What would you do if, beneath the forest canopy, you heard a wolf’s howl?
The chance of such an experience occurring in Oregon is low, but growing. As of 2012, there were 53 wolves within our state’s boundaries.
Wolves were once abundant in the United States; their numbers ranged from 200,000 to 500,000, until habitat fragmentation and deliberate extermination by humans led to their decline. By 1960, only 300 wolves remained in all the continental United States, and were relegated to upper Michigan and Minnesota. Luckily, scientists and environmental advocates have fought to reintroduce wolves to their historical prevalence in other parts of the country, including Oregon.
Yet, how do most of us see Canis lupus? Most of us fear them, and perhaps this fear, instilled in us from childhood fairytales, has never been justified at all.
In 1963 Farley Mowat published Never Cry Wolf. He is famous throughout Canada and the world for his popular books about nature. Mowat has been called controversial for disapproving of the United State’s environmental policies, for criticizing the oppression of the Inuit people, and for questioning the way nature is viewed in society. Born in 1921 in Saskatoon, Canada, he’s won numerous awards, such as the Governor General’s Award, the Leacock Medal for Humor, the Canadian Centennial Medal, the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal, and the Gemini Award.
Never Cry Wolf is an autobiography that details Mowat’s intimate study of arctic wolves; commissioned by the Canadian government to prove the correlation between wolves and declining caribou numbers, Mowat was shipped to the arctic tundra of Keewatin. There, he found a wolf den, and, upon venturing in, he stumbled right into a bed of squirming wolf pups. One would expect him to be viciously attacked. Whether for protection or predation, the grown wolves should’ve retaliated, right?
They did no such thing, and instead those wolves, affectionately named George, Angeline, and Uncle Albert, taught Mowat their true nature.
The caribou migrated through the arctic, their herds dwindling but still numerous. According to the Canadian government, arctic wolves were caribou-massacring savages. In reality, they never took more than they needed, nor did they kill for sport. The wolves would only go after the weakest animals, and when they did make a kill, all of it was used and savored.
Ootek, an Inuit companion of the author, explained their relationship: “The caribou feeds the wolves, but it is the wolf who keeps the caribou strong. We know that if it were not for the wolf there would be no caribou at all, for they would die as weakness spread among them” (200).
In the summer the caribou were absent from the wolves’ territory, and in such times, they feasted on mice, which, along with supplements of fish and other small rodents, nourished them.
Not only were they more docile than expected, these wolves were almost humanlike through affectionate interactions with each other. They spoke to one another in a range of sounds rivaling our own, and they played, hugged, and babysat. Neighboring wolf families would cross territories just to visit. Strikingly tolerant of other animals (including humans), the wolf kills only to eat, “which is probably one of the main differences distinguishing him from man” (203).
Mowat writes this all in a lighthearted, personal way. He defies boring scientist stereotypes, using instead a crisp and humorous tone alight with passion. The wolves were more than just test subjects. He loved them, revered them, and came close enough almost to join them, which makes the reader love the wolves, too, and question all that they’ve ever thought about wolves and about all other wild creatures.
So what had really happened to the caribou? Hunters were killing them. Not to eat, and not because they needed it, but for money. They had been lying to the government about how many caribou they were really killing and the government believed them, and the blame remained on the wolves. Then the hunters started killing wolves, too.
Even without such matters to complicate things, tensions between man and wolf today are high. Why have we had fear trained into us? Why do a few slain livestock breed such hate among ranchers, when we have taken so much from the wolves?
Of course wolves are forced to invade our territory occasionally. We’ve hardly left anything else.
As the caribou demonstrate, wolves keep ecosystems in balance. Wolves are known as a keystone species; without them, their prey would grow overabundant, or pass on weak genes. We should welcome wolves back into Oregon and it seems this transition has already begun; according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they are no longer considered an endangered species in eastern Oregon due to recovery.