Even as the wolf was being cruelly hunted into extinction, humans did something only Homo sapiens can do: We kept the wolf feared, hated,and alive in literature - especially children's stories.
We met Rick Lamplugh and his wife on the 2013 Wolf Rendezvous. The following is an excerpt adapted from a chapter in his newly-released book:In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter's Immersion in Wild Yellowstone.
From the United States to the United Kingdom, from Europe to Japan, wolves have been hated to death. I struggle to believe that humans haven't always hated wolves. Yet some experts say that long ago — when we were nomadic and had limitless horizons — wolves and humans coexisted peacefully and even evolved together. How did we get from that to a world of wolf haters?
One theory, from Mark Derr, author of How the Dog Became the Dog, proposes that fifteen to twenty thousand years ago nomadic hunters following game could have encountered a pack of wolves. The hunters and wolves did not fight or flee. Instead, some of those humans and wolves were right for one another, were both sociable and curious. Those wolves were capable of overcoming fear of a creature from another species and making what Derr calls "a leap of friendship."
After that leap, our ancient ancestors learned from the wolves. They observed packs hunting herds of prey and adopted some of the wolves' tactics. The new approaches produced more meat than the hunters could consume or carry and they left the excess. Wolves ate their fill and tasted how they could benefit from humans. Those hunters had begun the long process of domesticating man's worst enemy, Canis lupus, into man's best friend, Canis lupus familiaris.
Derr's image of two intelligent and resourceful creatures meeting on a trail, befriending one another, and evolving together places the wolf in a much-needed positive light. Wolves that eventually became dogs were not, as the prevailing theory goes, rejects from their packs that slinked around in the shadows of the nomads' campfires and begged for food. This distinction is important. Which would you respect and value more: an animal capable of making a leap of friendship or a reject begging for a handout?
Derr's wolves chose to enter into a partnership with humans, and both parties benefitted. But that partnership started to unravel eight to ten thousand years ago as hunters became herders. No longer a nomad with a limitless horizon, a herder's territory shrank to the confines of asmall patch of land. His family survived on what that patch produced.Any animal that ate the herder's sheep, goats, pigs, or cattle took food from the family and reduced their chances of survival.
Those parcels of land were often in wolf territory where wolves did what they still do best: pick the easiest prey possible. So when herders put their livestock in those pastures, they were feeding them to the wolves. That killing of livestock changed our relationship with Canis lupus forever. We were no longer two species coexisting. We were two species competing.
Stepping back and viewing ourselves as Homo sapiens, members of a competitive species, allows us a different perspective on wolf hate. From that view, we do not detest the wolf because it is an evil animal. Our hatred is a symptom of interspecies conflict for territory and food with wolves. In that sense, I see our relationship with the wolf as similar to the wolf's relationship with the coyote.
Wolves I've watched in Yellowstone are a perfect example of this. When a pack brings down an elk, each member eats its fill and then moves away from the carcass to sleep off the "meat drunk." As the wolves drowse, an opportunistic coyote may sneak in to scavenge. The wolves may pay no mind, chase the coyote, or kill the scavenger. If they kill the coyote, they usually don't eat it. The wolves are not hungry; they are just cutting the competition for their hard-won meal. Wolves and coyotes have coexisted like this for thousands and thousands of years, with careless coyotes losing their lives but their species surviving.
In the case of wolves and humans, we are the top predator. When opportunistic wolves encroach on our livestock — often while we sleep — we may do nothing, chase the wolves away, or kill, but not eat, the wolves.
Human-wolf conflict has proven inevitable for a number of reasons. Wolves live almost everywhere we do. Both species are territorial. Canis lupus marks territory by scent marking and howling, while Homo sapiens use political borders and barbed wire. Wolves and humans like the same meals, and for the same reason: A domestic cow grazing in a wide-open pasture, for example, is much easier to catch, kill, and devour than a big bull elk defending itself in a belly-deep river. Wolves can bring down that elk because they hunt in packs; they find strength in numbers. As do humans by cooperating in families and groups. Within a wolf pack or human group there are dominant and submissive members, leaders and followers.
