Through Different Eyes

Shifting values and the return of the real wolf

| September 1, 2005

Wolves have always inspired passion in humans, whether in the form of fear or wonder. In the US, those passions have brought great tension between those who see the wolf as a sheep-eating menace and those who would defend the animal as a misunderstood friend. Thomas R. Petersen examines the 'real' wolf for Orion Online and how history, myth, and the reintroduction of the species into the West has colored our relationship with the big bad, good little wolf.

Europeans arrived in America with a medieval fear of wolves straight out of Little Red Riding Hood. As settlers moved west and railroad hunters picked off buffalo herds, wolves were forced to indulge the devil-incarnate perception of their species by turning to livestock for food. Ranchers and the government bit back by hiring wolf killers, who used strychnine-laced meat to exterminate an estimated one million wolves between 1850 and 1900, along with ranch dogs, eagles, and children who ate the meat.

In the fifty years that followed, folks who migrated from ranches to cities formed a culture less empathetic with livestock and therefore less hateful toward wolves. The environmentalism of the '60s and '70s added to this mix, and Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, which would eventually protect wolves, in 1973.

But those close to the land still feared wolves' beefy appetites, and packs of pro- and anti-wolf activists bristled over the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone and central Idaho in the '90s. Petersen remembers an anti-wolf parade with signs reading, 'The wolf is the next Saddam Hussein.'

A decade later, the success of the reintroduction program has reined in extreme views of wolves. Environmentalists are heartened by a population that's grown from 31 to 301, and ranchers have begun to trust the US Fish and Wildlife Service to deal quickly with problem wolves.

Petersen hopes we continue to inch closer together and make room for wolves as the dialogue continues. He calls on our ability as humans, concerned for the welfare of other species, to take one another's attitudes and values into consideration in our collective decision-making.
-- Morgon Mae Schultz

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