Since the advent of the internet the world is ablaze with endless kittos, doggos, puppers and memes about them all. It can be hard to imagine that wolves had anything but a reputation for being adorable wild doggos, fit for memes and love.
Unfortunately have a conversation with anyone about the reintroduction of wolves into habitats from which they were (relatively) recently purged, e.g. the UK, and you will find the age-old worries, concerns and outright mythological perceptions still persist.
People love seeing wolves in zoos, they just don’t want them in the wild where they will definitely eat their pets, their farm animals and/or their kids.
Given that this is the common perception and given that wolves are a species spread widely across Northern Europe, Asia, North America, you would assume that attacks on humans are ridiculously common – what with there being around 8 billion of us and around 300,000 (estimated) wolves globally, we must be in contact all the time, right? I mean, it’s heart disease, cancer, traffic accident and wolf attack as the leading causes of death, in that order, right?
No. Wolf attacks are ridiculously uncommon, deaths from wolf attacks even more so. Using even slightly inflated statistics we might be looking at, on average, 4-6 deaths per year, globally. That is based upon data from the fifty years leading up to 2002, and the bulk of those attacks took place in Asia (over 200). In Europe, Russia and North America there were a total of 11 fatal wolf attacks in half a century.
So, as far as I am concerned I can see absolutely zero reason why we cannot reintroduce wolves into the UK, naturally in a controlled manner to assess any potential impact. They’d probably actually reduce deaths overall because deer are a car-jamming menace. Deer cause a sizeable number of car accidents. What’s more, right now the deer are running rampant, eating shoots, preventing new forest growth. At the moment in the UK deer have to be managed by game keepers, this is done by culling – the selective shooting of older or weaker deer in the herd. We’ve got people willing to put species, predators, like wolf and lynx back in the UK, where they were before we persecuted them off of this island and local people don’t want it and farmers don’t want it.
Naturally we should be weary that people are not merely offering this re-wilding as a publicity stunt – it happens! But there is enough scientific backing to suggest a measured, controlled re-introduction of wolves, particularly to sparser populated areas with massive deer populations, is a potential natural solution and would remove the necessity of a cull. I think it’s worth a shot.
Of course the local people don’t want it, the information they have on wolves is often sensationalist, pop-culture crap. They’ve seen more movies and TV with werewolves than they have seen humans and wolves interacting in real life. They don’t realise there have been literally fewer deaths in fifty years, in Europe and North America, from wolves than there have been from fucking deer! They love does, Bambi taught them to love deer, the fucking own-everything multimedia conglomerate has already got their pro-deer propaganda into the minds, hearts and ever-draining wallets of people out there. They don’t realise the valuable service these wolves would do keeping deer numbers in check, promoting rewilding of ecosystems turned disorderly by an overrunning of large herbivores with no natural predators.
And of course the farmers don’t want it. Look I try to be respectful. I know not every farmer is a flatcap wearing, shotgun-draped-across-the-arm, plum-voiced, fox-hunting Tory twat. I get it, everyone wants a job, people will protect their own livelihoods but agricultural practices have absolutely decimated our planet at the expense of a great deal of populations, species and much needed biodiversity. This is not about getting rid of farmers or farms, they are needed – It’s about method. The notion that the farming lobby gets to decide what’s best for the Great British ecosystem is frankly laughable to me. We need food and we need agriculture but it needs to learn to adapt to a scientific initiative to boost British biodiversity, not the other way around. It’s doable, some amazing farmers already do it and their methods should be setting the blueprint for a marriage between ecological considerations and food necessity.
I even read an argument that having wolves would ‘bother’ their animals. Yeah! Like growing them to kill them for money causes them zero fucking concern! Like the treatment they get when they’re penned into fucking lorries on their way to the abattoir is a joy for them! Like all that leaked footage, all the undercover investigations showing the cruelty doled out to our food animals is in some way better than them getting snatched by a wolf in the night, as nature intended!
Wolves taking livestock is a concern, and should be a concern. They can and they will. This is where the UK government needs to cough up. Grants to install protection measures and adequate compensation for livestock lost is a small price to pay to begin repairing an ecosystem we started tearing to pieces with the advent of industrialised agriculture a few hundred years ago.
