Reintroducing ourselves to the wolf

A guest essay from Karla Powell.

A couple of weeks ago, an email arrived in my ‘in-box’, as follows:

Hi Karla and Paul,

I hope this email finds you both well. I recently met Karla on an Oregon Wild hike last weekend in the Gorge. Karla is a longtime Oregon Wild supporter, passionate wildlife advocate and published author. She recently wrote a really lovely article on the human connection to wolves that I found quite inspiring.

I wanted you two to connect as Paul is also a wildlife advocate, now living in southern Oregon with his wonderful partner Jean. Paul, I thought you might be able to recommend a place, online or otherwise, Karla might be able to submit this article. I think you’ll quite enjoy it.

Thank you both for supporting our work for so many years,

Clearly, I was able to recommend a place where Karla could submit her article! Here on Learning from Dogs!

Karla and I made contact and, bingo!, here is her remarkable essay.


Reintroducing Ourselves to the Wolf

Karla Powell

Is it possible that by reconciling our troubled relationship with the North American wolf, we may come to better know our own nature as well as theirs? In the realm of natural history, wolves have long been left to myth and superstition. “Well into the 20th century, even science lagged behind in its knowledge of wolves and retained certain biases,” says award-winning nature writer, Barry Lopez, in his definitive book Of Wolves and Men. Even in the 21st century, science still can be skewed towards special interests. Yet the relative merits of facts notwithstanding, it is opinions about wolves that hold sway, points out Lopez.

As a lifelong urban creature, I had neither opinions nor knowledge when it came to the existence of wolves. Then in mid-life I found myself living alone in a cabin in rural Oregon and running a Junior Rangers program for the local state park. I also oversaw the weekend evening family programs. One such program featured hybrid wolves who’d found shelter in a nearby sanctuary and were presented for educational purposes. It was the closest I’d ever come to the real thing. So the next day I incorporated the theme of wolves into my Jr. Ranger activity.

I began by encouraging my young charges to howl along with me. I’d been practicing in the car on the way and it felt great! (I can see why they say wolves may howl at times for sheer pleasure.) My Jr. Rangers eagerly entered the fray, and every dog in the campground soon followed. Contrast this youthful exuberance to the dispiriting recollection of Joseph Marshall, author of The Wolf: A Native American Symbol. Marshall’s tale is recounted in the book War Against Wolf. “As a seven-year-old, I knew that there were no wolves left in my world, and I knew why. One day my grandfather… told me that the spirits of all the dead wolves … would wait until the time was right for them to return and walk again on the earth.”

Marshall, a Sicangu Lakota, believed that the 1995 reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone heralded that this day had arrived. Yet we’re still a far cry from the sustainable recovery of a species we nearly annihilated. Reintroduction efforts in several western states contend with tired old beliefs. This vocal minority seem to me not far removed from those distant ancestors whose hysteria about the animal went so far as to conjure human “werewolves,” who were hunted and burned alive.

The folklore that led to such extremes was ultimately carried to our shores. In the book Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, the author tells of “Euro-American colonists who captured live wolves and tortured them for fun, ignoring the animals’ cowering for clemency.” Yet canines at home could display similar signals, which their masters sympathetically interpreted.

None other than John James Audubon casually recorded the maniacal torture and vicious killing of a pack of wolves by an Ohio farmer in 1814. Audubon and other observers, including trappers, sometimes noted the meek submittal of wolves to human aggression. Yet even a naturalist at that time couldn’t extrapolate this to meaningful analysis of wolves’ socialization, which includes “signaling” postures as a plea for mercy.

“This is not predator control,” says Lopez in his chapter on the gruesome excesses of “wolf fever” in the settling of our continent. “It is the violent expression of a terrible assumption: that men have the right to kill other creatures not for what they do, but for what we fear they may do.” Lopez then goes on to discuss “theriophobia” or “fear of the beast as an irrational, violent, insatiable creature.” The author continues: “At the heart of theriophobia is the fear of one’s own nature.”