This combination of territoriality, cooperative behavior, and dominant members leads to wars: wolves fighting wolves, humans fighting humans, and, of course, humans waging war against wolves. And make no mistake, we have waged a one-sided war; wolves rarely attack humans.
When wolves battle coyotes for food and territory, their weapons are native intelligence, speed, strength, and teeth. With those weapons, wolves leave their competitor species intact. But we have a much more varied and deadly arsenal — including biological and chemical weapons. We also have bigger — and more devious — brains, as well as opposable thumbs with which we devise a frightening array of battle plans against wolves. The end result: We can exterminate all the wolves we can find.
As an arbitrary starting point in this one-sided and centuries-old war, let's begin with the Middle Ages, the 5th to the 15th century. This was a time when many horrifying rumors — some true — about rabid wolves killing humans spread across Europe. Governments, composed of the dominant members of our species, reacted. France, in the 9th century, 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 wolves were more numerous — and easier to find. In Scotland in1427, 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 as a species to environmental threats. First, near the end of the 13th century in Europe, a "Little Ice Age" chilled the continent, reducing crop harvests and creating shortages of wheat, oats, hay,and livestock. Then the Great Famine struck northwest Europe, killing about ten percent of the population. With families and friends starving and dying, no one would put up with wolves killing livestock. I can imagine the message spreading across the countryside: Wolves are our enemies. To protect ourselves and our territory we must use our arrows, spears, clubs, and pits and kill them. All of them.
Then conditions worsened: The Black Death arrived. The plague peaked in the mid-1300s and killed thirty to sixty percent of Europe's population. Once the Black Death subsided, the human 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. Producing more food required more land for livestock and crops. That led to stealing more wolf territory. And killing wolves.
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.
Even though Europe covers a large area, space for human expansion was limited by political boundaries. But there was a whole new world waiting across the Atlantic. By the 1600s, the colonization of North America was in full swing. When colonists disembarked in the New World, wolves were probably watching from the woods; the animals roamed most of what would become the continental United States. The stage was set for another one-sided territorial clash between two top predators.
That New World clash between Canis lupus and Homo sapiens erupted, once again, over livestock, according to Barry Lopez, in Of Wolves and Men. By 1625, pigs, cattle, and horses were common and colonists were working together to stop predation, using tactics learned in their home countries. In addition to digging wolf pits and building fences, colonists used 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 the colony. Other colonies followed suit: Virginia in 1632, South Carolina in 1695, and New Jersey in 1697.
Lopez writes that by the early 1700s the colonists were moving toward self-sufficiency from England, but they needed a local wool industry to be independent. That meant raising sheep and appropriating land from wolves for pastures. As colonists encroached,wolf-human conflict increased.
In the end, wolves never fought back and could not compete with humans. Their natural intelligence, speed, strength, and teeth were no match for our big brains and big arsenals. By the early 1800s that arsenal included more powerful and accurate rifles and strychnine. This poison enabled Americans to escalate the killing of wolves to an industrial — and even more impersonal — scale. Instead of killing wolves one at a time, hunters learned that a poisoned carcass could kill an entire pack. By 1840 wolves were extinct in Massachusetts and disappearing from other states. Our one-sided war sentenced the wolf to a fate worse than we humans had suffered at the hands of the Black Death. All in a battle for territory and food.
But eliminating the animal 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 feared, hated, and alive in literature, especially children's stories.
One of the most famous collections, Grimm's Fairy Tales, was published in 1812 in a wolf-free Germany. Yet it contains "Little Red Riding Hood," with its infamous, conniving wolf.
Around the same time, Europeans resurrected Aesop's Fables, originally told more than two thousand years earlier. These stories contain tales such as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," with its wolf that destroys the flock of a lying little boy; "The Wolf and Lamb," in which a tyrannical wolf devours an innocent lamb; and "The Wolf and Dog," in which the wolf refuses to give up its freedom to become a collared, well-fed pet, living among humans.
