The Grey: A pack of lies

Wolf portrayal in film not based in reality

Lynn Martel, For The Calgary Herald   January 27, 2012

Fleeting images from the official trailer for the new Hollywood film The Grey suggest a love story, a violent plane crash, then a flash of bristling fur, the glint of a knife blade, and, in the background, the sound of a haunting howl.

Opening in theatres this weekend, The Grey is described as the story of an “unruly group of oil-rig roughnecks” whose plane crashes in the remote Alaskan wilderness. Amid a mountain backdrop – in reality, Whistler and Smithers, B.C. – the cast, headlined by Liam Neeson, must battle mortal injuries, merciless weather and, most menacing of all, “a vicious pack of rogue wolves on the hunt.”

Before you settle in with a tub of buttery popcorn, take note that wolf experts are giving the reality factor of the production a unanimous thumbs-down.

“What is described in the film is not typical wolf behaviour,” says University of Calgary wolf researcher Shelley Alexander. “Most carnivores, canids [wolves, coyotes] in particular, already suffer from gross prejudice as a consequence of lack of education and understanding. This prejudice cannot be made better by stereotypical and negative portrayals of the animals interacting with people.”

Paul Paquet, a senior scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, says such a film serves to feed into negative myths that have surrounded wolves for centuries.

“I think it’s kind of an embarrassment for the studio and the producers and writers and actors,” Paquet says. “It’s such a blatant misrepresentation of reality. Unfortunately, though, there are consequences that are pretty negative for wolves.”

Portraying wolves as manhunters creates unnecessary antipathy and fear, he says. In the long term that can mean people are less accepting of wolves and may even lead to people killing them.

The very idea that wolves would stalk humans, says Canmore’s Gunther Bloch, a canid behaviour expert who has studied wolves for two decades, has no basis in reality.

“It would be extremely exceptional behaviour, and only if they didn’t have a food resource – which in itself would be rare,” Bloch says.

Wolves are opportunistic eaters whose food choices are dictated by availability and habitat. A wolf living in the northern Canadian tundra will hunt migrating caribou. In the Rockies, wolves eat deer, elk, bighorn sheep and snowshoe hares, and snack on mice and voles. In the Arctic, they hunt muskox. A West Coast wolf might feast on running salmon for several weeks.

Given the opportunity, however, wolves will also help themselves to the offerings of an urban garbage dump.

While a rabid or food-conditioned wolf might on very rare occasions lose its fear of humans and attack, a person who finds himself close to a wolf’s food source – even a kill – should not expect a fight.

“They would bark an alarm bark, a warning,” Bloch says. “They wouldn’t attack; in the end, they would run away. They would figure out how to get the pups out of there.”

For the most part, Bloch adds, wolves are very intelligent and have become well conditioned over thousands of years to fear humans who have so often – and successfully – persecuted them.

Since the 1950s, wolves have enjoyed a period of recovery from widespread “control” efforts, the result of prejudices that arrived in North America with the first Europeans. But, while attitudes have changed, in some places where the population had recovered, wolves are again in jeopardy and being targeted.

Wolves have long suffered from misconceptions, including the idea they operate exclusively by pack rules.

For the first five or so months after a litter of pups is born in April, the parent wolves individually hunt small prey, bringing meals back to the den to feed their pups. Then, once the pups have grown, they assemble as hunting groups.

Another misconception people have about wolves, Bloch says, is that wolf behaviour is restricted to hierarchy and status.

“To say that wolves congregate in a pack suggests hierarchy, when the reality is a family-type situation – mother and father, pups and older pups helping look after younger ones, functioning as babysitters,” he says. “Wolves are very close. If a member is injured, they will feed it until it is well again. There are a lot of emotional things going on.”

No one thing in the ecosystem is essential, but, as apex and summit predators, wolves interact with and influence a suite of other species, Paquet says. By extension, their presence has a profound effect on the ecosystem, as their behaviour affects not just the balance between predator and prey but also the plants their prey feed on.

They can also have a positive influence on humans.

“Nature and the wildlife it contains provide physical, emotional and intellectual benefits to people,” Paquet says. “The beauty and symbolic nature of large carnivores inspires many people. As a result, animals such as bears, tigers and wolves often form the foci of literature, poems, paintings, sculptures and dance.”

Wolves figure prominently in First Nations’ cultures, but urban people too can develop strong emotional attachments to large carnivores.

Few might ever see a polar bear or grizzly in the wild, but they want these animals to exist, not just for themselves, but also so their children or grandchildren might have an opportunity to see them in their natural habitat.

Large carnivores, including wolves, top the list of species people hope to catch a glimpse of when they engage in wilderness-based recreation, which can translate into people spending money to travel for such opportunities.

Unfortunately, though, Paquet says, some people harbour the attitude that wolves as predators are in competition with – and a threat to – humans.

In the case of ranchers, farmers and hunters, the potential for wolves to physically harm a person is very rare, but the competition aspect is real.

And the growth of the human population and subsequent encroachment on wolf habitat makes conflicts inevitable.

“Humans tend to push out other species,” Paquet says.

“That, in my view, has been one of the great mistakes of the conservation movement. All these years we’ve asked for tolerance, when all along we should have been asking for acceptance.”

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