In 1814, John James Audubon watched a farmer torture three wolves. The farmer had trapped them in a pit after they had killed several sheep and a colt. He jumped into the pit armed only with a knife, hamstrung each wolf as it cowered in fear, and tied it up with a rope. Then he hauled them out one at a time and set his dogs on them as the victim scuffled, crippled, along the ground. Audubon was astounded by the meekness of the wolves and by the glee with which the farmer went about his cruelty; but he was not distressed because both he and the farmer considered torturing wolves a “sport,” something both normal and enjoyable. The sadistic behavior did not warrant comment. Indeed: “Audubon and the farmer shared a conviction that wolves not only deserved death but deserved to be punished for living.” Carefully ponder and memorize that sentence.
This story (and most of the language I’ve used to describe it) begins Jon T. Coleman’s award-winning book Vicious: Wolves and Men in America (Yale, 2004). After reading a few paragraphs, you realize that the word vicious in the title refers not to wolves but (Pogo, again)—to us. And by the time you finish this scholarly reckoning of our slaughter of hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of wolves, you cannot help but ponder Coleman’s questions, questions that haunt me: Why is it that for 400 years Americans were not content just to kill wolves? Why did we persecute and torture an animal that both science and history informs us is a rather shy beast? What is the source of this penetrating hatred and why has it persisted through the centuries when so many former targets of American hatred, prejudice, and violence —witches, Jews, Poles, Blacks, gays, women, communists—a long list—have been to some degree, though certainly not entirely, accepted, integrated, and treated at least with attempts at equality and respect.
You don’t have to take Coleman’s word for the shyness of wolves. In his awarding-winning book Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez quotes many early sources on this issue. The historian Francis Parkman told prospective pioneers who were headed for the Oregon Trail, “There is not the slightest danger from [wolves], for they are the greatest cowards of the prairie.” A seasoned wolf hunter confirmed that he killed most of his trapped wolves with either a tomahawk or a club. Nonetheless, for ranchers, wrote another historian, “wolves were an object of pathological hatred.”
Granted wolves killed livestock, but the reaction was out of all proportion to their predation, and we avidly killed them before we even had livestock. And we didn’t merely kill them. We fed them fishhooks so they would die of internal bleeding, we dragged them to death behind horses, we set live wolves on fire, we released trapped wolves with their mouths and penises wired shut. It is this disproportion between injury and persecution that justifies claims of our pathology, and Coleman, a professor of history at Notre Dame, documents it in sickening detail.
When it comes to animals, the wolf is a special case. No other animal generates such intense emotions, and research demonstrates that these emotions derive not from science but a pernicious blend of agrarian folklore and children’s stories of precisely the kind that so often perpetuate intolerance and hate. They remain embedded in some of our citizens’ souls. America does not have a 400-year tradition of burning skunks alive, but pathological hatred of wolves still flourishes in Wyoming, as anyone reading newspapers and legislative reports can attest. Wolves remain uniquely hated.
Which is why we should not classify wolves as predators. With predator status, Wyoming Game and Fish will be helpless to prevent inhumane treatment of the wolf by the many wolf haters in this state. Predator status will legitimize sadism directed at a species that cannot deserve it and that many of us love.
Hence Vicious is perhaps the most important source for an informed conversation about the future status of the wolf in America, and in Wyoming. Unfortunately, the book remains virtually unknown. None of the three officials I contacted at Wyoming Game and Fish had heard of it. Six libraries in Wyoming have the book but in two of them it has never been checked out.
Precious few Wyoming statutes address the inhumane treatment of our celebrated wildlife. There is a prohibi- tion against hunting with artificial lights at night; another against running down game with vehicles; and an admirable statue prohibiting the possession of wild animals such as bears, cougars, and wolves (including wolf/dog hybrids). But crucially, although Wyoming’s Cruelty to Animals statute prohibits causing undue suffering, or cruelly beating, injuring, or mutilating an animal, it exempts “hunting, capture, or destruction of any predatory animal …” from these prohibitions (Title 6, Chapter 3, Article 2).
In Wyoming there will be nothing to prevent a trapped wolf from being burned alive, a wolf hater from pouring gas into a wolf den and torching the pups, or any other form of mutilation and humiliation they can dream up. Classifying the wolf as a predator will be shameful policy that, given the Jurassic nature of Wyoming politics, will be virtually impossible to monitor or to correct. Nearly 500 wolves have been killed in the Northern Rockies this year. And how many were tortured?
The federal government must hold Wyoming’s citizens and elected representatives to a standard of decency greater than that which many can now conceive, and until they can so conceive, wolves must remain under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Thirty years ago we fought to have wolves reintroduced to Wyoming; now we must fight to assure their decent, humane, and respectful treatment. Predator status is the first line in the sand. We can’t let it happen—even if we have to go to court for decades.