In 1886, more than three hundred years after the wolf was exterminated from 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 created a new generation of wolf haters where wolves no longer existed. Words and pictures proved to be powerful propaganda, as valuable as guns and poison in our war against wolves.
The human drive to take territory from wolves, to annihilate these competitors, and to create wolf haters is crystalized in the story of the organized eradication of the animal from Japan.
The story begins around 1600. Then, the Japanese regarded wolves as deities, worshipped them at shrines, even left ceremonial dishes of red beans and rice next to wolf dens, according to Brett Walker in his book, The Lost Wolves of Japan. The country had no large scale livestock industry and farmers saw the wolf as an ecological partner: The wolves killed the boars and deer that ate grain crops.
During the 1700s, the reverence for wolves diminished as the human population swelled, encroached on wolf territory, and that in turn fostered human-wolf conflict. Some rabid wolves killed humans; and all of a sudden there was a bounty on wolves and the stirring of wolf hatred.
In 1868 the Japanese government decided to stoke that stirring into a squall when it began to modernize the country's economy. At that time, modernization meant developing scientific agriculture and raising livestock on huge, new ranches, as Americans had done so successfully. Those ranches would be carved out of wolf territory. Wolves had to go.
In 1873 the Japanese government hired Edwin Dun, a rancher from Ohio, to help create the livestock industry and eradicate wolves. Dun went to work on the northern tip of Japan, on the undeveloped Hokkaido, an island just a bit smaller than Ireland. When Dun stepped off the boat with starter herds, about fifty head of cattle and a hundred sheep, the development of the livestock industry and the government's campaign to re-categorize wolves as evil predators began.
Once wolves were viewed as "noxious animals" instead of sacred deities, the next step came easy. Dun was, after all, a veteran American rancher. He knew how to eliminate wolves: bounties and strychnine.
The Japanese kept records of the rampage. By 1881, 406 wolves had been killed. By 1905, wolves were extinct. It took only thirty-two years less than the average lifespan of a citizen — for the Japanese to go from worshipping wolves at shrines to wiping them out with strychnine. The key was when the Japanese government shifted the cultural perception of the wolf from deity to demon.
I find a question buried in this tragic tale that could lead to saving wolves. If a government can create a culture of wolf hatred and kill all wolves, can a government create a culture of wolf respect and protect all wolves?
As I write this, Canis lupus is still on our federal endangered species list in all but a few western states. But there is a movement to remove national protection and leave wolf management to individual states. That could prove fatal for wolves. Some states with federally approved wolf management plans — and thriving livestock industries — have ac ulture of wolf hatred and vow to kill all wolves except the small number that their wolf management plans require they keep alive.
Plans like those barely keep wolf hatred in check and do nothing to reduce it. Plans like those give the false impression that wolf survival is a biological issue, a matter of the number of surviving breeding pairs. But wolf survival, like wolf eradication, is a cultural issue.
All federal and state wolf management plans must do more than limit the killing of wolves. They must include steps to change the long-held fundamental emotion in our culture of wolf hatred to wolf respect. We must stop seeing the animal as the Big Bad Wolf and learn to view itas a top predator that plays an essential role in nature. We must learn that the wolf is an animal we can live with, not vermin we must exterminate. Only then will the animal not be endangered.
The wolf needs real protection until we are ready to meet Canis lupus on the trail once again and not resort to the instinct to fight or flee. We did that once before, and our species can do it again.
Rick Lamplugh is the author of the just released book In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone, about the wolves, winter ecology, and his experience living and working in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, the best place in the world to watch wild wolves. This blog post is adapted from a chapter in that book. Rickalso has a blog Yellowstone Stories and Images.
- Yellowstone Coyote Dining on Elk. Photo by Rick Lamplugh
- German Wolf Pups. Photo by Spacebirdy / CC-BY-SA-3.0. Permission granted to use.
- English Gray Wolf on Stump. Photo by Quartl. Permission granted to use.
- Little Red Riding Hood by Gustave Dore (1883). Public Domain.
- Japanese Wolf monument in Nara Prefecture, Japan. Photo by Katuuya. Permission granted to use.