The wolf could be the most hated animal in the world. If we are ever to reduce that hatred, we must understand its deep and ancient roots. How did worldwide wolf hatred come about?
Old world hatred
As an arbitrary starting point, let's begin with the Middle Ages, the fifth to the 15th century. This was a time when horrifying rumors- some true - about rabid wolves killing humans spread across Europe. Governments reacted. France, in the 800s, paid an elite corps of hunters to control the wolf population. In England in the late 1200s, King Edward l ordered the extermination of wolves in those parts of the country where the predators were more numerous - and easier to find. In Scotland in 1427, James l passed a law requiring three wolf hunts a year, some during denning season when wolves were least mobile.
Those wolf wars were not waged in a vacuum; our ancestors were reacting to environmental threats. Around the same time that King Edward ordered wolf extermination, a "Little Ice Age" chilled Europe, reducing crop harvests and creating shortages of wheat, oats, hay, and livestock. A few years later, the Great Famine struck, killing about ten percent of Europe's population. With families and friends starving and dying, no one would accept wolves killing livestock.
I can imagine the cry spreading across the countryside: Wolves are our enemies. To protect ourselves and our territory we must use our arrows, spears, clubs, and pits and kill them. All of them!
Then conditions worsened: The Black Death arrived. The plague peaked in the mid 1300s and killed thirty to sixty percent of Europe's population. Once the Black Death subsided, the population rebounded, doubling by the early 1600s. This swelling population shifted the balance of power between wolves and humans, according to Jon T. Coleman, author of "Vicious: Wolves and Men in America." More people meant more mouths to feed. Producing more food meant using more land for livestock and crops. More land for farming meant less land for wolves. And that meant killing more wolves.
By the early 1500s wolves had been hunted and trapped to extinction in England. They were eradicated from Scotland by the late 1600s and from Ireland by the late 1700s.
New world hatred
As Europe's population increased the 1600s, colonization of North America moved into high gear. When colonists disembarked in the New World, wolves probably watched from the woods; the animals roamed most of what would become the continental United States. The stage was set for another one-sided territorial clash between two top predators.
The siege started quickly. By 1625, pigs, cattle, and horses were common and colonists were working together to stop predation, using tactics from the Old World, according to Barry Lopez in "Of Wolves and Men." In addition to digging wolf pits and building fences, colonists used firearms with which they could kill from a distance, with less effort and risk. They paid professional wolf hunters and passed bounty laws - the first in Massachusetts in 1630, just ten years after the founding of that colony. Other colonies followed suit: Virginia in 1632, South Carolina in 1695, and New Jersey in 1697.
The often-told story about American wolf hatred says that Euro-Americans brought with them their Old World beliefs, which shaped their interaction with New World wolves. Even though most immigrants had never lost livestock to wolves, had never seen wolves, they stepped off the boats hating the two million wolves that roamed North America. Old World wolf hatred, the story goes, begat New World wolf hatred.
Wolf hatred American style
But historian Coleman makes a good case that these immigrants and their descendants added a uniquely American twist to the hatred. In "Vicious," Coleman offers a common sense observation: Given the colonists' Old World view of wolves as monsters, one would expect New World settlers to avoid wolves. Yet Coleman discovered records from as early as 1621 that show the opposite. He also uncovered documents describing colonists encountering wolves and the frightened animals turning tail. A colonist, in one example, stumbled upon wolves at a deer kill, chased the wolves away, and swiped the meat.
If wolves were cowards, why did colonists treat them viciously? In part, writes Coleman, religious beliefs influenced the colonists. "The biblical version of wolves with its focus on greed, corruption, and theft flourished in New England" Colonists thumped the Bible to rationalize viciously punishing wolves for the crime of killing livestock.
