety of challenges in different parts of the world. They may have many supporters, but even supporters have hugely varied views and demands. Wolf education has been a huge part of wolf conservation promotion, but this has been harmful when inaccurate information has been put across. An unbiased portrayal of wolf and wolf management issues can be difficult because far too often ethical and other subjective values are involved, and wolf ‘education’ can easily reflect personal values. As I said, I am certainly not unbiased when it comes to the education of wolves and wolf conservation, but I try to take in as much factual information available as I can to ensure my views are evidence-based and well-rounded. I have no doubt that I will always, however, be on the side of the wolf.
A huge pressing issue in the whole wolf debate is the economic value involved. The western world is run by money, so now for any argument you are going to have to involve economic value somewhere along the line to support your points. In the past it was believed by most of society that the wolf had a mainly negative economic impact through killing livestock and game animals. An abundance of money has been spent on the control or eradication of wolves because of this – management requires substantial resources to be effective. The least expensive management methods (poisoning and aerial shooting by the public) often come with a negative perception by the public eye. We are now, however, increasingly able to assess the positive economic benefits of wolf restoration, a main factor being tourism returns.
Depredation on livestock has become a main reason for attempts to exterminate the wolf. Wolves do prey on domestic animals in every country where the two coexist. Aside from economic loss, the very threat of depredation creates stress for livestock producers. Human ingenuity and technology have so far been unable to resolve this conflict, short of eradicating wolves in areas near livestock.
Most attacks on livestock occur where prey is scarce. In fact, studies have shown that wolves will actually hunt wild prey species when given the option of natural prey and introduced livestock. Most fatalities occur when livestock herds are in untended areas, when carcasses are near, and when young are available. Research has shown a decrease in livestock depredation in areas where natural ungulate prey has been restored.
Agriculturists generally view wolves as relentless killers regardless of facts. Cattle producers in eighteen western U.S. states reported losses of 1,400 cattle to wolves in 1991, 1,200 of which were reported in states where wolves did not even exist. The reality is that yet, wolves prey on livestock especially when natural prey is scarce. They have been known to also prey on domestic animals such as herding dogs. However, evidence shows that in most areas less than 30% of damage has been caused by wolves – very often it is coyotes, wild dogs and domestic dogs responsible. Compensation programs or state insurance help offset economic losses in some areas, and may be a positive temporary means of assistance for agriculturists, but is not a sufficient long-term measure. Where wolves prey on livestock, some form of wolf management is generally inevitable – whether legal or illegal. During my 2010 stay in several western U.S. states I frequently heard the term “shoot, shovel and shut up”. Nonlethal means of wolf control have been attempted, including translocation of wolves, using guard dogs, and placing wolves in permanent captivity (which is a huge stress for individual animals; wild wolves adapt poorly to confinement), but these have not been notably successful. Fencing, propane exploders, pyrotechnics and other techniques have met with only limited success because wolves eventually habituate to them.
It is easy for me to support wolves; I do not sustain my family or my way of life on livestock that are in danger of wolf predation, I do not live in a community that has any kind of predator to be wary of (apart from the human type) and perhaps this allows me to have such a strong opposing attitude towards those who I see as destructive and uncompassionate in regards to wildlife. We absolutely honour our native species in New Zealand. Pest control is a huge effort that we rarely don’t support. What gets me is that wolves are perceived as a ‘pest’ species in countries where they are in fact native. The two just don’t go together for me, and if I allow myself to get honestly emotional about it I can say that it frankly makes me feel a little sick. I don’t understand the mentality that a creature that naturally evolved on the very soil people now claim as theirs is an undesired and even reviled thing.
Another argument in place opposing wolves is the risk they pose to humans. As mentioned, many see the wolf as the ultimate symbol of wilderness, a great portion believing wolves are incompatible with our civilizations. However, people may see it this way because wolves are especially exterminated in areas of human settlement, creating a misconception that they require a habitat free of human influences to survive. This is untrue, however, and most of the world’s wolves now actually live somewhere near people and do encounter the sights, sounds and scents of civilization in their daily travels. Wolves are cunningly adaptive, and many have learn to avoid roads, ski trails, train tracks and general signs of human occupation, and in some populations have learnt to only travel near towns at night. Wolves show a surprising willingness to live near humans, especially in areas where they have legal protection. They have been known to den in abandoned houses, drain pipes, and survive near military facilities where they must adapt to loud, once novel noises.
Alright, so here we go – the fuss about attacks on humans. “A dead child within a year” was predicted by Montana’s U.S. Senator who opposed wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone (which has since proven to be a huge success). A review of reports in 1971 showed that most wolf attacks in Euope and central Asia were cause by wolf-dog hybrids, ‘tame’ wolves, or rabid wolves. A second review from northern Italy found about 440 accounts of wolf attacks resulting in human death, and this was stretch over the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. Again, many of these were suggested to have occurred with captive wolves ‘turned feral’.
Wolves more habituated to humans are more likely to attack livestock and people. The most compelling evidence of wolves killing humans comes from India, where a single bold wolf was found to be responsible for attacking roughly 76 children over a seven month period. In this area, small children were allowed to roam untended and they outnumbered unguarded livestock. Wild prey was also scarce.