Some 200 years before Christ, the Roman dramatist Plautus pithily depicted the beast we humans carry within by saying, “Man is wolf to man.” A glance at today’s headlines reveals that man’s dual nature is far from reconciled. Our legacy with the wolf is equally dualistic. In conquest, labels of savagery or demonization of the “other” are commonly projected by the oppressor onto those whom they, in turn, savagely treat. Wilderness and wildlife also are targets of such dominating impulses.

The most basic familiarity with human psychology recognizes that if we repress or deny our own capacity for shadowy motives, we invariably project such motives onto scapegoats. In America’s nation-building, the 19th century campaign to exterminate the wolf indicates we were far more guilty of depradation upon them than they upon us.

The ever-popular Saint Francis of Assisi also lived in a time of conquest run amok. An allegory about a wolf in Gubbio, Italy, has Francis and this village interloper come to an amical agreement that restored harmony for all. A contemporary visionary can be found in environmental activist George Monbiot. His 2013 TEDGlobal talk addresses the trophic cascade that resulted from the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone.

This phenomenon begins at the top of the food chain and tumbles down, says Monbiot. The return of wolves to Yellowstone has restored the entire ecosystem to a more healthful balance, recalling the “complex, lost, natural food chains that once prevailed,” explains Monbiot. This trophic cascade brought about by wolves simply being wolves has regenerated entire valleys and even changed the behavior of a river, he points out.

Just as St. Francis struck a deal with the wolf of Gubbio by promising he’d be fed by the villagers, we moderns too might benefit from a more cooperative pact. The wolf was a source of fascination to Homo sapiens when they also existed as communal hunters. Some theorize that prehistoric man’s social structure was modeled on how effectively wolves assured their packs’ common good.

The advent of an agrarian society disrupted this complex food chain that formerly prevailed. An agrarian society also emphasized the notion of property. The most common argument against wolves in agricultural communities is they kill animals that are human property. Yet since we’ve eradicated the natural habitat and prey of our indigenous wolf, their only guilt is they must eat to survive. This is no sin, as St. Francis demonstrated at Gubbio.

Top predators such as wolves needed time to adapt to such “quirky and aggressive killers {as man},” says Vicious author Jon T. Coleman. “The short supply of energy at the top of the food pyramid denied them this time. Euro-American colonists attacked animals in a vulnerable niche, creatures stuck with few options in a thermodynamic dead end.”

Consider that the very term “civilizing forces” is an oxymoron. Judging from how we have in some ways devolved into morbid obesity and epidemic diet-related diseases (many of them induced by altering food’s integrity), is it not possible for us to restore more wonder into our world by “rewilding” somewhat, as Monbiot and others propose? Not a return to the Stone Age. But perhaps a truly evolutionary step. One that restores us to a future that can reimagine coexistence as an effective survival strategy.

As an archetype in differing cultures, the wolf has been both revered and demonized. Yet whether seen as good or evil, it is still being objectified. Can we not instead view it as a living being worthy of both reason and regard? Despite more data about wolves than ever before, reason still lags behind, Lopez notes in the afterword to his original book. “Some folklore is so deeply entrenched that its adherents completely shut out emerging insights … In their rigid stances, they are impervious even to reason.”

As for regard, I suggest some discernment that takes us beyond even the necessary rational analysis. No less than Kepler, Darwin and Einstein have said that intuition is key to the scientific process, Lopez points out. He then suggests that we remind ourselves, “There could be more, there could be things we don’t understand.” Such a reminder may be our only hope for the wolf— as well as for us.


I have no doubt that everyone who reads Karla’s wonderful essay will be enthralled by the beautiful messages.

Only one way to close today’s post.

The long-awaited return of the Yellowstone wolf!
The long-awaited return of the Yellowstone wolf!

6 thoughts on “Reintroducing ourselves to the wolf

  1. The Wolf has long been demonised .. but the wolf has always been a favourite within my Animal totems. And when All animals are within their natural environments then the natural balance of nature is restored..

    Its like here in the UK a farmer moaned his land was overrun with rabbits, and yet foxes had long been culled in the previous years which gave rise to more rabbits.. All things have their place.. Its often mankind who upsets the balance by thinking he knows better than nature..

    Lovely post Paul

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