The big bad wolf?

Exploring our love-hate relationship with the wolf

  • Published Mar 30, 2020
  • Updated Oct 16, 2023
  • 2,255 words
  • 10 minutes
Timber wolves in captivity
Timber wolves in captivity at Haliburton's Forest & Wild Life Reserve's Wolf Centre. The centre aims to educate the public about the animals and the role they play in their ecosystem. (Photo: Sharon Gallina/Can Geo Photo Club)
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The year was in its last few bone-chilling hours when Peter Schleifenbaum got the call that a timber wolf from his 324-square-kilometre forest sanctuary near Haliburton, Ont., was on the loose.

At first, he wasn’t too worried. Alarms like that happened every few months and, so far, all had been false.

Nevertheless, he abandoned his New Year’s Eve celebrations, hopped in his car, and rushed to check things out. It was far worse than he’d imagined. Gaping holes had been cut through the centre’s pair of encircling two-and-a-half and three-metre-high metal fences, allowing four of the pack’s nine wolves to get out. Given another 15 minutes, the remaining five would have followed.

Within hours, he found evidence that a big black male had been shot and killed just around the corner from the sanctuary. As 2013 began, three more wolves were on the run through the snowy yards of this cottage country holiday area. Schleifenbaum was desperate to lure them back inside their pen. Could he save them before anything else happened?

Male timber wolf
A male timber wolf plods through the snow at Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Reserve. (Photo: John Cavers/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Humans have harboured contradictory views of wolves since we domesticated them about 30,000 years ago, producing the first dogs. Wolves, once the terrestrial mammals with the broadest natural distribution, infuse human myth both as saviours and as soulless villains.

“There has never been a single, simple human response to the wolf,” writes the medieval folklore scholar Stephen Glosecki, one of a spate of academics who have attempted to untangle our complex relationship with the creatures.

As far as anyone can tell, the incident at the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre was the fatal intersection of two irreconcilable attitudes toward the wolf. The police and private investigations suggest that someone who loved wolves set them free; someone who hated them shot one on sight.

It’s a war that has raged for millennia. Norse fables tell of the wolves that were noble guardians of Odin (considered a father of gods), protecting him from his greatest enemy — another wolf. A wolf was the revered foster mother of Rome’s twin founders, Remus and Romulus, and to this day, she suckles them in the famous Capitoline Wolf sculpture in a Roman museum. Count Robert of Artois, nephew of 13th-century French King Louis IX, kept a pet wolf. 

By the 15th century, Glosecki writes, wolves had come to symbolize evil incarnate. Even Dante, the Italian poet, had veered far from the nurturing wolf-mother of Rome, reimagining the wolf in his writings as a symbol of deadly sins. The scheming wolf came to represent wilderness, the untameable spirit, a creature unbowed by the rules of civilization or organized religion, intent on indiscriminate slaughter. Whether true or not, legends are still told declaring that wolves developed an insatiable taste for human flesh as they feasted on the dead of the Black Death. Those stories live on in such bloodcurdling tales as Little Red Riding Hood, whose big, bad wolf swallows the grandmother whole.

Human retribution was swift. Hatred of wolves was at a fever pitch in North America by the 18th and 19th centuries. Wolves’ natural prey — deer, moose, elk and bison — were killed off as the land was settled, so wolves began to eat livestock. In many jurisdictions, governments put bounties on wolves’ heads to encourage settlers to kill as many as possible.

“There was a psychological narrative in the early 19th century that the wild needed to be tamed and wolves were the symbol of what needed to be gotten rid of,” says Harvey Locke, a co-founder and strategic advisor to the North American Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

Eyewitness journals in the early 20th century from Silas Claiborne Turnbo, who lived in the Missouri Ozarks, describe the attitude: “It was said that the depredations of wolves were so terrible on stock that the pioneers … in some cases inflicted the most cruel treatment on the ravenous beast they could invent in payment for the destruction of property.” Turnbo describes his own act of flaying a wolf alive, a common act of revenge: “Our barbarous treatment was too much for it died at the moment we completed the horrible work.”

