By an odd coincidence I had just finished reading Once a Wolf by Stephen Swinburne to my son when I received Etienne Delessert's picture Big and Bad. Once a Wolf is part of the Scientists in the Field series, an absolutely superb collection of books that I can not recommend enough; we have yet to be disappointed by a single one of these titles. In this case, Swinburne writes about the history of wolves in Europe and the Lower 48 and the successful efforts to return the Gray Wolf to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. It's a fascinating look at wildlife management and a thorough examination of the relationship between predator and prey species. Swinburne brought up a couple of things that really stayed with me, particularly when he wrote about wolves and people in Europe:
England hated wolves from the country's beginning. King Edward who ruled in the tenth century, allowed citizens to pay their taxes in wolf heads. Around 1500, entire forests were burned to destroy wolves. To protect livestock, laws aimed at exterminating these creatures were passed. The last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1743. All of Ireland's wolves were destroyed by 1776.
Few wolves remain in Europe today.
Swinburne cites "Little Red Riding Hood", "The Three Little Pigs" and Robert Browning's "Ivan Ivanovitch" as literary sources of humanity's fear of wolves. "What is not useful is vicious" said Cotton Mather and with lurid stories of blood thirsty creatures filling their heads, the American colonists set after them with a vengeance. Through poisoning of animal carcasses and hunting, wolves were pushed out of the Lower 48. By the 20th century they were nearly gone and in 1926, Yellowstone was officially free of them. Finally, westerners felt safe.
The question of course, is why wolves had to die for cattle to live. That is where Delessert's book suddenly came into play.
In this beautifully illustrated retelling of the famous tale, wolf is "lean, mean, and always hungry". His arrival in the woods is terrifying, as "when wolf wasn't hunting he was making splendid hats with the fur of animals he had gobbled down. His head was so large that he needed the skin of seven cats to cover it." It is not only the pigs who are his target, but every single animal in the woods. They end up banding together to come up with a plan to deal with the monster and ultimately they lure him down a chimney into a blazing fire. "With a most horrible wail, the burning Wolf shot out into the evening skies. You can still see Wolf circling around the earth as bright as a shooting star." And all the animals are shown lined up in a row looking up at the blazing wolf, happy to see him gone.
There is no redemption for Wolf in Big and Bad, but there isn't supposed to be. The wolf is the enemy; he has always been the enemy, and we count on the pigs and Red Riding Hood and everyone else he meets to outsmart him and bring about his death. What I never thought about until reading these two books together was just what the societal impact of this long held tradition of wolf bashing has done to the way we treat the actual animal. It took 80 years to get the Gray Wolf back into Yellowstone but that happy ending, the way Once a Wolf ends, is not the situation today. The Gray Wolf was just delisted from the endangered species list and can now be hunted when it strays off park land. The numbers, we have decided, must be reduced. The wolf is causing problems yet again and this time it is not only the Gray Wolf, but the Mexican Wolf in the American Southwest as well:
"I'd really like to see them gone," said Barbara Marks, who chairs the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association's wildlife committee and operates a cattle ranch with her husband that includes 225 acres of private property and 71,775 acres of public land. "In the middle of the night you wake up in a cold sweat when you hear your dogs barking, wondering if something's wrong."
In Alaska, where Gray Wolves were never endangered, there has been a long fought continuous battle to control the animal. It is only in recent years that aerial hunting of wolves was made illegal without a permit yet recently there has been a call to obtain permission for Native hunters to kill cubs in their dens. Every time the moose population decreases in an area the first direction some people will look to is wolves. Historically wolves are considered a problem species, first and foremost and changing that impression has proven to be nearly impossible.
It makes you rethink Red Riding Hood all over again, doesn't it?
We grow up on certain stories and we happily tell them to our children and we never think - for a minute - that these stories mean anything more than the passing of a cultural landmark. Cinderella, Snow white, Hansel and Gretal, and on and on, are common around the world in one way or another. Riding Hood and the Three Pigs are no different, nor should they be. But it is clear from our continued struggle with wolf management that these simple old fashioned stories and others like them have created long standing and dangerous myths about one animal in particular. Stories have damaged the survival of wolves in the wild; they have made us unreasonably scared in our beds. They have made us hate the real animals who never asked to be part of our colorful picture books. We have created a myth and allowed it to flourish for our own amusement and it is wolves who pay the price, simply because they are wolves.
The Idaho Legislature last month set a $9.75 fee to hunt wolves. In January, Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter vowed, "I'm prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself."