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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Big, Bad Wolf?

Air Date: Week of

Ever since America's colonization, wolves have gotten a bad rap as vicious, relentless predators. Host Steve Curwood talks with author Jon Coleman about the psychology behind the big bad wolf, and about his new book, "Vicious: Wolves and Men in America."


CURWOOD: For many years it was government policy to get rid of predators in North America, with bounties offered, especially for the wolf. Eventually, there were so few wolves left they were placed on the endangered species list. But now with populations of grey wolves growing again in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Upper Great Lakes, the Bush administration says it's time to think about de-listing wolves. Ranchers applaud the move because they would then be able to kill wolves if packs went after livestock. But some ecologists call de-listing bad public policy.

The long violent relationship between humans and wolves in North America goes back to the first days of European settlement. Jon Coleman, a historian at Notre Dame, has written a book about that history called "Vicious: Wolves and Men in America" and he joins me now. Hello, professor!


CURWOOD: So, your book begins as a historian would writing about America back at the first European settlers coming to North America. What were some of the attitudes about wolves that European settlers brought with them to North America?

COLEMAN: When they came over, wolves had been exterminated from England for almost a century. So they brought with them a whole folklore going back thousands of years and they picked and chose from that to do with the animals that they actually met. The settlers that I looked at were in colonial New England and they relied a lot upon the Bible. And the Bible is very pastoral, so you have animals everywhere and a lot of wolf and sheep metaphors. The ones that the people that I studied picked up upon were this idea as wolves as criminals, wolves as corrupt as thieves, but also wolves as deceivers.

CURWOOD: So, early Americans, mid-history Americans...


CURWOOD: ....and many present time Americans aren't particularly fond of wolves, so tell me how does the wolf get such a bad rap in the first place?

COLEMAN: Oh, man. Going back to the very beginning, that's hard to tell. I would say, number one you have this competition, between livestock owners and wolves especially for Europeans. Also I think, there's a long history in Europe with wolves being associated with social, economic chaos and also warfare. Bad times for humans are often good times for wolves, so if you have extended periods of war or disease or plagues, you would actually have wolves out eating humans, eating human bodies. And I think that is obviously quite horrific and I think a lot of the very dark associations come from that.

CURWOOD: In your book, you write, Jon, that early European-American settlers identified closely with their livestock and when a wolf attacked other animals, you say it not only hurt the settlers in their pocketbooks, it also effected them personally. How?

COLEMAN: Well, I think, the amazing thing about livestock from a perspective of someone who is trying to colonize a new territory is that they're obviously mobile. And because they can carry themselves into new territory it makes them the perfect kind of allies for colonizing Europeans. And I think, at heart, this idea of going into a new territory that you don't know much about is a very hopeful exercise. You only do it if you think you are going to improve your life.

CURWOOD: Uh-huh.

COLEMAN: And so, I think a lot of their hopes get put on these animals and when they're devoured by wolves it strikes a blow not only in your pocketbook, but also your aspirations for your family and your future.

CURWOOD: Now, one of the hardest parts to read in your book is where you recount how settlers took some rather extreme forms of retaliation against wolves. Tell us, what were some of these?

COLEMAN: Oh gosh, they were so many. It's quite an ugly history. There are instances of setting wolves on fire, of creating these wolf hooks which are, basically, large mackerel hooks, that they strung together and then they dipped them in balls of tallow and left them for wolves to ingest. In the American west you have instances of cowboys pulling wolves apart with lassos between horses, or dragging them to death behind horses. More ugly instances than you really want to recount.

CURWOOD: You write that it's not so much that they killed wolves as that they punished them for living. Why do you suppose the settlers felt they had the license to...treat...

COLEMAN: The license to do this?


COLEMAN: Well, I think they saw wolves as unredeemable and I also think they interpreted wolves' attacks on their livestock as an act of savagery and so they felt free to react with similar violence. And wolves, I mean, it was never just about wolves. Wolves became a symbol of many different kinds of conflicts and situations that these Americans got themselves into. I think a lot of the people who killed wolves in this kind of ritual fashion saw themselves, in some way, as victims. And by destroying these animals it was a way for them to recover the sense of power that they believed that they had lost.

CURWOOD: Now, tell me, why is it that for many people now that the image of the wolf has gone from this bloodthirsty villain to poster child of the ecological movement. When do you think perceptions about wolves started to change and why?

COLEMAN: Well, I think I would put it around the end of the 19th century, the start of the 20th century, you start to see a move away from kind of a unanimous loathing of the animals. I think, ultimately, it's due to these massive changes in American society. Moving from a rural country to an urban one and you have fewer and fewer people owning livestock and having this kind of visceral experience with the animal. That said, it doesn't really explain how they basically become the rock stars of the endangered animal world.

I think there's such a long tradition with wolves and culture telling stories through wolves that this new story almost seems inevitable in a way. They are unlike any other animal, so involved in European and American culture, it's hard to let them be, you know. You almost have to pick up wolves and say something about them.

CURWOOD: Now, there are efforts underway to remove wolves from the endangered species list...

COLEMAN: Uh-huh.

CURWOOD: Now, politically these days, the White House is run by two men who have close ties to the ranching community, culturally, at least. President Bush, of course, from Texas and Vice-President Cheney from Wyoming. To what extent do you think that the experiences of those men and that perspective might affect the perception of wolves?

COLEMAN: [LAUGHS] It's, well, I don't know if you have a direct link, but you definitely have this idea that on the more conservative side of the political spectrum that certain groups in the west are under siege by a host of forces including environmentalists, including kind of clueless urbanites, and wolves become the ultimate expression of this attack upon these traditions. Because you say, oh we're bringing wolves back. It seems almost absurd from that perspective. In another sense the wolves and the ranchers have a lot in common. In many places they're both endangered. One economically and the other biologically.

CURWOOD: Now there's a saying that the failure to study history, sometimes condemns us to repeat it .What do you hope readers will take away from your book and the understanding of this history that you don't want to see repeated?

COLEMAN: Well, I certainly don't want to see any animal tortured and mutilated and persecuted in these same ways. In a way this book, you know, it is about wolves, and that's what drew me to the subject. But I think, in the end, the book is more about humans. And I hope the people that read the book come away with a better understanding of themselves and their relationship to animals, their relationship to animals and culture, the stories that we tell about animals, the metaphors that we use that involve animals and how they impact the actual living creatures that are out there and recognize when these stories, narratives are being used.

CURWOOD: Jon Coleman teaches history at the University of Notre Dame. His book is called "Vicious: Wolves and Men in America." Thanks for taking this time with me today.

COLEMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

[MUSIC: Russian National Orchestra: Serge Prokofiev "Peter and the Wolf": Peter & the Wolf; Jean Paul Beintus: Wolf Tracks]



"Vicious: Wolves and Men in America"


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