Millions of wolves had been eliminated from most of the lower 48 states by the early 1900s. Today the wolf is extinct in about a third of its original range, including much of western Europe, the United Kingdom, Mexico and the United States. The most robust populations are confined to the remote wildernesses of Canada, Alaska, and northern parts of the United States, Europe and Asia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

But at about the same time, a pro-environment ethos started emerging across the Western world as biologists began to catalogue for the first time how wolves affect other creatures in an ecosystem. The wolf became the metaphor for a lost paradise that many longed to see restored.

Two radically different world views then began vying for dominance in public policy and in the public discourse: some people think nature ought to be left to its own devices as much as possible and others, that nature needs to be controlled by humans, Locke says. Wolves became a symbol of each of those views, either as good or as evil.

On New Year’s Eve at Schleifenbaum’s six-hectare wolf centre, those perspectives clashed. Says Locke: “All those images came together in that one spot.”

“The Capitoline Wolf,” a sculpture depicting a she-wolf suckling the mythical twins, Romulus and Remus. The original wolf sculpture is believed to date to the 13th century AD, while the figures of the brothers were added in the 15th century. (Public domain)
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As New Year’s Day 2013 dawned, Schleifenbaum was calculating the losses. Wolves are highly social animals, living in packs with tightly defined hierarchies. One male and one female take the lead and only they breed. They’re called the alphas, named after the first letter in the Greek alphabet. When the two fences were cut at Schleifenbaum’s reserve, the alphas led the way out and the two strongest males followed, leaving behind only the weakest members: five females.

It represented the destruction of the wolves’ social structure and possibly the end of the pack itself. Schleifenbaum vowed to do everything he could to get the wolves back. His team set up live baited traps that would keep the wolves safe if they ventured in.

Two of the escaped wolves hung around the enclosure and even bedded down near their pack mates inside, but bolted whenever anyone got close enough to shoot them with a tranquillizer. As the days passed, the wolves started roaming farther and farther away. But Schleifenbaum was certain they would return for good.

Then, on the 10th day, horrible news: The alpha female, a sturdy grey with eerie yellow eyes who had ruled the pack for four years and borne two litters of pups, was found shot in a ditch, barely alive, blood soaking the snow beside her. The staff took her back to the centre, called in the vet and tried to cajole her into eating raw sausage. She died three days later.

In the meantime, two more wolves, the strong black alpha male and his feisty grey son, were at large, roaming backyards right alongside cottagers’ tasty pet dogs and cats. Were sharpshooters out there looking for them, too?

Luna, the alpha female at Haliburton Forest, with one of her pups in 2014. (Photo: John Cavers/Can Geo Photo Club)
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The Haliburton area is prime cottage country, a three-hour drive north of Toronto, nestled on the frontier between wilderness and cultivation. The county lies at the southern edge of Ontario’s crown jewel park, Algonquin, where Canada’s first wolf research took place in the 1960s. Along with Alaska’s Denali National Park and Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park, it is one of the early epicentres of wolf research in North America.

John and Mary Theberge, whose 14-year Algonquin study represents the largest and most intensive Canadian research on wolves, say they encountered virulent hatred of wolves at the beginning of their study there.

“People would say: ‘What good are they?’ ” says Mary.

“People’s eyes glazed over with hatred and it encompassed us, too,” says John.

In the subsequent decades, knowledge of just how dramatically wolves affect an ecosystem has grown. Today, it’s clear that having wolves around increases a system’s biological diversity. It’s not just good for wolves, in other words, it’s also good for everything from eagles to aspen and from beavers to songbirds. Taking wolves out of the system impairs its ability to function.

The U.S. acknowledged the species’ importance in 1974 when it declared wolves endangered in the lower 48 states, meaning they had protection from persecution. By 1995, the body of scientific work had persuaded American park rangers and lawmakers that they wanted wolves back, so they took some from Canada and reintroduced them to Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho and more recently into New Mexico and Arizona. It was wildly controversial in the states bordering Yellowstone, which launched lawsuits contesting the reintroductions, but the wolves flourished anyway, becoming celebrities. Mary Theberge says that when she studied the Yellowstone wolves, tourists would beg to look through her scope and then begin to cry with joy at the sight of a wolf.

