Wolves: Conflict and Compassion
Wolves! Merely mentioning this canid species can send chills up the backs of many people. They view wolves as perfect killing machines – relentless and ruthless. Yet others see wolves as nature’s perfect creatures which are always in balance with their surroundings. Which are they? Wolves are neither extreme. They are not super beings with an S on their chest nor are they robot-like simpletons programmed by nature to react only through primeval instincts.
Because of my years of wolf research in northwest Montana, I have been given several names of endearment by the general public, some of which cannot be put into print. For many of you, however, I’m known as the Wolfman, Wolf guy, or simply Dude. So let’s just get it all out onto the table now: wolves are complex creatures and more is unknown about them than is known. What science does understand is that like humans they feel pain, pleasure, fear, a sense of loss, and display a remarkable intelligence unmatched by most living organisms. And when pushed to their physical and psychological limits, they can suffer psychological disorders similar to those observed in humans. Their place in nature is equally as complex. So why does such a variety of attitudes exist about wolves? Where does it come from?
Snails! The snails are coming! Aahhhhh!! This does not have quite the same impact as wolves, does it? Most people would probably agree that snails are not a great threat to humanity – to our rose gardens, perhaps, but not our lives. In fact, numerous people may view snails as “worthless” and question why they exist at all. They also cannot potentially attack us in the woods like wolves can. Having spent years in the forest in close proximity to these wild dogs, I can safely say that I have more potential of tripping over a rock and hurting myself than a wolf attacking me. Yes they have attacked people in the past but it is incredibly rare. Moose, deer, bears, cougars, and virtually everything in the environment can cause us more harm than a wolf. Practically speaking, wolves are one of the more benign creatures.
Whether a wolf or snail, each species plays an important role in nature. One is not better than the other. They simply exist. Like people, they are only trying to “make a living” and get through the day. It is the values people place on other creatures that creates the numerous attitudes displayed toward wolves, snails, and other life forms. Placing human values on things that are not human can create some unusual and extreme perspectives of animals. I’ve seen gardeners become violently upset at snails for foraging through their cultivated slice of earth, destroying the products of their hard labor. Human behavior toward wolves can range from caring and compassion, such as wolf sanctuaries, to the premeditated slaughter of over one thousand wolves annually in Alaska. Many of these opinions and values about animals are based on incomplete and inaccurate information, and many people just fill in the blanks with whatever thoughts they deem necessary to promote their agendas.
As many of you already know, attitudes towards wolves can be highly emotional, whether you hate them or love them. The issues, however, are rarely black and white. For example, some people believe ranchers are the main cause of wolf mortality and that they have little regard for these creatures. At one time or another, I’ve worked closely with most of the ranchers in my area and this concept is far from the truth. Ranchers are not the gun toting “hicks” many people would like us to believe. As in much of the general population, the attitudes ranchers have towards wolves ranges from pro-wolf to shooting any predators on site. These people are intelligent and are an excellent source of information about wildlife. To me, they are walking encyclopedias. It would be moronic of me not to tap into such a wealth of information!
For many years I have worked with wildlife biologists, students, ranchers, and the public. I’ve collected numerous statements made by these people about wolves and have used many of them to form an ethics and morals lesson I teach in some of my science classes. Prejudice and empathy can be found in each of these categories. Such attitudes demonstrate the conflict and compassion human beings show toward wolves, and that regardless of our feelings, we can always learn from those we disagree with.