Volunteer with MN350's Communications Team
“Our tribe originally descended from wolves. We believe they are our relatives and are always welcome in our land. We learned from the wolf how to survive and how to be more human. How to honor our elders, to protect and provide for our families—and we learned from wolves the loyalty you need to really belong to a tribe.”
– Quileute Tribe Elder, Fred Woodruff, quoted in Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves, by Brenda Peterson
Most scientists agree now that we started warming the planet with the beginning of industrialization in the 1800s—in fact, it was in 1896 that Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first posed the idea that CO2 added to the air from burning fossil fuels could raise the planet’s average temperature. But it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that scientists used computer models to demonstrate the potential long-term disastrous impact of the increases in CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases from the population growth-driven transportation, farming, construction, and manufacturing explosion. These effects, as predicted by James Hansen in his landmark 1988 congressional presentation, were to continue throughout the rest of the 20th century, with no signs of diminishing in the 21st.
However, I think a case can be made for dating the real beginning of our planet’s deterioration to the 1600s with the dramatic expansion of European colonization across multiple continents, including North America. We don’t have any scientists from back then to ask, but if we want a first-hand report, we only have to get to know the few surviving wolves who continue to be a prime victim of the worldwide wilderness desecration.
Wolves in the wild have long been regarded as primitive, dangerous predators and enemies to humans, so much so that they went from being the most widely distributed mammal in the world to all but wiped out. This was dramatically demonstrated in North America by white European settlers as they conquered the land, including its native peoples, to eventually build roads, cities, and factories and grow crops and raise farm animals on a massive scale, all the while massacring most native wildlife. This included killing wolves for profit (bounties and pelts) and destroying their habitats in the process. The war against wolves has also taken place across the rest of the world, especially in Ethiopia, Russia, and other parts of Asia and Europe.
As Christians, white Europeans saw themselves as chosen children of God, superior to all other living beings that lacked higher intelligence and soul. They viewed animals (humans didn’t consider themselves animals) as inferior creatures that only existed to support humans’ drive for material progress. And few animals were considered more dispensable than the wolf.
Many Native Americans and other tribal people held opposite beliefs, with a number of tribes holding wolves in high regard for their courage, wisdom, hunting skills, and family loyalty. This reflected a core difference in their mindset toward other creatures as fellow beings, sharing the Earth as a sacred place that gives and sustains life.
This general disregard for and hostility toward wolves by non-natives in North America carried over well into the 20th century. But in 1973, concern for wolves’ extinction led to their being listed under the Endangered Species Act. This resulted in legal protections against hunting and trapping and the reintroduction of wolves into some states and in Yellowstone in the mid-’90s (where they had all but disappeared). Wolves were alternately delisted and relisted in different states numerous times from 2008 on, until they were formally delisted nationally by the Trump administration in January 2021. Wolf hunting has accelerated since, especially in Alaska, where there are more wolves (7,000 to 11,000 of the estimated 18,000 U.S. total) than any other state, and where people have shot wolves from helicopters just for sport. Only recently, after the protection of wolves was lifted in Wisconsin, hunters killed 216 wolves over three days, well past the 119 quota set by the state.
At the same time, however, a new attitude toward animals in the wild, and wolves in particular, had been developing among animal welfare groups and some scientists, prompted by growing concern over the mass extinctions accelerating since the mid-20th century. A new generation of biologists and animal behaviorists began to seriously study wolf behavior and brain activity, opening up a greater respect for their intelligence, individuality, and social aptitude. For the general public, this is relevant as an opportunity for their historically negative perception of wolves (canis lupis) to be mitigated, especially when we acknowledge their close relationship to their direct descendant, dogs (canis lupus familiaris). The significance of this relationship is enhanced by the fact that both wolves and dogs have similar brain structures (the limbic system) and produce many of the same hormones associated with emotions as humans. One major difference between the two: Dogs have evolved over thousands of years with genetic social tendencies to bond with humans, where wolves’ social bonding happens within their pack.
Wolves’ complex communicative behaviors—including facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and actions in the context of their interactions with members of their family, pack, other animals, and physical environment—are now well documented and can be correlated with similar dog behaviors manifested in their relationships with humans, each other, and other animals. In both cases, many of these interactions demonstrate a rich emotional life. Recognizing this, we’re more likely to feel greater concern for the well-being of wolves, including ensuring their natural habitats are preserved and expanded to provide them with the supportive environment they’ve been denied for hundreds of years. In doing so, the countless plants and animals that interrelate with each other to create that environment will thrive as well.
We’re more motivated to act on something if we feel a personal relationship to the people, other living things, or ideas involved. The climate crisis can seem so complex and impersonal that we feel detached, even paralyzed, when faced with taking action. Wolves can offer one way out of this paralysis. Since most of us can relate to dogs on a personal level, if we can make an emotional connection to their closest relative, we may succeed.
By transforming our relationship with wolves and caring about their need for a better quality of life in a revived, robust habitat, we can begin a healing process to atone for the decades of detachment from the natural world—which now, through our identification with our fellow creature the wolf, includes us.
Sid Farrar is a writer, editor, and volunteer with MN350’s Communications Team.
Climate Change History, History.com,.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/history-of-climate-change
Horowitz, Alexandra. 2009. Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, New York: Scribner
Serpell, James, ed. 1995. The Domestic Dog: its evolution, behavior, and interactions with people, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Malet, Rosie. How translating wolf facial expressions could help us understand domesticated dogs, BBC Science Focus Magazine online, sciencefocus.com/nature/translating-wolf-facial-expressions-could-help-us-understand-domesticated-dogs
Peterson, Brenda, 2017. Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves, Boston: Da Capo Press
Busch, Robert H., 1995, 2018. The Wolf Almanac: A Celebration of Wolves and Their World, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield
Safina, Carl, 2015. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, New York: Henry Holt and Co.
International Wolf Center, wolf.org, Ely, Minnesota. Wolves can be seen there during select hours; see their website for directions and times and for information on wolves and educational programming.