Yet settlers aided and abetted the predators' "crimes" by grazing docile livestock in wolf country without the manpower to oversee the animals. Coleman reveals that colonists entrusted the herds to teenage boys "short in stature and attention span." Hungry wolves - often lacking natural prey which had been over hunted by settlers - took their share. This scenario moved west with civilization: Everywhere settlers brought livestock, wolves came to dine, and settlers ravaged wolves.
"Why," Coleman asks, "did Euro-Americans terrorize wolves? Why was death not enough?" His answer: "Euro-Americans fantasized that planting a civil society in a wilderness required acts of extreme brutality. To overpower savagery one must lash out savagely."
Coleman found that part of this lashing out involved lying and creating wolf fantasies that were the opposite of reality. Colonists pictured wolves preying on humans, but in reality humans preyed on wolves. They described wolves surrounding humans, inducing panic with hideous howls. In reality, humans surrounded and panicked wolves. This savage wolf that only existed in minds fed with lies and fantasies prompted vicious treatment on the way to eradicating real wolves.
By 1840 wolves were extinct in Massachusetts and disappearing from other states. Wolves had not fought back and could not compete with humans. The wolves' natural intelligence, speed, strength, and teeth were no match for our big brains and big arsenals. By the mid 1800s, that arsenal included more powerful and accurate rifles as well as strychnine. This poison enabled Americans to escalate the killing of wolves to an industrial scale. With a poisoned carcass, hunters could kill an entire pack. In the end, this war sentenced the wolf to a fate worse than the colonists' ancestors had suffered at from the Black Death in the Old World. All in a one-sided battle for territory and food.
Wolf hatred in literature
But eliminating our competitor was not enough. Even as the wolf was vanishing from the countryside, we did something that only Homo sapiens can do: We kept the wolf alive, feared, and hated in literature, especially children's stories.
One of the most famous collections, Grimm's Fairy Tales, was published in 1812 in wolf-free Germany. Yet it contains "Little Red Riding Hood," with its infamous, conniving wolf.
Around the same time - when Europe was almost devoid of wolves - Europeans resurrected Aesop's Fables, originally told more than two thousand years earlier. These stories contain tales such as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," with its wolf that destroys the flock of a lying little boy, and "The Wolf and Dog," with its wolf that refuses to give up its freedom to become a collared, well-fed pet.
In 1886, more than three hundred years after the wolf was exterminated in England, "The Three Little Pigs" was published in The Nursery Rhymes of England. In that tale, a wolf with an insatiable appetite manages to eat two of the pigs before the third kills and eats him.
Stories such as these created a new generation that feared and hated wolves that didn't even exist. Childish words and pictures produced powerful propaganda.
Wolf hatred today
I believe that the real danger for America's wolves lies in this propaganda which has fueled anger and fear and ingrained both in our national psyche. Our hatred of a competitive species - after all, history shows that most wolf-human conflicts arise over who gets to eat livestock or wild game first - is built on Old World and New World lies and fantasies.
In the early 1900s the US Biological Survey - the first government wolf-killers - institutionalized the propaganda to generate funding for predator eradication. Once the funds flowed, the Biological Survey and their prodigy, the secretive and out-of-control Wildlife Services, almost cleared the lower 48 of wolves. Thanks to the embattled Endangered Species Act, wolves have made a comeback. But even after seventy years with few wolves in the lower 48, the lies and fantasies survived and today spawn vicious anti-wolf acts and intolerance of wolves and the ESA that protects them.
Some states with powerful livestock industries vow to kill all wolves except the minimum number their federally approved wolf management plans require. Plans like those do nothing to reduce wolf hatred; worse yet, they give the false impression that wolf survival is just a biological issue, a matter of the number of surviving breeding pairs. Looking only at numbers obscures the truth: to protect wolves, we must transform our culture from one of wolf hatred to one of wolf respect. Until hatred is reduced, wolves need federal protection.
Rick Lamplugh is a wolf advocate and author of the Amazon Bestseller "In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter's Immersion in Wild Yellowstone." Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.