Mirror, mirror on the wall: The wolf as scapegoat

Feigning empathy, shifting blame, and diverting responsibility.

“We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be – the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.”

Farley Mowat, Never Cry Wolf

Many Canadians now conceive of “progress” as the unremitting economic development and expansion of the human footprint, necessarily at the expense of the natural environment. Reinforcing that view, governments have politicized nature and framed environmental regulation as a constraint on economic growth and restriction on freedom.

Although global economic development has generated prosperity, it has also brought inequality, mostly at the expense of the environment. Accordingly, Canada’s wild lands are being continually lost and converted to exclusive human uses such as industrial farming, urban development and, above all, resource extraction. These increasing human demands are depriving native species of life-sustaining habitats and impoverishing the lives of those that persist. Undeniably, our social amenities are being purchased by the subversion of nature for the sole benefit of humans, with the cost of human hegemony being borne – for now – mostly by other species. More succinctly, our economy grows at the competitive exclusion of nonhuman species in the aggregate.

But in a cynical attempt to feign empathy and shift blame, governments and the industries most accountable for the demise of Canada’s natural environment have perversely and consistently diverted responsibility and accountability to others, including grey wolves.

Whether as targets of blame or subjects of contempt, wolves routinely fall prey to the ravages of trade and commerce. For centuries they have paid a heavy price for our own greed, self-indulgence, and simple wrong-headedness. For those unwilling or unable to accept the profound but subtle complexities of natural processes, the wolf provides a convenient sacrificial lamb for a litany of societal ills.

Photo by Ian Harland.

Convenient blame placed on wolves

Wolves are regularly held responsible for the decline of everything from large animals that we hunt for sport, to mountain caribou, to Vancouver Island marmots. In ranching country, they are blamed conveniently and routinely for putting ranchers out of business. Whether concealed under a smokescreen of wildlife management or in the name of protecting domestic livestock, chances are good that a wolf pack somewhere in Canada is now being (or is about to be) poisoned, trapped, sterilized, or machine-gunned from low-flying aircraft by well-intentioned government officials with a less than stellar grasp of ecology and the functioning of biological systems. 

To be clear, our technologically assisted war on the wolf is really just a continuation of a prejudice that has been with us for centuries – passed on even today in common expressions – “keeping the wolf from the door,” “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” etc. – and in the seemingly innocuous fairy tales we read to our children. In its modern guise, however, government and industry have transformed wolf bigotry to a default stratagem for reducing culpability and avoiding responsibility.

Consider, for example, the on-going decline of mountain and boreal caribou in western Canada. Of course, it is true that wolves prey on caribou today as they always have; but the role played by the wolf in the decline of mountain caribou is that of symptom and not underlying cause. Quite simply, people are the ultimate cause of caribou endangerment through the ongoing degradation imposed by our resource industries on caribou habitat.

In other words, wolves are scapegoated for the decline of caribou in a morally and scientifically bankrupt attempt to protect Canada’s industrial sacred cows: oil and gas, mining, and forestry. The relentless destruction of forest wilderness via industrial development has conspired to deprive caribou of their life requisites, while exposing them to levels of wolf predation they did not evolve with and are incapable of adapting to. Yet, governments habitually favour the destruction of wolves over any consequential protection, enhancement, or restoration of caribou habitat. As a result, mountain and boreal caribou are on a long-term slide to extinction; not because of what wolves and other predators are doing but because of what humans have already done.

Viewing nature as a commodity

With notable exceptions such as national parks, the management philosophy and policies of most government agencies are narrowly directed towards the idea that wolves are just a “resource.” Ignoring the biology and the intrinsic value 1 of all species, these agencies in concert with adversaries of nature resolutely promote wolves as a problem rather than as respected members of the biological community.

The underpinnings of traditional wildlife management are political and ideological, largely at the expense of wildlife for the presumed benefit of people. This management perspective draws its support from – and sustains – the view that humans exist outside of nature, and that other species, apart from their utility for humans, are of little importance in the larger scheme of things. In traditional wildlife management, human dominion and domination over nature are the natural order. Nature is a commodity – a ‘resource’ – that is owned and used by humans in pursuit of personal interests. Notably, this approach differs sharply from wildlife conservation, which mainly endeavours to benefit wildlife, sometimes at the expense of people.

