Rudy Wittshirk is a writer who lives in Willow
Dick Proenneke (1916-2003), a former farmhand and rancher, lived for thirty years at Alaska’s Lake Clark in a cabin built by hand with tools he mostly made himself. He is the subject of the “Alone In The Wilderness” documentary, one of the most popular ever on PBS.
At one point in his wilderness odyssey, Proenneke, carrying a rifle, came upon a young moose just killed by wolves. Believing the wolves had abandoned their kill for no good reason, Proenneke became indignant! His opinion of wolves had changed, he said. So did my opinion of Proenneke.
Even the “Alone In The Wilderness” guy, when he came upon a freshly killed moose with the wolves absent, began to despise wolves for not cleaning their plates---for leaving the meat to waste. For all his ability to survive simply and comfortably in the wild, Dick Proenneke was unaware of the effects of his own presence in the land and oblivious to how that presence affected the behavior of wildlife. Like so many members of the “cabin culture” and the “homestead culture,” he lived in the middle of wilderness but never quite understood it.
From his civilized, domesticated viewpoint, Proenneke failed to see that the wolves had left the scene because a rifle-carrying Human had lumbered into the picture. Proenneke failed to realize that the wolves had “abandoned” their kill precisely because he had showed up! It was not because the wolves were just out having a good time and were eager to move on and make yet another kill just for the fun of it. It was not because wolves were evil---although Proenneke did infer that there had to be something ethically wrong with wolves to behave in the manner he thought he had observed.
Proenneke probably viewed himself as open-minded on the subject, but as a former farmhand and rancher he had surely been exposed to the lurid tales of the evil wolf and was probably predisposed to believe in their inherent wickedness. In any case, he clearly expected that wild animals must behave according to our polite dinner table etiquette---as if Miss Manners had authority over the behavior of a wild wolf pack which was just trying to grab a quick meal before some guy with a rife showed up. It is as if you were having a family dinner and a home invasion took place and the police arrived and criticized you for not finishing your meal.
This is more than a failure of intellect---Proenneke was a smart guy. And, despite having worked on farms and ranches, his view of Nature was typically modern.
DO WOLVES REALLY “KILL JUST TO KILL” -
Not only are we Humans not seeing the simple, basic reality of Nature---but we predicate and premise our entire wildlife management system on our own, resolute blindness. The very notion that wolves kill just for the fun of it is one of the biggest myths about wolves---and one of the most inherently stupid conclusions. To make the statement, the claim, that a wild carnivore does not kill in order to eat, does not kill in order to survive---but rather kills for its own amusement---is inherently dense. But then to take this false observation and use it as a basis for an entire wildlife management program---is the height of Human idiocy. And to then label this public policy myth as “scientific” implies that our wildlife managers have actually applied scientific thinking.
Science is all about evaluating a situation in a “scientific” manner---yet our modern Alaskan wildlife stewards still fail to see the obvious sequence of events. This amounts to a kind of collective ignorance born of civilized arrogance. As a result, an ignorant and systemic blindness has become a basic premise of so-called “scientific“ predator control wildlife management policy.
So, why do Alaskan Humans---supposedly knowledgeable about the wild---consistently believe in the completely untenable myth that wolves “kill just to kill” rather than to feed their families?
I think most people who believe this inherent and obvious falsehood are simply repeating what they heard from some outdoorsman who claims to have seen wolves kill for the fun of it with their own eyes. Outdoorsmen who, like Dick Proenneke, never stopped to figure out the real reasons behind the sequence of events they had observed. Outdoorsmen who, themselves, were probably ready to believe what they had already been told about the big, bad wolf. In other words, outdoorsmen who already thought they knew all about the wild.
It’s bad enough Alaskan outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen don’t know much about the wild. That’s understandable because their wilderness instincts have been dulled by civilized living and a heavy reliance on machinery. Compounding this civilized ignorance is the belief---simply because they ride around outdoors---that they know all about the wild.
Alaskans fly around outdoors and feel they are above Nature---they see everything as beneath them and begin to think of themselves as minor gods. Alaskans grind across the land on powerful machines in Summer---and scoot swiftly across the snow in Winter. Killing large or “dangerous” wild animals gives an ultimate sense of dominance and superiority to the tame, modern outdoorsperson. This feeling of power has conferred a false sense of knowledge. The narrow view provided by the civilized eye becomes accepted wisdom. And the non-outdoors person---not knowing any better---seems more willing to accept the flawed wilderness wisdom of someone sitting on a fine vehicle and holding large gun. Nature, seen through the eyes of a modern equipment cult, begins to appear as an element of reality that can be subdued by vehicles, tamed by guns and have its secrets revealed to us by mere technological indulgences. Nature, of course, suffers greatly from this false thinking.
Nothing reveals Alaskans’ aggressive lack of awareness and subsequent destruction of Nature like the oafish insistence that wolves not only “kill just to kill”---but that wolves wantonly waste food by leaving half-eaten carcasses strewn across the landscape. The young man living in Anchorage who wrote the letter to the editor about the waste of moose meat by wolves in McGrath (part five) may be excused---he’s just a kid and is probably repeating what his dad told him. But anyone calling themselves an outdoorsperson should know better.
