It’s not surprising that fairy tales give us the “big, bad wolf.” Anti-predator feelings run deep in our mythology and heritage, says Jim Garry, a storyteller, naturalist and one-time cowboy who teaches classes at the nonprofit Yellowstone Institute in Gardiner, Mont.
It wasn’t always so. There was a time in prehistory when amicable relations existed between people and wolves, he says.
Ancient hunters and gatherers had favorable attitudes toward wolves, which they regarded as rival clans, according to Garry. Like people, wolves had organized societies that utilized cooperation for survival. While wolves and people sometimes competed for the same game, they often co-existed.
Attitudes changed at the end of the last Ice Age, when gatherers started planting crops and hunters became herdsmen, Garry says. Domestic animals became the ideal. Wild animals that preyed on livestock were vilified.
“You can’t negotiate with wolves, bears, lions and jackals, so you just declare war on them,” Garry says.
By the Middle Ages, religious overtones had crept into descriptions of wolves. Domestic canines became “God’s dogs,” embodying loyalty and obedience. Wolves were the “devil’s dogs,” Garry says, associated with slyness and treachery.
European immigrants brought anti-predator attitudes to the New World. As the frontier pushed westward, those views spread to the American West.
Federal, state and local governments became part of the war on wolves. Bounties encouraged widespread poisoning of the predators, and Forest Service rangers and other government employees were encouraged to shoot wolves and destroy den sites.
“No other creature in the world comes with that kind of baggage,” says Jim Halfpenny, a carnivore ecologist from Gardiner. “We’ve tried to kill every carnivore, but none with the kind of vengeance we’ve reserved for wolves.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.