Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. In the January issue he has a lyric essay about The Lost Wolves of New England. It is a beautifully written yearning for fellow creatures who once shared our landscape, creatures we wiped out for reasons of culture antipathy and economic exigencies.
It pairs nicely with the insights of a new book on the domestication of dogs, How the Dog Became the Dog, by Mark Derr. Deer is an well known author expert on dogs and people. Rejecting the “grab and enslave” and other mechanical narratives of domestication, he argues for a more nuanced coevolution of dogs and humans along both biological and cultural lines. Key to this is the knowledge that wolves themselves are social beings, who at times lived in mutual cooperation with early humans.
I highly recommend both.
In case you are interested, below is the comment I posted to “The Lost Wolves of New England” essay on the website of The New York Review of Books.
I have worked on the ethics of wolf recovery across North America for over a decade. For most of that time I believed we would achieve a broad recovery across the United States, if not Canada.
As I child in the north woods of Ontario, my family and I listened to the howl of wolves. As a graduate student in Minnesota, I routinely heard and saw signs of wolves from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the north, to St. Croix State Park on the central border with Wisconsin. I thought it only a matter to time before wolves would be howling in the Northeast.
Today I realize that time is far off, perhaps beyond my lifetime.
After a promising start, wolf recovery ground to a halt during the second Bush and now the Obama Administration. The reasons are complex and have to do with corporate agriculture, big game interests, entrenched anti-wolf attitudes, and the rougue federal agency known as Wildlife Services. There is a wonderful article by Christopher Ketcham in The American Prospect that captures this nicely, Wolves to the Slaughter.
For more on how the Bush and Obama administrations have used gerrymandering of wolf recovery zones alongside artificially low targets for sustainable wolf populations, see my Thanksgiving for Wolves.
While wolves will certainly hang on in small gulags of habitat surrounded by free fire zones, they will not now be recovered to either the legal mandate or original vision of the Endangered Species Act. Both republicans and democrats in Congress removed wolves from the endangered species list for purely political reasons having nothing to do with either ecology or ethics.
We are all the poorer for this. Our landscapes are denied an indispensable predator that promotes ecosystem health. Large portions of our society have yet to transcend their animus against wolves. And by failing to do right by wolves, we demonstrate our inability to live ethically and sustainably with wildlife.
Image: Atka, ambassador wolf at the Wolf Conservation Center near New York City.