Wolves are beasts of waste and desolation.
– Teddy Roosevelt, 1927, The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, 305.
Wolves are a signature element of my research, teaching and consulting. Why? Well, wolves are cool.
I have been fascinated by wolves since I was a child. We heard them outside the cabin where I grew up. I saw more than a handful in my years canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. I participated in wolf education seminars sponsored by Defenders of Wildlife, all of which had wolves from Mission:Wolf. And finally, I came to know several quite well through the Wolf Conservation Centre of New York. Their names were Apache, Atka, and Señora.
As importantly, wolves highlight the implications of ethics for environmental policy and wildlife management.
For much of history, humans have sought to manage their relationship with wolves by exterminating them. An ethical and scientific sea change began in the twentieth century as scientists acknowledged the ecological value of wolves, while ethicists argued for their moral value.
Wildlife management, however, has lagged substantially behind science and ethics in this respect. Distorted by the corrupting influence of economic interests and local or state politics, a broad swath of wildlife management approaches wolves as if they were nothing more than an agricultural commodity to be harvested. The current controversy over wolf management in the northern Rockies of the U.S. is a case in point.
The truth is, the controversies over wolf management have little to do with science, and everything to do with ethics. It is a moral conflict over whether we care about the well being of wolves as individuals, packs and a species. Science can help us understand wolves themselves, as well as our anthropogenic impact on wolves. Science cannot, however, decide those moral questions about how we ought to live with wolves. Those questions require answers rooted in ethics.
Now, wolves are not the only way to raise questions about the ethical dimensions of environmental policy or wildlife management. But they are an excellent place to start! Viewed as both beasts of waste and desolation, and as noble creatures exemplifying (perhaps exceeding) the best of humanity, wolves always provoke a strong response with the public and other interested parties. Wolves move people, pro and con, and this is a good vehicle to begin conversations, share insights and identify the connections between issues.
In addition, the well-being of wolves tells us much about the moral health of our society. Is it human beings alone, and no one else, that constitutes our moral community? Or does this community embrace a wider circle of life, including wild beings like wolves? If so, what ethical responsibilities do people owe to wolves? Such questions require ethical interpretation.
For my part, I believe we exist in a mixed community where we owe real if differentiated responsibilities to people, animals and the rest of nature. Claims that wolves are nothing but another resource, ends to human means, do not withstand ethical scrutiny, and betray an invidious prejudice termed speciesism or anthropocentrism.
I also advocate for a deep recovery of wolves in the world, one where they are not isolated in distant gulags of habitat, but roam freely alongside human settlement. While the prospect of living near wolves may frighten some, this fear is unfounded. Wolves pose little danger to human beings. Vastly more people are murdered, assaulted and oppressed by our own species, than are ever harmed by all other wild and domestic animals combined.
A deep recovery will entail adaptations in our way of life. For instance, wolves are attracted to easy meals, and this can lead to conflicts with domestic animals. Learning to live with wolves can be as simple as securing our garbage, not leaving food on the deck, bringing companion animals indoors at night, and using guard dogs to protect sheep and cattle in open fields. In terms of domestic animals, these are best practices we should be employing anyway, and the effort involved is minor.
I want to highlight, however, that an ethical stance in favour of wolves does not imply a lack of concern for people. Nothing could be further from the truth. We should never allow an appreciation of wolves to lead to or be equated with the devaluing of people. Nor can we simply assert that the interests of wolves trump that of people. The surest road to fulfilling our responsibilities to wolves, is to meet our obligations to people as well. Thus we need to look for win-win ways to resolve human/wolf conflict, and ethics-based solutions to our policy conundrums with wolves.
Still, If we cannot learn to live with wolves, the creatures who helped establish human civilizations and coevolved into our best friends, then how are we to learn to live peaceably with differences of race, class, gender or ethnicity?
As you can tell, wolves speak to me like few other species. I am confident they speak to many of you as well. Let us listen to what we might learn from them.
Images: As you can see, wolves are magnificent creatures: strong, lithe, fun, fierce, loyal, and loving. If you have problems with such language applied to animals like wolves, then it is time to get unstuck from long dead paradigms about animals. The images in this gallery come from an eclectic array of sources — U.S. government, wildlife artists, National Geographic digital desktops, and files people have sent me over the years. I have cited the author, title and year of the work when I have that information. Some are unknown to me.
Several of the images are of Atka, a traveling ambassador wolf for the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) in New York. I spent a fair amount of time at the WCC, and got to know some of its wolves. Atka is the fellow I know best, having played with him as a puppy and appeared with him at educational events. Apache (the white arctic wolf with the floppy ear), was one of the more affectionate and rambunctious wolves I have met. Lucas, was the opposite and used to circle behind me to get in a bite. Kaila was painfully shy much of the time, and I rarely saw her. Yet she saved me from Lucas’s first attempt at me, and thereafter would brush by me when I was not looking.
All honours to Henry Fair and Helene Grimaud, the co-founders of the WCC, Rebecca Bose it’s animal curator, and the Center’s staff and volunteers for making the WCC an incredible institution of conservation and education. Do visit them at www.nywolf.org or in person.