Of Wolves and Men, by Barry Lopez, explores many facets of the long and tempestuous relationship between humans and wolves. Sadly, in an age of infinite information and growing eco-awareness, many people still remain crippled by an overwhelming, totally irrational hatred of wolves. They want them all dead. Now.
The people of hunting societies had immense respect for wolves, amazing animals that could survive long arctic winters without tools, clothing, or fires. Both wolves and humans were highly intelligent and social species who spent their lives living in a similar way, on the same land, pursuing the same prey. Wolves were natural predators. Their bodies were perfected for the hunting life by a million years of evolution. Humans were odd creatures, incapable of effective hunting without the use of a collection of clever technology. Eskimos periodically died of starvation, but wolves rarely did.
The Eskimos hunted sacred wild animals, and their meat was powerful medicine. It made you strong and alive. The opposite of sacred flesh was the meat of pathetic animals, like domesticated herbivores. This was junk food that would not keep you well nourished. The Naskapi believed that they were being spiritually destroyed as a people by being forced to eat the meat of mutant animals.
Hunting societies generally did not hunt wolves for food. Eating wolf flesh was taboo in many cultures. Similarly, wolves did not routinely kill humans for food. But they enjoyed having humans for lunch. There were many stories of wolves digging up corpses. They feasted on the piles of humans killed by the Black Death, and they regularly appeared on battlefields to dine on unlucky soldiers and horses. Wolves and ravens were frequently the companions of mighty war gods.
When humans migrated into North America, they probably brought three or four types of dogs (domesticated gray wolves). Dogs assisted in hunting, pulled or carried loads, and provided fur and meat. They were not pets. Nuisance dogs were promptly dispatched. The Nunamiut believed that wolves had souls, but their sled dogs didn’t. The Sioux referred to wolves as shunkmanitu tanka, “the animal that looks like a dog (but) is a powerful spirit.” Dogs were not allowed in their ceremonial lodges.
Big trouble came when “problem humans” appeared, and began the bizarre and unnatural practice of domesticating livestock, poultry, and water fowl. They were completely out of balance with the family of life. Problem humans rapidly expanded in numbers, destroyed the ancient forests, and exterminated the animals that the wolves depended on. Before long, the countryside was cluttered with passive dim-witted beasts. Eventually, there was nothing for the wolves to eat except for junk food. A farm family might wake up in the morning to find that wolves had killed all of their enslaved critters, and this did not amuse them.
Lopez once asked Eskimos a question: if you decided to start herding reindeer, would you exterminate the wolves? “No.” They would expect some predation. It would be insane to kill off their sacred relatives in order to maximize meat production.
But problem humans resented anything that lived on their land for free, and long ago they began the War on Wolves. An enthusiastic European wolfer in 1650 might kill 20 or 30 wolves in his life, but an American wolfer in the late nineteenth century, armed with kegs of strychnine, might kill 4,000 or 5,000 wolves in ten years. By collecting bounties and selling pelts, a wolfer could make $1,000 to $3,000 in four months — big money at that time. The game was: (1) shoot a few buffalo, (2) lace their meat with poison, (3) return the next morning and skin 20 or 30 dead wolves.
The strychnine hunters went crazy. Cowboys never passed a carcass on the range without poisoning it. They shot birds and painted them with poison. Farm dogs died. Children died. Anything that ate meat died. Prior to white settlement, the Great Plains was home to an incredible abundance of wildlife. Lopez estimated that between 1850 and 1900, 500 million wild animals died. Such insanity staggers the imagination.
Today, the killing continues. Problem humans are using dynamite to blow up predator dens, and shooting them from planes and helicopters. They stake out dogs in heat, and then beat to death the wolves that mount them. Why? Why? Why?
Lopez takes us back to old Europe in search of answers. In the medieval mind, anything evil was associated with wolves. The wolf and the devil were one. Werewolves and witches were tortured and brutally murdered in great numbers during the Inquisition, an enterprise controlled by the well-educated, Jesus-adoring, upper class. Victims included anyone odd or unpopular: the insane, simpletons, epileptics, people with Down’s syndrome. Our experiment with civilization was turning into a horror show, as they always do.
From another source, I’ve learned that problem humans were not just Christians. The Japanese raised far less livestock, so wolves were not a major threat to them. Wolves were seen as spirit messengers, and shrines were built to venerate them. But the last Japanese wolf was killed in 1905. Oddly, some still believe that the wolves continue to survive.
Lopez does not give us an exact diagnosis for our sickness, nor an antidote. Our problems are rooted in a failure to understand our place in the universe. They reflect self-loathing. We kill wolves, werewolves, and witches in a futile effort to erase our animal nature. We have been taught to believe that our strong and normal hunger for pleasure and life is shameful and wrong. We have been taught that humans are the center of the universe, elevated above everything else in Creation. Until we outgrow that idiocy, we will remain spectacularly crazy, and doomed to a short performance on our sweet and beautiful planet.
Lopez, Barry, Of Wolves and Men, Scribner Classics, New York, 2004.