Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Contempt or admiration? How suburbanites view the #wolf


 

The body of a large dog was found at the side of a road near Morris, Illinois, on Feb. 13. Dogs hit by cars don't usually make the news. But this dog looked an awful lot like a wolf.

Illinois conservation police officers took the animal to a local veterinarian who said it appeared to be a timber wolf. Conferring with experts in Wisconsin, they found that measurements of the animal were consistent with those of a wolf.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologists, along with federal wildlife experts, are awaiting analysis of the animal's DNA to determine if it's a true wolf, a wolf-hybrid, or a wolf-wannabe.

Reaction to this creature is as striking as the fact that the animal was found in Illinois where wolves were extirpated some 150 years ago. Not being a ranching state, this is somewhat different from the situation in states like Montana.

But what a stir even one wolf -- or "possible wolf" -- creates. I heard one person say "How wonderful to have the wolf back in Illinois!" while another person said sarcastically, "Oh, great!"

Facebook posts run the gamut from "So sad this beautiful baby [sic] died" to "Shoot 'em all!" and "Good riddance!"

What's curious today is that most of us suburbanites have never seen a wild wolf, yet the very thought of one -- the possibility of its presence -- evokes immediate, impassioned responses. What's even more curious is that the responses are polar opposites.

So what is it about the wolf that inspires these extremes of emotion? What fuels the flames of passion on both sides? What if the wolf really does re-establish a population in Illinois?

We have a long, storied history with the wolf. Several species of wolves were once widespread across Eurasia and North America. They also lived in Egypt, Mexico and Greenland. Wherever wolves and humans have crossed paths, there have been repercussions. Humans and wolves are both predators with similar tastes in prey -- deer, elk, caribou, cattle, and sheep. And each can turn the other into prey.

The wolf is inextricably woven in the fabric of our history. In mythology the wolf is a deity of war and the founder of great cities. The wolf symbolizes both life and death in different cultures. The wolf is demonic, yet it's also a symbol of protection against evil.

The wolf teaches life lessons in fables such as Aesop's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Folklore is replete with big bad wolves, including Little Red Riding Hood and Peter and the Wolf. Modern fiction and film have had their share of wolf antagonists and protagonists (Jack London's "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang"). Walt Disney movies have encompassed both. Lycanthropy, or shape-shifting from human to wolf and back again, is found in stories from several cultures.

The wolf is many things, but most of all, the wolf is scary. It's big. It's powerful. It's mysterious. It's really no more bloodthirsty than a mosquito, no more voracious than, say, a teenager. But the sight of the wolf will stop you cold and its unearthly howl will send chills down your spine.

People have a habit of killing what they fear, and the wolf is no exception. Killing wolves in Europe was a centuries-long campaign. From the Middle Ages through the 19th century, Europeans waged full-scale war against the wolf. Organized wolf hunts, wolf bounties, and every possible means of slaughter were brought to bear on the wolf. This carnage, along with habitat loss, reduced wolf populations throughout northern Europe. Today, there are pockets of wolves in numerous European countries, yet they occupy a small portion of their former range.

Europeans took their long-standing hatred of the wolf to North America. The clash began as soon as the young United States expanded its reach into the wilderness. Agriculture, a requisite for nation-building, did not mix well with these predators. The wolf was vilified as evil incarnate, an obstacle on the road to claiming -- and taming -- the continent. A nationwide, no-holds-barred campaign to rid the nation of the wolf was launched in earnest by 1800. European-Americans were pretty good at hating predators, and they met with a fair amount of success in stamping them out. Here in Illinois, the wolf was extirpated by 1860.

The tide turned in the latter half of the 20th century. With a host of other wildlife whose numbers had plummeted toward extinction, the gray wolf was listed as a federally endangered species in 1978. Thus, in a complete reversal, the top predator that had a bounty on its head a century earlier was now protected from harm. At least legally. Not everyone was on board.

While persecution of the wolf in Europe and North America is well documented, it's worth noting that not all humans have been antagonistic to the wolf. Author Barry Lopez wrote about indigenous peoples' relationship with the wolf in his 1978 book, "Of Wolves and Men."

"The Nunamiut Eskimos, the Naskapi Indians of Labrador, the tribes of the northern plains and the North Pacific coast," wrote Lopez, do not hold the wolf in contempt. They admire rather than hate the wolf. The Nunamiut, explained Lopez, are hunters alongside the wolf, and "it is not a thing to be anxious over."

Here we are in northern Illinois in 2015 facing the wolf, again, after a century and a half. I wonder about the Facebookers who rejoice over the presence of a wolf in Illinois. How would these folks react if a wolf were to take down Bambi in their front yard, in front of the kids, at breakfast time? Is it the ecological reality of Canis lupus that they love, or is it the idea of the wolf?

Where do they imagine a pack of wolves would actually live in Illinois' present landscape? We haven't even figured out how to live with the omnipresent coyotes, small cousins of the wolf. How on earth could we deal with predators three or more times the size?

I also wonder about the whack-em-and-stack-em types who respond to any and every predator with a loaded firearm. Is life really all about them? Does having an opposable thumb and an oversized brain really make them superior? Is "just because I can" a good motive to kill something? Is the loss of another animal that inconsequential?

One thing is clear: humans are increasingly disconnected from the nonhuman world. The disconnect affects attitudes and values, and these determine our actions. This is evident in our present-day reaction to the wolf.

Whether deified or demonized, the wolf remains a powerful presence in the human psyche. The wolf's ecology is intertwined with our own. If wolves continue to revisit Illinois -- or in the unlikely event that they set up residence -- how will we respond?

Humility rather than hubris would be a refreshing approach.


Wolf types and sightings

Gray wolf? Timber wolf? What's the difference? There are two species of wolves in North America: the gray wolf and the red wolf. The term gray wolf is often synonymous with timber wolf. The scientific name is Canis lupus, but there are numerous subspecies. The number of these depends on to whom you talk.

The timber wolf is considered to be Canis lupus lycaon. The arctic wolf is called Canis lupus arctos. Some recognize the northwestern wolf as Canis lupus occidentalis. A Mexican subspecies is known as Canis lupus baileyi.

There have been 10 confirmed gray wolves in Illinois in the last 15 years -- maybe more if the Morris creature turns out to be a true wolf. From the University of Illinois Extension website, these sightings include:

• A female wolf was killed by a vehicle in La Salle County in December 2013.

• A female wolf that had been radio-collared in Wisconsin was tracked into Stephenson County in December 2012. The radio-signal was not detected the following week. In March 2013, the wolf was found dead near Apple Canyon Lake in Jo Daviess County.

• A female wolf was trapped and released in Whiteside County in December 2012.

• A male wolf and a female wolf were killed in Jo Daviess County in 2011 about four miles apart.

• A male wolf was killed by a coyote hunter in Kane County in 2009.

• A male wolf was killed by a coyote hunter in Jo Daviess County in 2008.

• A male wolf was killed by a vehicle immediately north of Chain O' Lakes State Park in Lake County in 2005.

• A male wolf was shot in Pike County in 2005.

• A male wolf was shot during a coyote hunt in Marshall County in 2002.

-- Valerie Blaine 
 

Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You can reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.