There is a very low number of recorded reports of wolf attacks on humans ‘in the wild’. Following European settlement, many observers on the Western frontier were astonished that wolves did not actually kill humans, in view of the stories they had heard. Reports of attacks we do have show that it is mostly captive wolves, rabid wolves, wolf-dog hybrids, or wolves in areas of prey scarcity that are responsible. Considering the fact that each day millions of people live, work and recreate in areas occupied by wolves, attacks by wild wolves are relatively rare and fatal attacks are even rarer.
I understand that there is the potential for harm to come to human life when in close proximity to a wolf or wolves, especially with different contributing factors in play such as prey scarcity, the wolf’s perception of threat level, etc. However, I do not believe this is fair reason to push for wolf eradication or to excuse the uncontrolled hunting of them. Of course, that is partially my biased opinion coming into play, but I do not support the uncontrolled hunting of any species, so it is a consistent belief. I most definitely do not think it is just reason to portray the wolf as an ‘evil’ or ‘man-eating’ creature. Large, carnivorous mammals all have the potential to pose a danger to human life. Hiking in the forests of Oregon by myself I was aware that bear and mountain cats were part of the ecosystem, and accepted the potential for danger. This does not make either of those creatures ‘evil’, and I would rather share a habitat with such species while aware of the risk, instead of driving them out completely as we have done in so, so many areas. And really, what kills the most number of other species?? We do, of course – but we shape the environment to suit our ‘needs’, and so we excuse our own behaviour. If animals had higher cognitive abilities they would run in fear at the mention of us. (And no, I don’t believe that just because we are the ‘most intelligent’ species on our earth we ‘deserve’ to kill everything around us. I reiterate: we have a choice.)
I would like to mention wolf-hybrids, another form of human exploitation and a manifestation of the modern fascination with wolves. Accurate information about the numbers of captive wolves and wolf hybrids is impossible to determine. It is illegal to own a pure wolf in the United States, but hybrids are subject to little, if any regulation in all but a few states. States that do try to regulate ownership encounter complex problems relating to genetic identification. An unknown number of ‘tame’ wolves and hybrids are released into the wild in the US, and distinguishing these animals from wild wolves can be difficult or even impossible. This poses a problem for wolf conservation for many important reasons, one being that these animals have very little fear of humans and so pose a higher danger.
I am absolutely against keeping wolves as ‘pets’, and am equally against everything about hybridizing wolves and dogs. People seem to think a wolf-dog hybrid is just like a dog in regards to behaviour but it ‘looks cooler’ and is often, perhaps without being outright advertised as so, used as a status symbol, as are wolves. However, wolf-dogs are far more dangerous, less manageable than dogs, have little fear of humans as I mentioned, and attack risk to humans is much higher.
Wolves belong in the wild. Wolf-dog hybrids do not belong at all. It is not okay to breed wolf-dog hybrids and release them into the wild – the negative effects this can have on wild wolf populations is immeasurable. I similarly believe that it is not okay to have a wolf as a ‘pet’. Wild animals should never be kept or treated as pets.
I remember one instance at the White Wolf Sanctuary that I have already talked about in a previous post. A man came for a tour with his family, and was obviously not a wolf fan from the get-go. His children, however, were very interested in them, and he kept his mouth shut for a long while until the end of Lois’ (founder and director of the WWS) educational presentation. He then spoke up and told us that he once owned a wolf-dog, and said that when it became useless he ‘released it back into the wild’ as if he had done a good thing. Nothing about owning a wolf-dog hybrid is a good thing, and Lois was absolutely riled – for good reason – to hear that he had ‘released’ the animal like he’d done it a favour. She told him the truth of the matter without holding back; if the wolf-dog survived, it had the potential to breed with wild wolves and degrade their population and genetic purity. More likely, though, wolves would kill the wolf-dog hybrid at first sight. An animal kept captive its whole life is not automatically going to know proper survival behaviour and tactics, and if it had not encountered any wolves to kill it, the reality is that it would slowly starve to death.
We moved on quickly to the next part of the tour after this, and the man said nothing. At the time I felt bad that this had been laid out to him so bluntly, but the more I realised what a common theme this wolf-dog hybrid idea was, the more I realised it poses a major issue. People who think they can ‘own’ wild animals quite frankly disturb me. People who think they have the right to breed or buy wolf-dog hybrids similarly irritate and exasperate me. The difference between a zoo, a rescue sanctuary such as WWS, and someone owning a wild animal as a pet or for personal use is HUGE. Readers, I implore you, PLEASE do not ‘own’ wild animals as pets!!! That is not where they belong, and you are not helping conservation efforts.
I do think we as a species revere ourselves far too much, and need to take a step back. We need to realise that if we destroy everything around us for the sake of money… well, money isn’t going to sustain us once the environment is gone, is it? A balance needs to be reached when making decisions on species recovery and conservation. I automatically like to believe that we ought to support as much species recovery as possible, but often this is not beneficial to individual animal welfare; with high population densities and more spread-out species numbers, they are more likely to get in the way of human operations and thus the cycle begins again and more individuals are trapped, killed and populations culled. I have heard that America may be changing their management strategies for wolves in the lower 48 states. This is something I would like to know more about, so if anyone has any information I would greatly appreciate some insight. It seems like reaching a neutral point when deciding the fate of the wolf is far off indeed.