Last week my colleague and fellow Psychology Today blogger, Marc Bekoff, called out Animal Planet over a particularly noxious piece of myth making that purports to sound an alarm about super-predatory wolves. These ravenous creatures, we are told, have decimated their natural, wild prey—elk, deer, moose—and now must turn to livestock and even humans themselves. These wolves are stone-cold killers with razor sharp teeth who can hear your heart beating fear and terror. They are living among us and they are proliferating. In times of scarcity, they can form into super packs with hundreds of wolves and besiege whole towns.
Man-Eating Super Wolves (cost is $1.99 but save your money), the program containing these hyperbolic exaggerations, ran as part of Animal Planet’s “Monster Week.” It represents nearly all that is wrong with nature films. It is sensationalist; it has a tenuous relationship to its subject in particular and nature in general; at its best, it is misleading. Despite the presence of Gregory Erickson, a paleobiologist from Florida State University who tries to keep the narrative from spinning free of reality, this program is what in journalism is known as a one-source story, relying on the views of one man, Valerius Geist, an ethologist specializing in wild ungulates, now retired from the University of Calgary. Geist is best known for providing intellectual cover to the most extreme wolf-haters. Perhaps he is the primary on screen source because the filmmakers could find no reputable wolf biologist who shares his vision. Erickson isn’t a wolf biologist—he specializes in alligator evolution and predatory dinosaurs.
Geist’s central thesis as expressed on this program is that wolves are blood-thirsty killers who, as they have increased in numbers due to government protection, have depleted their natural, wild prey and turned to livestock and ultimately humans. According to him, they are “cunning, intelligent, relentless.” They study us in order to prey upon us. Geist thinks anyone who thinks a wolf or wolf hybrid is their friend is delusional. We must kill them before they turn on us, and when you do confront one, he says, you should always stare into its eyes and never flinch; that way you establish dominion.
The program is filled with reenactments (unlabeled as such) of the two officially recorded fatal wolf attacks on humans in North America: the first, November 8, 2005, when wolves purportedly killed Kenton Carnegie, a young university student at Points North Landing, Saskatchewan, Canada; and the second, March 8, 2010, when wolves killed Candice Berner in the village of Chignik Lake, Alaska.
This program depicts a gruesome death for Kenton Carnegie while failing in any way to reveal that questions remain. Despite an official coroner’s ruling that wolves were responsible, some experts have suggested from the start that a black bear launched the fatal attack.
Little thought is given to why wolves would have attacked a human, except in passing we do learn that wolves in the area had become thoroughly habituated to humans. They chowed down at the town dump. There was also evidence that some of Carnegie’s companions had been taunting the wolves the week before the attack. This history of sometimes combative interactions between people and wolves casts a different light on the reasons wolves might have attacked Kenton Carnegie when he went out alone on the evening of November 8, 2005.
Terrible as they were, these two deaths do not constitute a trend that would suggest wolves are becoming more threatening toward humans. In an attempt to bolster their argument, Michael Hoff, the producer, and his team include several cases in which wolf hybrids apparently killed their caretakers, but in each case the circumstances are murky. In fact, given the way a growing number of wolves have begun to live among people without attacking them, the opposite point could be argued. Humans kill far more wolves than are killed by them—for no reason other than fear.
Ordinarily I would not bother to watch or comment on such a program, but this one is so vile, so misleading, so irresponsible because of the fear it arouses in people that I could not let it pass. At the same time, to answer every absurd statement would be impossible because to answer them would be to admit that they had some merit to begin with: It is the old ‘when did you stop kicking your dog’ problem.
We need to learn to live with wolves and others of our imperiled carnivores. That involves understanding how to share the planet with them, not turning them into fell beasts out to destroy us all.