This Christmas has been delicious in many ways, but my highlight of the festive season has been Gordon Buchanan’s two-part documentary Snow Wolf Family and Me on BBC2. Traveling to the remote Canadian Arctic, an area too hostile for human settlement, he attempts to observe and understand a family of white wolves that dwell there. Remarkably, the wolves have never before encountered humankind; what follows is the development of an intricate relationship between the cameraman and his wolves as they learn to trust one another, against the backdrop of a barren arctic wasteland.
Gordon mentions how wolves have gained a surprisingly poor reputation, despite their dedication to companionship and pack welfare. His comments reminded me of the countless references to wolves in literature, usually depicted as evil, menacing, deceptive and murderous. One of the first novels that truly scared me was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a fierce, wonderful book that remains one of my favourites:
“Just then the moon, sailing through the black clouds, appeared behind the jagged crest of a beetling, pine-clad rock, and by its light I saw around us a ring of wolves, with white teeth and lolling red tongues, with long, sinewy limbs and shaggy hair. They were a hundred times more terrible in the grim silence which held them than even when they howled. For myself, I felt a sort of paralysis of fear. It is only when a man feels himself face to face with such horrors that he can understand their true import.”
Even in human history, we seem to cling to the idea that wolves are somehow more fearful than other creatures. When I visited Paris in June, I remember reading about a man-eating wolf pack that killed forty people in 1450, after entering the city through a breach in its walls. The leader was named Courtaud, and was thought to have bright, red fur; the Parisians eventually cornered the pack on the steps of the Notre Dame cathedral, and speared the wolves to death.
Why do we hold onto these negative portrayals of wolves as carriers of evil, but then praise the lion for pride and nobility?
I’ve been particularly interested in wolves (and lynx, bears and beavers) after reading George Monbiot’s intriguing articles on rewilding this year. Rewilding is the idea that, since we have destroyed, diminished and wreaked havoc on the delicate ecosystems in which we live, we could benefit from reintroducing certain species back into our countryside to enrich and expand our biodiversity. For example, in Scotland there is a major problem with excessive deer populations destroying tree plantations, despite the attempts to cull them. Wolves would provide a natural predator to the deer, and create tourism opportunities like those found in Romania.
Obviously, as lovely humans, the first thing we think of is not: ‘What an excellent idea! We need to give something back to our wildlife after everything we’ve done to them.’ Ignorant fools have already expressed their outrage at the idea of letting wolves roam loose around our sacred isle, in a manner that cries, ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?!’ Unfortunately, I have no time for these people. I never want to see anyone mauled by wildlife, but if the risk is slightly increased in exchange for a rich, beautiful and healthy ecosystem, it just seems absurd that we would still prioritise the safety of our horribly ballooning population over our cherished and vulnerable wildlife.
The worst part is that so many people still think humans and wildlife are disconnected, as if the food in our supermarkets just appears from the abyss. It’s not a case of ‘us or them'; the more species we push into extinction, the less stable our ecosystems become, and the more likely we will be unable to feed ourselves.
I recently read in BBC Wildlife magazine one of Chris Packham’s columns about the ‘ecological illiteracy of our media':
“In March this year, tabloids reported that Lydia the ‘killer fish’ had been spotted 1,000 miles off Cornwall; Lydia, an underwater weapon of mass destruction en route to terrorise our green and pleasant land. Except that her species, the great white shark, kills under 15 humans a year, whereas we slaughter tens of millions of sharks annually. We are 1,000 times more likely to be killed by lightning and 1.3 times more likely to have our life terminated by a failing vending machine than to be taken out by a shark. We also have a 100 per cent chance of not being a victim of shark attack if we stay on dry land where we belong.”
I will never understand how humans have developed the idea that we are above other species, and somehow superior to them, when in reality we just got evolutionarily lucky. It is now time to use our ‘supreme intelligence’ to reconnect with nature and start putting other species above ourselves.