It’s a big wide world out there and all evidence indicates we ruined the shit out of it. Not wolves. I don’t even like dogs and I’m going to bat for what is basically their prototype. Because when you study enough biology you get that insight. You get an ability to see a bigger picture and understand there’s a big thing we’re all working towards. Individual selfishness can fly out of the window very quickly. You realise perhaps this nation struggling for cheap lamb for a decade or two, but having wolves providing valuable ecosystem services, balancing our populations of native herbivores, giving us back a symbol of our wildness, boosting our commitment to the environment, the forest, the trees, and to nature.
The natural world is a thing from which we are inseparable and yet we spend our entire lives seeming to pretend there is no umbilical cord between us and our planet. The train don’t even stop when you’re six feet under the fucking ground, you’re still tethered to it, part of it, you’re the recycling, you become another thing. You rot, and feed the worms that tend the soil, that help the grass to grow to feed the deer so the wolves may eat them. You can’t even die to escape your innate link with the natural world. Perhaps the struggles and strifes that would come with reintroduction of larger predators, in the long run, are maybe worth it.
IT’S THE CIRCLE OF LIIIIIIIIIFE! AND IT MOVES US AAAAAAAALL!
Yeah, I’m passionate about this kind of stuff. I hate that humans can’t be honest enough to admit that the reason they don’t like big predators around is because then they don’t feel like the baddest bitches on the block. The thing is the people who cleared the wolves out died hundreds of years ago, if you’re so bad, prove it. Bring ‘em back and survive. It’s not hard. You can’t prove your potency now on the achievements of your ancestors then.
Bottom line I reckon if you crunched the numbers it’d be plain to see it would save more money than it would ever possibly cost. It would likely reduce harm more than it would ever possibly cause.
I’m not talking much about wolves, am I?
Okay, big woofers.
Canid evolution happened in the Americas, beginning in North America around 35 million years ago, during the Late Eocene. Funnily enough, as with the development of cats, some of the earliest canids would have been small, slinky and almost like the Viverridae in their appearance, species like the Mesocyon, for example.
By the Late Miocene, starting around 10 million years ago, canids began to expand out of their territories mainly in the Southwestern parts of North America, moving across the continent. This included the Canis genus, wolves, dogs, coyotes etc., and the Vulpes genus, the foxes. They crossed the Beringian land bridge into Asia and began to radiate out from there.
South-American canid species came later with the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, the land-bridge between North and South America, around 3 million years ago.
DNA analysis suggests wolves, our domestic dogs, and most of their offshoots, have a common ancestor around 20,000 years ago – but if you’ve been reading We Lack Discipline you should know that anything occurring between 20,000-10,000 years ago comes with a big “Uh-oh!” Because this was around the time of the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, the retreating of the glaciers and the Pleistocene extinction event, also known as the Quaternary extinction.
The fossil record has grey wolves going back around 300,000 years or so. So what’s the deal?
We don’t know but likely a bottleneck.
Similar DNA analysis suggests that the Himalayan wolf (Canis lupus chanco) is a basal population, effectively an ancestral population which split around 700,000 years ago, so if the ancestral, basal population is still around exhibiting markers dating back nearly a million years but the common species of wolves show genetic restriction, there’s a lot of evidence for a bottleneck.
Honestly – As a non-canid fan I had no idea the phylogeny, the population dynamics and the genetics of wolves were so interesting and so contested. I thought wolves was wolves, I knew their origins in North America; I believed from there they migrated and spread over the world and that was about it. I didn’t realise those migrations may have been pocked with restrictions, with bottlenecks, with some populations possibly being relatives of much older migrations, others all coming from the same bottlenecked ancestors. Before we even get onto human interactions and breeding for domestication we’ve got a species that tells a tremendous story in its genome.
I don’t like dogs, I respect wild dogs. But I have a new-found admiration for the wolf.
If you don’t know what wolves look like you likely can’t read this anyway because you are vision-impaired. My apologies, I hope to produce some audio-visual content soon, so you can enjoy my sarcasm too.
It’s like a big, fluffy dog. The largest extant member of the canid family (some extinct specimens would have been impressive, like the Epicyon) with a longish, broad snout and pointy little triangle ears. I’m no dog guy, but they’re cute, alright. Wolves are cute. They are around 1-1.5m long and about 80cm tall at the shoulder, you might have seen bigger dogs, sure – but pit a great dane against a wolf and the power of that wolf will win over the size. They are adapted for killing.