“Wolves are a litmus for competing world views on nature and life.”

Today, the number of grey wolves is so strong that the United States government is considering removing them from the endangered species list throughout the lower 48 states. The grey wolf is already off the federal list in the northern Rocky Mountains and the western Great Lakes states.

But attitudes still veer from love to loathing. In June 2014, when California voted to extend state protection to wolves, some supporters sported “wolf costumes, and one commenter broke into an a cappella ode to wolves,” according to a story in the Los Angeles Times.

When in early 2012 Canada’s federal government announced a plan to kill wolves in Alberta to protect endangered woodland caribou near the oilsands, the public outrage was immense. [Wolf cull programs in B.C., Alberta and the territories remain controversial. — Ed.]

On the other hand, about a year ago, the group Idaho for Wildlife sponsored a coyote and wolf derby, the poster for which featured a wolf’s face in the crosshairs of a riflescope. And when five wolves broke free from the Colchester Zoo in the United Kingdom in late 2013, police immediately sent in a helicopter and armed officers to allay public panic. Three wolves were shot dead, including one cowering in a hedgerow near the zoo.

“Wolves are a litmus for competing world views on nature and life,” note John and Mary Theberge.

A pair of black timber wolves at Haliburton Forest. (Photo: John Cavers/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Schleifenbaum is just a few metres from his wolves, inside the enclosure but behind a fence, stepping nimbly over a growing puddle of beaver blood. The smell of thawing skinned beaver carcass is overpowering in the midday heat and so is the frenzy of the wolves, snapping powerful jaws and growling fiercely as they jump for it in vain.

Holding a beaver by its flat tail, he chucks it over the fence and the wolves pounce. One of them captures the prize and immediately carries it to a choice feeding spot, hungrily ripping out its guts, gobbling down the meat and fending off the other wolves. Upstairs behind one-way glass in the viewing chamber, about 30 visitors are watching the riveting spectacle.

“As you can see, this is not a real glitzy job,” Schleifenbaum says as he stoops to pick up another bloody beaver.

It’s been almost two years since someone let the wolves out. Schleifenbaum brought in a new male who successfully bred with one of the females to produce four pups — three of which are now vying for beaver bones a few metres away — making them the new alpha pair.

The two remaining escaped wolves never returned. They haven’t been sighted since the start of 2013’s bitterly cold winter. Schleifenbaum is pretty sure they’re dead — shot or starved. By a cruel twist of fate, the people who loved the animals enough to liberate them have succeeded in fulfilling the wishes of those who hate wolves, who say the only good wolf is a dead one.

The wolves are fed, for now, and two of them are playing tug-of-war with the guts of one of the thawed beavers. More visitors are crowding into the viewing chamber every minute to watch.

For Schleifenbaum, who holds a PhD in forestry, this is all about education. He grew up in Germany, where wolves were killed off in the 1800s, and he wants to teach people that the animals are neither noble nor evil; they’re just part of a natural ecosystem.

But it hasn’t been easy. Just opening the place almost 20 years ago here in the forest he owns was controversial because some residents said no wolves were too many. And then, in April 1996, a few months before the centre was to officially open, several of its captive wolves ganged up on Patricia Wyman, a 24-year-old biologist less than a week into her job, and killed her. It was like every nightmarish wolf tale come true. The wolves were killed and wolf biologists such as the Theberges still talk about the bad press.

But the centre opened three months later and now boasts 30,000 avid visitors a year. If there’s a bright side to the fence incident, it’s that Schleifenbaum’s dream of wolf ambassadorship may be working. When the fences were cut, no one called for a lockdown or helicopters or police with guns. People would phone up and say: “I saw your wolf in my backyard. How beautiful it is. What an amazing experience.”


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This story is from the January/February 2015 Issue

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