We, as a civilized culture, have not only lost nearly all the primal awareness that once was required for survival before we became civilized and tame---but we have retained the primal fears and myths from our past and adapted them to our civilized culture. We Humans are so blind about wilderness we don’t even know how blind we are.
Undoubtedly, some Alaskans of limited awareness---and beset by primitive fears---may actually believe the falsehood about the rapacious and wasteful wolf. This broadly-held misconception fits right in with the politics and profits of the wildlife killing industry.
DO WOLVES REALLY HAVE MORE FUN?
Do wolves really kill for fun? Maybe it’s all that yipping having to do with a hunt---which sounds like wolves are having fun of some sort. Sure, wolves might be having “fun” killing…when they are not getting kicked in the head by a moose! But they don’t “abandon” their hard-won kills for no good reason. In fact, the very persons who “observe” wolves failing to finish their dinners most likely drove them off their kills in the first place. Wolves on a carcass are not going to stick around for an approaching snowmachine, four-wheeler or aircraft---they associate these machine-sounds with rifles, traps and getting strafed from the air with shotguns.
Wolves will not even tolerate a man on foot. The logical conclusion is that Dick Proenneke’s wolves, had they been left undisturbed, would have “cleaned their plate” so to speak. Proenneke salvaged some of the meat from the moose kill for himself, but had he just left the scene the wolves might well have returned to eat their kill. Or, like tigers who, when heavily hunted, they might never have returned to the scene simply because Humans had been there and it was just too dangerous to go back.
TOURISTS IN A PARK KNOW BETTER -
Tourists visiting Denali Park actually see wildlife in more natural situations. Visitors to the parks---where hunting and trapping is not allowed---routinely see wolves actually hanging around for days to eat their kills. They witness wolves defending their kills against marauding bears. In some cases they witness wolves driving bears off their kills. Wolves don’t even remotely appear to kill “for fun” in places where they are not hunted or trapped. It’s serious business for them.
The notion, the myth, the old-wives’ tale that wolves “kill just to kill;” that wolves kill mostly for their own pleasure and amusement; that wolves can even afford to endure the rigors and dangers of chasing down and killing large animals simply for their own amusement makes no sense on any level. It fails the common sense test. How can a carnivorous wild animal---the only real and true subsistence hunter remaining in Alaska---survive by indulging in a gratuitous and energy-absorbing pleasure? Only Humans can afford to kill for fun.
The notion that wolves kill for their own amusement fails the science test. The amount of food-energy expended in the hunting activities of wolves must be replenished by at least an equal the amount of energy from its wild meals. In evolutionary terms it makes even less sense. I understand that the mating activities of some birds, like the bird of paradise with its energy-draining growth of otherwise useless feathers---and the terribly-taxing rutting seasons of bull moose---do “waste” energy and deplete fitness. But any carnivorous species that willfully wipes out its food source and willfully wastes that food source simply will not have survived for thousands of years before Super Cubs arrived on the scene. Humans, because of surpluses from their industrial agriculture technology and the efficiency derived from their motorized technology, are the only animals I know of that routinely kill wild animals for pleasure rather than any need for survival. Humans have such an excess of food from industrial agriculture---and such an excess of firepower, motorized transport and other technology---that they can indulge in killing wild animals simply as a diversion from the reality that they actually and mostly live a very tame, domesticated lifestyle.
DEMONIZING THE WOLF -
When we go to war we try to make the Human members of our enemy groups into subhumans---so we can kill them more easily without guilt or regret. Something similar is happening with wolves. Part of the campaign to slaughter wolves is to make them into evil creatures, not like other “good” animals. Vermin to be exterminated. The most ignorant statement in this propaganda campaign to kill wolves is the allegation that wolves like to kill just for fun.
With livestock, wolves and coyotes may kill more than they need for the simple reason that domesticated animals are an order of magnitude easier to kill than wild prey animals. But in a wild system, life is too hard to be so choosy.
However, those who now believe that killing as many wolves as possible will bring back the great game herds of yore, are not about to admit that wolves are just doing what comes naturally. In order to justify killing wolves in a mass slaughter, they have to make wolves into gleeful, evil, mass murderers of wildlife.
WE JUST DON’T KNOW ANY BETTER -
Now, from yet another angle, I will address the absurdity of the evil, wanton and wasteful wolf…slowly and in detail…so even the most domesticated Alaskan can comprehend what every outdoorsman worth his salt should have figured out long ago.
Once again, here’s how this works. Wolves make a kill or a number of kills. Or they come upon a carcass they did not kill. They want to hang around and feed off the dead animal but along comes one of Alaska’s outdoorsman in an aircraft, motor vehicle or maybe even on foot.
Now, a bear---a black bear, but especially a brown bear---may tend to stick around and defend its kill or its find, as the case may be. But wolves, having been ruthlessly hunted and hounded, will tend to leave as soon as possible and melt into the brush.