Wildlife managers are not the only people who routinely kill wolves; so do recreational hunters and commercial trappers. The primary motivation behind recreational hunting is the pursuit of gratuitous killing for pleasure. Commercial trapping is done for profit, but the method of capture and killing causes intense suffering to the victims. In all cases, the killing is conveniently obscured by use of sanitizing and muddling language intended to disguise the uncomfortable reality that wolves are sentient, highly intelligent, emotive animals closely akin to the family dog.

Despite rhetoric about creating hunting opportunities, the main thrust of wolf management is clearly predator control with the goal of reducing impacts on huntable species like elk and deer, as well as on livestock. At a deeper, though not always conscious level, the goal is to compensate for industrial damage to the environment.

Anthropocentric worldview

Many human activities harm wolves (both individuals and populations) in direct and indirect ways. Direct effects include culling by lethal methods, as well as by sterilization, hunting, trapping, poisoning, and the destruction of food supplies. Indirect effects include changes to habitat or movement patterns that result in death or disrupt social relationships. 

Importantly, harmful direct actions can have wide-ranging indirect effects. Culling some individuals in a wolf social group can disrupt the transfer of cultural and genetic information between generations, while simultaneously altering group stability and breeding structures in the population. Hunters and trappers are disrupting pack cohesion and biologically short-changing our landscapes, which have been shown to benefit in multiple ways from the presence of wolves. Although direct harm is more obvious and more likely to attract public attention, both direct and indirect harm need to be recognised as important determinants of animal welfare and conservation.

The time has come to seriously examine our relationship with top predators. The question is not whether killing wolves is “sustainable,” as wildlife managers are always trying to assert. The question is whether it is ecologically, ethically, or even economically defensible to kill large numbers of predators anywhere. The answer on all counts is no: there are no reasonable ecological reasons to kill wolves, there are no valid economic reasons, and clearly there are no tenable ethical reasons.

Even more, the wanton killing of wolves is atavistic, serving only to reinforce an anthropocentric worldview, which in myriad ways is slowly foreclosing on the future of our children. Our illusory need to kill wolves reflects our apparent desire to kill what is wild about the living green earth. We continue this behaviour at our peril.

The idea that anyone would wish to kill or inflict pain for pleasure is increasingly repulsive to most people. In this time of drive-by shootings and high school massacres, society is coming to recognize that those of us who behave this way are urgently in need of professional intervention. This is especially true when the person doing the killing has the cognitive maturity to understand that what she or he is doing is wrong – and continues doing it anyway. 

Our connection to healthy environments

In making moral judgments, people tend to regard harm as more serious if it is deliberate rather than unintentional. Both recreational and institutional killing of wolves, for example, are viewed as more serious acts than unintentional killing. Similarly, people may regard harm as less significant if done for a seemingly worthwhile purpose. This is a slippery slope, however, because social and moral justifications are often used to sanctify harmful practices by investing them with worthy purposes through social and economic justifications. Perhaps, as Stanford University social psychologist Albert Bandura suggests, disengagement of moral self-sanctions enables people to pursue detrimental practices freed from the restraint of self-censure.

Accepting this discomforting possibility represents a challenge that few people, including conservation biologists, have been willing to confront. These vexing ethical problems are further compounded because the public and decision-makers fail to distinguish between existence of a species and long-term persistence of ecological systems upon which the species depends – a relationship that of course applies also to humans. Simply, intact ecological systems are characterised not only by the species (components) that inhabit them, but also by ecological functions and processes that link species with their environment (e.g. migration, predator-prey relationships). Although species may continue to exist long after natural ecological relationships have been altered or destroyed, most ecologists now accept that such impoverished systems are not sustainable and do not typify healthy environments.

Ultimately, our relation to large predators is determined by the social values of the culture we inhabit. Increasingly, we are recognizing that our treatment of the wolf – as of the wild – is a test of how likely we are to achieve sustainable coexistence with the natural elements that sustain us. More than ever, heightened public sensitivity to the killing of large predators is exposing proponents of lethal management practices to intense public scrutiny. Perhaps there will come a day when the stubborn allegiance of many government biologists – and others – to the destructive management of wolves is understood to reveal less about the exigencies of wildlife conservation and more about psychopathology.

The reflected image of ourselves

For, in the final analysis, our treatment of the wolf exposes prevailing attitudes toward the wild that are emblematic of the treatment humans customarily inflict on all vulnerable species, including other humans. As the late Farley Mowat rightly observed, what we have wrongly and purposely perceived the wolf to be is no more than the reflected image of our shameful selves.

  1. The intrinsic value of an animal refers to the unconditional value it possesses in its own right, neither conferred nor revocable.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.