A male timber wolf plods through the snow at Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Reserve. (Photo: John Cavers/Can Geo Photo Club)
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 untamable 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.”