Now the Alaskan outdoorsman comes upon the scene---completely full of himself but unaware that his mere presence has altered the situation. “Ah-Hah!” cries the Human observer---his senses dulled by machinery and easy living---the wolves have made a kill and just left it behind! They must be killing just for the fun of it (just like we Humans do). They are wasting food. They are vermin and must be eradicated because only we Humans have the right to kill animals for pure pleasure and self-gratification.
Now, let me approach the kill-site from yet another direction. You must have seen this a dozen times in nature documentaries where the wolves make a kill and never, ever leave it. They will fight eagles and ravens and foxes and bears and coyotes and other wolf packs in order to keep their kills. They will stay with their kills until the carcasses are reduced to bones.
Why has it been documented so many times that wolves will not desert a kill-site until all the meat is gone? Because, in these documented instances, know-it-all, ride-around-outdoors Alaskans don’t come cruising up in their flying machines and motorized couches to drive off the wolves.
And why should wolves be so frightened of know-it-all, ride-around-outdoors Alaskans? Because wolves in Alaska have been hunted, hounded, trapped, snared, shot at from the air and run to exhaustion by aircraft, snow machines and four-wheelers. Wolf pups are killed in their dens.
Let me count the many reasons why wolves should split the scene immediately whenever motorized or non-motorized Alaskans show up. Allow me to quote from Tina M. Brown (My Turn: Speak Out Against Wildlife Management Policies / Juneau Empire / April 20, 2010):
Tina M. Brown is a Juneau resident and is president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. She outlines the ways that wolves have excellent and understandable reasons for leaving their kills at the first sign that one our trigger-happy, ride-around-outdoorsmen is about to make an appearance.
She says we have been: “Reducing wolves over vast areas by up to 80 percent… Reducing wolves by 100 percent in certain focus areas… Allowing pilot/gunner teams to overfly wolves and either shoot them from the air or run them to exhaustion, then land and shoot… Killing nursing female wolves through various methods such as aerial shooting and liberalized trapping seasons and limits. The effect is to kill their pups through starvation. These litter deaths are not included in the mortality counts published by the state... Gassing wolf pups in their dens... Removing wolf pups from dens and shooting them... Opening the wolf hunting season in early- to mid-August when pups are only half grown and still fully dependent on adults for food and protection.. Extending wolf hunting seasons until May when females are pregnant and near full term… Pursuing and shooting wolves, after running them to exhaustion, from snow machines… Attempted to enact bounty system of $250 per wolf… Issuing permits to over 100 private pilots to pursue and take wolves with airplanes…”
WOLVES ARE MEAN -
A natural corollary of the “wolves just want to have fun” myth is when predator-killing advocates make the argument that wolves are no good because they make moose suffer slow, agonizing deaths. My response is: What are these tough guys crying about? All they are doing is trying to make the wolf look bad by citing his necessary cruelties so they can justify their own, unnecessary cruelties. The only reason these people keep on believing that wolves are sadistic food-wasters is to justify the notion that killing wolves will magically solve all their wildlife problems.
RUN TO EXHAUSTION -
So, have I exhausted my argument? Have I chased down this train of thought---as if flying overhead, cutting off your every escape route---literally running you, dear reader, to exhaustion? Good! That’s just remotely how it feels when Humans use their machines to run wild wolves to exhaustion so they can more easily kill them.
So, unless you have some video showing wolves actually abandoning a kill---as seen from a satellite or some other viewpoint where your presence is not known to the wolves---then you cannot refute me. Because, if you can see a kill site with no wolves present---such as from an aircraft---then the wolves not only can see you but have heard you coming from a long way off.
Nevertheless, fellow Alaskans, you will hear it again and again from the so-called “experts“---how wolves are just mean-ass wasters of wild meat. But now you know better. Now you now that this falsehood arises from the combination of profound wilderness ignorance of many individual outdoorsmen---and is perpetuated by the politics and businesses based on the mass killing of wild animals. Now you know that you have been the victim of a campaign of propaganda and a heritage of primitive fears left over from the dark ages of Europe. Now you will recognize that Nature wastes nothing. It is only when Humans interfere that wolves become neurotic and leave meat lying around because they fear getting shot by approaching Humans. Now you know, that while wolves may be desperate enough to make a kill close to Human habitation---they are not going to hang around if it means getting shot. In truth, wolves are not only the last true subsistence hunters in Alaska---they are also smart.
The irony is that the wolf is behaving intelligently and logically by deserting its kill when Humans show up---but the Humans are acting resolutely ignorant despite their superior reasoning capabilities. In this, the wolves are smarter that the Humans. Wolves are sneaky! Of course! They just don’t want to get shot!
PS: I thought I made it quite clear that moose browse and forage in the Hatcher Pass area is overgrowing the land---precisely because there are not enough moose to keep it trimmed.
[In part seven, “The Last Circle,“ I will discuss ancient cultural ties between wolves and Humans; wolves as social animals; and the phony “depend-ons” who want the State to kill wolves so they can pretend to be subsistence users.