Dog's Best Friend

The dog-wolf next door

Can Dogs Teach Us Why Some People Kill Wolves?

Looking at dogs and wolves from a slightly different perspective

I have commented several times since starting this blog on the absurdity of “saving” an animal from extinction in order to start killing it again. That is what is being done with the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes and it is making a deadly mockery of the Endangered Species Act.

Of the 6 states where wolves have been delisted, Idaho explicitly wants to reduce its wolf population to the minimum number set in the species recovery plan prepared when wolves were given protection or fewer—down to zero. Montana and Wyoming would also rather kill than nurture.  Wisconsin wanted to add a wrinkle of hunting wolves with hounds. Minnesota seems largely to want to be part of the killing in order to avert conflicts between wolves and  humans. Only Michigan has resisted pressure from wolf haters to legitimize their fear with a hunting season.

I thought that placing wolves within the context of dogs, which is where they belong, might cast light on why some people so desperately desire to eradicate them. I was looking for a way to begin that recontextualization when I read a recent post by my friend and fellow blogger Marc Bekoff, on an article in the London Daily Mail Online about how large carnivores are poised to invade American cities and will soon be at the door of unsuspecting urbanites. The article follows the argument of Stan Gehrt of Ohio State University that coyotes already in urban areas form a test case or avant garde and that wolves will surely follow with grizzly bears and panthers not far behind. 

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This image of being overrun by ravenous wolves panting at our doors is an absurdity, a nightmarish fiction divorced from reality, grounded in fear. It is also based on a faulty premise that coyotes are the largest carnivores to take up residence in cities. A big carnivore—bigger than a coyote in many cases—is already in the house, often sharing a bed and food with people. 

That animal is officially Canis lupus familiaris or the domesticated wolf dog, the descendant of wolves who stayed in the company of humans tens of thousands of years ago. John Paul Scott, author with John L. Fulller of the classic study, Genetics and Social Behavior of the Dogs (1965), wrote in 1950 for the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: “After a careful check of these accounts [of wolf behavior] it may be said definitely that there is strong evidence that every basic behavior pattern found in dogs is also found in wolves. This means that, in spite of the centuries of selection practiced on dogs, nothing really new in the way of behavior has been developed. This does not gainsay, however, the fact that an extraordinary variability in individual behavior of dogs may be produced by selection and training. It merely means that this variability has been produced by exaggeration or suppression of patterns of behavior already present.”

Between 2011 and 2012, there were 78.2 million companion dogs in the United States, according to the authoritative biannual survey of pet ownership and related issues conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). Feral or wild dogs, as opposed to free-ranging dogs are believed to number in the millions and are found from inner city neighborhoods to wilderness areas. 

Wild wolves in all states number fewer than 20,000—versus as many as 100 million dogs or 2 million coyotes. Even if an estimated  300,00 wolves and wolf-dog hybrids in private homes or refuges are counted, wolves and wolf hybrids represent a small percentage of the nation’s dogs, yet their detractors assign them near supernatural power for wreaking havoc when they leave the wildlands where they are said to  belong and move among humans they are said to fear.

The situation brings several questions immediately to mind. Why are American wolves confined to ‘wildlands’ when wolves have lived in close proximity to humans for tens of thousands of years in some parts of the world and continue to interbreed with dogs? What do wild wolves do that domesticated wolves do not do, if anything?

Remarkably, wolf populations are increasing in Europe and parts of Asia as well as in the U.S. The ease and speed with which they have moved even into areas of intense human activity shows a resilience and adaptability that belies the popular and official image of wolves as incompatible with humans and their domesticated animals.

Wolves’ ability to live among humans supports the view that campaigns of extermination beginning in England in the late 13th century and peaking in much of Europe and the United States in the late 18th century through the mid-20th centuries represent aberrant periods in the long relationship of wolves and humans.

It is not that people did not hunt wolves; it is that they did not programmatically seek to annihilate them. Wolves have probably been hunted since the Neolithic when livestock husbandry began. But even while they hunted wolves, people also took them in and trained them and employed them as hunting companions and livestock guards. Dogs were not the creation of people who feared wolves; they were a joint venture of wolves and humans who liked and respected each other.

Initially wolf extermination was aimed at protecting royal stags for human hunters in the Middle Ages. That is why they were killed out of England by the early 16th century. Laws were promulgated to keep dogs from attacking the royal stags as well. 

In the late 18t century anti-wolf campaigns in Europe and the U.S. coincided with a revolution in agriculture and the rise of “scientific” breeding, which produced animals far too valuable to expose to wolves and other large predators. Wolves had to go not because they had changed their ways but because people had changed theirs, believing that they could manipulate and improve on nature.

The slaughter of wildlife in America by market and sport hunters became so extreme in the decades following the Civil War that federal and state governments had to take steps to ensure that something would be left for future generations of hunters. They enacted conservation laws to protect game animals and increase their numbers.

The American war on wolves thus combined three purposes—protection of livestock, expansion of populations of wild ungulates, and advancement of “civilization.”

Even as they were exterminated all across their former range wolves had their defenders among Romantics, conservationists and people who admired them.

Consider what wolves are said to do that sets them apart. They kill pet dogs and cats, livestock and wild ungulates like deer, elk and moose that human hunters like to take and thus are in competition with humans. Dogs also kill livestock and deer. There are records of them pulling down elk, moose and bison. In company with their humans, dogs hunt just about everything there is to hunt, including wolves. Dogs do kill cats and other dogs.

Wolves are not as tractable as dogs. They will not submit to abusive training methods. No self-respecting dog I know will submit to abusive training either. Some dogs will but who wants such a dog? I should say who would want such a person.

Wolves stalk human hunters and hikers, waiting for them to drop their guards. Then they attack with intent to kill. Dogs stalk and attack people far more frequently than wolves. The Centers for Disease Control estimate there are 4.5 million dog bites a year that require medical attention. American dogs kill on average 30 to 35 people a year.  North American wolves have been implicated in two deaths over the last century. The number worldwide is higher, but clearly dogs are far more dangerous to us than wolves, yet dogs have the run of our homes.

Hatred and fear of wolves might have atavistic roots but I doubt it. More likely they result from the demonization of wolves by people who would exterminate them to advance their own interests and from their consignment, even by their defenders, to “wildlands,” as if they could only live away from humans. 

Viewed from this perspective the only reason wolves do not belong in the company of people is because people will harm them.

Mark Derr is the author of How the Dog Became the Dog, Dog's Best Friend, and A Dog's History of America.

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