Nearly exterminating wolves wasn’t enough; Americans slaughtered the carnivores with appalling brutality. In Vicious: Wolves and Men in America (Yale University Press), Jon T. Coleman , an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame , says that Americans could simply have killed the animals that threatened their livestock. But instead, they severed the hamstrings of already-trapped wolves, dragged wolves behind horses, fractured their skulls, and pierced their guts with fishhooks that had been embedded in food.*Q. Why were Americans so violent toward wolves?
A.* There is a mystery on an individual level with these farmers having this very brutal yet intimate interaction with these animals. They could sit there and touch them, they handled them, and then they killed them.
But on a culturewide scale, it has a lot to do with feelings of powerlessness or a feeling of losing control that went along with colonization, entering new landscapes and spaces. … Often conquering new lands does not live up to the promise you had going into it. Killing a wolf is a way to restore some kind of order.*Q. How did wolves, once a terrifying threat, become a symbol of the environmental movement?
A.* Over the 19th and 20th century, you move from an agricultural society to a mainly urban society. Fewer and fewer people have this experience of having their calves and sheep gobbled up.
On top of that, you have a disconnect between the people who are out there killing the wolves and the people who own property. The job of destroying wolves becomes the federal government’s around 1906. This group starts telling different stories about the wolves they’re destroying. These are the famous “last wolf” legends. They portray wolves as these almost romantic outlaws … . You have government hunters standing over the last wolf in the area and mourning the loss of these animals.*Q. Do the wolves being reintroduced to national parks today have much chance of thriving given our long history of bloodshed?
A.* Wolves have actually found a way to come back now, with government support. You see a lot of pro-wolf sentiment among young people and especially in urban places. You see a lot of antiwolf sentiment in rural areas, especially among Western livestock owners. The reintroduction has taken place in that environment and wolves seem to do all right. The reason I think it works so well is because they’re threatened, from an endangered-species standpoint, but they’re also presented as threatening.
Because they are seen as threatening, it makes the ranchers respond to them, which makes the wolves seem endangered by these political forces, which keeps the federal government involved in their protection.
Volume 51, Issue 8, Page A12