Those long broad snouts, with a jaw full of strong, bone-crushing teeth, in a jaw anchored to powerful muscles, those are their main weapons. Canids hunt with their mouths, so strong teeth, jaws and necks are essential. The last thing you want is wrapping your gnashers around your prey and they shake you so hard your break your neck! Their legs are long, with fairly sizeable, and quite fluffy, paws. Most wolves exist in habitats where winter snow is a possibility if not a certainty, in winter months and those slightly longer legs and paws are useful for getting around.
They are social animals, although they tend to consist of nuclear family packs, a mating pair plus offspring. Pack sizes are somewhere in the region of 5-8 individuals, although packs have been known to come together temporarily in times of hardship. Whether this is with related packs (as dispersal of sexually mature individuals tends to be a thing) or whether they can also be unrelated, I cannot find the information! I would argue these super-packs are most likely kin-related to some extent. Pack sizes can get up to around 40, although this is rare.
One thing remarkable about wolves is the range of communications available to them, from vocalisations like howls, barks, growling, grunts, whines and whimpers, to an incredibly broad range of body-language tools, snarling, baring teeth, raising their posture, raised hackles, flattening themselves in submission, rolling over, even urination. One of these reasons wolves were so easy to domesticate is this shared ability of humans and social canids to perform for each other on a similar wavelength of physical and vocal cues.
This complex communication puts one idea about wolves to bed. They are not needlessly cruel, needlessly aggressive or bullies. In fact, they have so much language related to conflict that wolf-on-wolf fights are rare and where they do occur, do not usually result in a fatality. I get tired of telling people that big, dangerous predators are masters of conflict avoidance because they know they are evolved to kill. Only humans seem stupid enough to take pride in killing. Any fight between big predators is presumed to be to the death. Big predators don’t want to die, they want you to stand down before it even gets to that. Wolves are remarkable in their conflict resolution skills, balletic almost in their approach to one another, and when conflicts do occur (usually territorial disputes) the interactions are surprisingly strategic.
So far I seem to be describing a wonderful species that should be hardly any bother to people, so why this horrible reputation?
Well, wolf attacks were not always so uncommon. From what I understand the invention of firearms drastically changed the dynamic between humans and wolves. Whilst humans are not naturally on the menu of wolves, it appears that where wolves are habituated to humans they do lose a lot of fear of them and will start attacking them. It also seems once wolves have learned they can attack and eat humans they continue. We need to be honest with ourselves here, we’re numerous and easy marks.
Whilst attacks nowadays may be as low as a handful per year, globally, some reports would indicate wolf attacks were in their thousands pre-the invention of guns. This would have also been before electric street lights, good fencing, safety measures of most kinds, so perhaps the guns aren’t the only important part of the equation.
What’s more, attacks on livestock are likely to have been even more common still. Again, no electric fences, security lights, deterrents, just a big old open farm with some hedges or basic fence? Wolves are gonna wolf.
I can’t blame them. They are just trying to survive. So are people and I can’t really blame them either. But it took hundreds of years after their eradication from the UK for people to realise the value of having wolves as a part of our ecosystems. We know and understand it now, we know and understand wolves better now, we know how to deter them from human habitations, we know how to encourage them to specific areas, we know so much more about how best to manage them with scents, restrictions, behaviours, prey and dens so we no longer need to manage them with guns.
As far as wolves go, they’ve done their time. They’re rehabilitated. Public opinion on them has shifted slightly (although, again, it’s okay when it’s the Scottish highlands but try telling someone their local forest is going to get a wolf pack and watch how quickly they backtrack their pro-reintroduction opinion!) and I think it’s time we looked at them in a new light.
These are intelligent, social predators, with a long and storied history that doesn’t deserve to come to an end because of a mediaeval Central European reputation. It’s time we grew up, civilised ourselves and moved on. It’s time to forgive the wolf.
Catch up with the rest of the Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals top ten!
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals : Introduction
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Bats
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pigeons
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Foxes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Aye-Ayes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pika and Moles
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Vultures
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The European herring gull
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Brown Rat
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Wasps