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Wolf Deaths Troubling

Attitudes Toward Misunderstood Creature Need to Change

Editorial / Joseph Robertia / Kenai Peninsula Clarion / May 8, 2005

The deaths of a famous black alpha-male wolf from Denali National Park and Preserve that was legally killed by a hunter last month outside park boundaries, and of his alpha-female breeding partner caught by a trapper just two months prior, saddened me deeply.

But, as much as it affected me emotionally, the demise of such majestic creatures can't really come as a surprise. After all, our co-existence with this living ancestor to what we ironically call "man's best friend," has been anything but a good relationship from the start.

The abundance of historical records relating to wolves show that, as they did in Europe, American colonists brought with them to the new world their hatred and persecution of wolves.

These canids were not merely annihilated, they were tortured to death in a myriad of ways. They were dragged behind horses until they ripped apart, set on fire, had their hamstrings cut to cripple them, their backs broken, were captured alive to be released with their mouths or penises wired shut and had their intestines torn open by hooks and springs hidden in balls of tallow left for them to eat.

Their slaughter was not just accepted, it was advocated.

Society continues to teach us to fear and hate wolves from an early age. I would doubt there is anyone reading this who doesn't know the story of "The Three Little Pigs" - a story which, on the surface, is seemingly about the rewards of responsibility, but is simultaneously transmitting (in addition to its materialist message) a message that wolves represent an evil, malevolent creature.

This negative message, also seen in "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," isn't just refined to myths from a bygone era when an agrarian lifestyle and animal husbandry practices were our primary means of living.

The ignorant propitiation of the image of these canids as a malicious predator waiting to prey on the innocent couldn't have been made any clearer than in the last presidential election when President George W. Bush ran an advertisement in which he equated wolves to terrorists in an attempt to make the point as the ad narrator intones, "weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm."

Seen only as a voracious predator, wolves were in the past - and largely still are in the present - grossly misunderstood to the point of endangerment. Yet, the wolf's social structure is much like our own.

Although referred to as packs, they live in family units consisting of a mated pair and their offspring - both juveniles and pups of the year. And, while the plasticity of fatherhood in humans ranges from completely absent to entirely present, male wolves are outstanding fathers - a rarity in the animal world.

A male wolf will hunt for his young, often lick them to clean them thoroughly, guard the den to protect them, and once they are old enough to follow, he and his mate - through intricate relationships and interactions - will teach them to be wolves.

Learning to hunt is a cultural adaptation. Young wolves must learn not just what to hunt, but when, where and how to hunt. And, since their prey is usually larger and stronger than they are, their success rate often can be determined by pack size.

When a pack leader, or in the case of the Denali park wolves, two pack leaders are killed, the remaining pack's social structure breaks down as we already have begun to see. In the Denali park incident, six animals born in 2003 and 2004 are left behind wandering in the wake of their parents' untimely deaths.

Young wolves that may not have had enough exposure to learn or imitate the knowledge and skills of the older wolves may succumb to death, whether it be to a hunter's bullet or trapper's snare as they disperse from their home range to join another pack, or from starvation from lack of leadership to successfully hunt during periods of food stress.

I think that is what I found most troubling with this whole issue - the attitudes toward nature from those involved the closest. From the master guide who led the wolf's hunter that stated, "In the whole scheme of things, this is about as significant as one grain of sand in the Pacific Ocean," to the park wolf biologist who - despite basic tenets of wolf biology - stated he "didn't buy" that "Wolves ... need to be taught how to be wolves."

To them I say, I respectfully disagree.

Our attitudes toward wolves and our treatment of them cuts to the very marrow of how we view our relationship with nature as a whole. Rather than being taught respect and cooperation with the natural world, we are taught - both obviously and subliminally - that nature is something that should be feared, conquered and-or dominated.

This is why the wolf - wild, untamable and a symbol of uncontrollable nature - is so easily and readily made into a target, particularly by those who hunt the same big game animals for sport, that the wolves hunt for food.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Clarion.

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