Twenty years ago, scientists took a close look at wolf poop.
In 2000, the Society for Conservation completed a long-term study on the wolf populations at Isle Royale, Yellowstone, and Voyageurs national parks. By analyzing wolf fecal matter—poop—at different locations and times, they discovered elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol in scat—again, poop—that corresponded with recreational snowmobiling. However, this increase did not affect the longevity, number, hierarchy, or reproduction of wolves.
What does this mean?
It means that wolves aren’t scared of us; we just annoy the hell out of them. They’ll keep on chasing, hunting, and making baby wolves as long as they can, whether or not humans are there, but our presence, specifically the presence of our noisy, smelly technology, irritates them to no end.
Even in Indiana, the middle of America’s Heartland, there’s been no wild wolves seen in a century (save for a nomadic gray wolf in 2002). Our views of wolves have changed dramatically in that century. The last generation that learned to hate and fear wolves has essentially disappeared, at least in Indiana. Stories like “Little Red Riding Hood”, the “Three Little Pigs”, or the “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” from Aesop’s Fables have lost most of their poignancy.
Imagine being a child growing up in a log cabin near the Great Kankakee River and reading “Little Red Riding Hood” by candlelight. Just as you close the book, wondering what exactly the huntsman would do with the wolf’s skin, you snuff out the candle…then hear a piercing howl of a wolf just on the other side of the cabin wall. Joined by another. And another.
That’s what it meant to FEAR wolves.
Hated to the Point of Extinction
Sadly, the disappearance of wolves was almost inevitable. As humans suspect and (judging by the poop studies) wolves already know, coexistence is a pipe dream. Pioneers understood this, but not with the respect that comes with understanding conservation and an alpha predator’s role in an ecosystem. Wolves are doubly important, serving as both an apex predator AND a keystone species (a species whose removal would dramatically affect multiple communities).
Pioneers that settled Indiana and much of the Midwest formed their opinion of wolves long before settling the abundant forests and open prairies. Wolves attacking livestock is no great surprise, although occurrences of these attacks were comparatively rare by the mid to late 1800s. But attacking humans was so rare as to be nearly mythical. Most of those stories, including the folk tales of proto-Germany and Russia, date back to the 1600s. These wolf encounters might have started out true, but snowballed into battles with beasts as bloodthirsty as any movie monster.
The Wedding and the Wolves
In one famous Russian folk tale (of which there are several variations), a wedding party set out one evening from a Russian village in a long line of horse-drawn sleds. They were crossing a short stretch of tundra to reach the wedding feast at a neighboring village. Each sled set out at a furious pace, knowing the packs of wolves patrolling the snows would quickly set upon them. At the very front, with the best driver and the fastest horses, sat the bride and groom, nestled beneath a thick fur blanket.
The parade of sleds pushed their teams as hard as possible and stayed well ahead of the wolf pack, which numbered several dozen hungry and huge canines. The miles streaked by. Soon, the convoy saw the flickering, safe lights of the next village.
Suddenly, there was a sharp CRACK! The horse leading the second sled stabbed its leg through a thin sheet of ice into the water below. The rest of the sled team jerked madly to one side, their eyes wide and mouths frothing in terror. They tripped and tumbled into the snow. The sled overturned. One by one, the sleds behind it slowed and then stopped, unable to get around the pile up.
Moments later, the wild pack caught up.
The wolves howled, drowning out the screams of pain and fear from the passengers and the horses. The sled of the bridge and groom did not stop or slow to save anyone. It would have been pointless.
A few minutes later, as the lights of the next village became even brighter, the dozens of wolves soon darkened the snow, catching up to the led sled. The pace and panic had tired the horses. The experienced driver knew that, without the pack slowing down, they would not reach the village before being swarmed.
The driver leaned back and said, “Sir, if your bride can take the reins, you and I can defend the sled until we reach the safety of the village.” The driver held out a loaded pistol and smiled grimly.
The groom agreed and whispered to his new wife. She nodded and pulled off the warm blanket, leaning forward to grab the reins.
Just as she did, the driver grabbed her upper arm and tossed her over the side. With a scream, she toppled end over end into the snow, vanishing out of sight in a flurry of powder. The groom cried out. Wasting no time with the driver, he shoved his pistol into his belt, then jumped over the side to save her. He too faded into the white snow.
Seconds later the driver heard a cry, a single pistol crack, and then a long human cry that was silenced as if by a razor.
Then it was just the growling, howling wolves.
The last driver reached the safety of the village, where the wedding feast sat warm and waiting for no one. The wolf pack was still far behind him. The village knew what the driver had done and despised him for it. No one hired him, so he put no food in his belly, and within weeks, he starved.
The villagers agreed he would have been better off getting killed by the wolves.
Stories like this terrified American settlers. “Wolves had a ghostly presence in colonial landscapes. Settlers heard howls, but they rarely spotted their serenaders. The fearsome beasts avoided humans.” (from the book Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, by Jon T. Coleman).
Coleman also recounts the vengeance of one farmer against a pack of wolves for the killing of some of his livestock.
“During the fall, a pack of wolves had robbed [the farmer] of “nearly the whole of his sheep and one of his colts.” For him, it made sense to devote his winter labor to digging pits, weaving platforms, hunting bait, and setting and checking his traps twice daily. The animals had injured him, and “he was now ‘paying them off in full.’”
“Paying them off in full” meant catching a wolf by the leg and watching with glee as trained dogs tore the wounded and weak animal apart. Audiences today find that image repugnant. But kids living on the frontier, hearing wolves howl in the night might not be as offended.
If you’re interested in the history of wolves in America, check out Jon T. Coleman’s book
Vicious: Wolves and Men in America.