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Feb. 05, 2009

Wolves

by Miriam Gordon

I have always loved animals. When I was about 3 years old, I was fascinated with a beautiful collie that lived in my building. This dog did not like people, but I loved him. I distinctly remember one day running around him, hugging, petting and talking to him, and I remember hearing him growl (he was taller than me), but for some reason, he put up with the unwanted attention. I only remember being acquainted with him that one time – I think after that, my Mom and his owner colluded to keep me away from him.

This life-long love of animals has prompted me to join organizations dedicated to wildlife and nature conservation, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity. I joined their army of email activists, and began to receive many messages from these organizations about the wanton killing of wolves in the Rocky Mountains. As I participated in every email campaign to support the legal efforts of these organizations to protect wolves, I became increasingly curious about the motivation behind the slaughter.

As a dog lover and as someone who has never had a close encounter with a real wolf or wolf pack, I was very offended that the US Fish and Wildlife Service was taking steps, with the blessing of the recent, dearly departed Bush administration, to make it easier for hunters to slaughter wolves. Apparently, wolves are inconvenient to domestic cattle ranchers whose ancestors settled the “wild” west in the 19th century. The original settlers slaughtered buffalo in order to make room for their domestic herds to graze. The buffalo were the natural prey of wolves, so when they all but disappeared, the wolves naturally turned to preying on domestic livestock and cost the ranchers a bundle. What must have been an inborn fear or hatred of wolves on the part of these pioneering ranchers manifested as the aggressive hunting and killing of these “pests”, to the point where they were practically eliminated from Yellowstone National Park in the early 20th century. Since that time, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has coordinated the re-introduction of wolves into the Rocky Mountains. The population has been reviving, along with the old animus between the wolves and the ranchers. The thought of another round of wolf slaughter saddened me terribly. Being a city slicker, I look at pictures of wolves and want to see big, huggable dogs, but I’ve probably always known on some level that this is very inaccurate.

On a recent trip to the library, I came across a book entitled Of Wolves and Men by Barry Holstun Lopez. I was hoping it would provide some of the answers I was looking for, and found much more than I expected. I was not surprised to discover that this book was a National Book Award finalist for which Lopez also received the John Burroughs and Christopher medals. A 25th Anniversary Edition was printed in 2004 by Scribner.

Although Lopez does discuss scientific studies of wolves (performed prior to 1978), he weaves them together beautifully with his own encounters in the Arctic, observations by other naturalists over the past several hundred years, and the historical and cultural insights of the Eskimo people and North American Indians. It was primarily though the intimate relationships he developed with these people that he gained most of his knowledge of wolves.

To most Westerners, wolves are shrouded in myth and mystery, and elicit a vast range of emotions including awe, fear, loathing, and love. Certain Eskimo and Indian tribes, on the other hand, live very close to the land, and tend to model their hunting skills after careful, painstaking observations of the way wolves hunt. As their lives depend on capturing the same prey as wolves do, these people have developed an extraordinarily fine sense of very subtle cues that would completely escape others – something that Lopez experienced first hand. The Eskimo and North American Indian people tend to regard wolves as sacred beings with souls, distinct from domestic dogs, which to them are largely utilitarian.

Wolves exhibit amazingly complex, sometimes unfathomable methods of interaction with their prey and with one another. As Lopez so beautifully explains in his Introduction, “To be rigorous about wolves—you might as well expect rigor of clouds.”

About Miriam Gordon

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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