Wilderness, National Parks and Hybrid Wolves

My good friend Karen Graham (who I met at the inaugural OGOM conference) sent me this very interesting article, ‘Coydogs and Lynxcats and Pizzlies, Oh My’. Though the title is a little ridiculous, it is an interesting look at science’s attitude towards hybridity in animals and how taxonomy has created and maintained, what are sometimes false, categories. This desire to label and separate species reflects the desire to reinforce boundaries. In relation to wolves and their ability to breed with dogs, I think the fear and hatred towards wolf-dogs is caused by the mingling of the wild and the domestic. During my current research I have read a number of articles about the re-introduction of wolves in southern France and rural Norway. Despite being on the other side of the Atlantic, similar themes occur. Wolf-dogs are considered tainted by both proponents of wolf re-introduction and those who are against it.

For those who support the arrival of the wolves, wolf-dogs represent a dilution of the ‘pure’ essence of wilderness that the wolf represents. For those who are against the arrival of wolves, the wolf-dog shows the ease with which wolves can invade domestic spaces. There is a recurring narrative that wolves have been re-introduced by nefarious ecological groups and that these wolves are not ‘natural’. The evidence for this is often that they do not show the correct amount of fear towards humans and have been seen in areas of human habitation: they are not wolf-like enough to be real wolves. From the point of view of my research, this is particularly powerful as it acts a counter-narrative to the fear of werewolves. Rather than fearing that man is becoming more wolf-like, there is a fear that wolves are becoming more domesticated and losing their connection to the wild. Indeed, some anti-wolf activists consider the wolf to be symbolic of urban ecologists who have lost touch with the reality of rural existence.

What intrigues me, however, is that on both sides of the argument regarding the re-introduction of wolves certain descriptive words are used time and again. Wolves are ‘pure’, ‘wild’, and related to the ‘wilderness’. Those who support the return of the wolf see it as way that we can regain a lost innocence of the landscape and return to a time before mankind spoiled the wilderness. The re-emergence of the wolf is a symbol that the damage we have done to the natural world is not irredeemable. Conversely, those who are unhappy with the re-introduction of the wolf consider the areas where they are returning to be rural areas rather than ‘wilderness’ areas since the wilderness can only exist where there has been no human contact. The wolves are a threat to historical human practices specifically those around farming and wolf populations should be moved further away to a nebulous space of wilderness. In both cases, the wolf is not the issue rather it is what the wolf symbolises and what it tells us about the human notion of the ‘wilderness’ that is being debated.

These concerns are explored in the BBC series, ‘Unnatural Histories’, specifically the episode on the creation of the Yellowstone National Park. At one point, one of the academics interviewed states that he wishes the word ‘wilderness’ had never been created as he sees it as incredibly pernicious. I think what he is expressing is the ongoing battle in understanding the relationship between humanity and the natural world. What seems to recur in my studies regarding wolves, werewolves, and the wilderness is that whether the wolf-as-symbol-for-wilderness is invoked for positive or negative, there is a tendency to frame this within terms of absolute separation. The wilderness stands in direct opposition to human civilisation and humans stand opposite the wolf regarding it, to quote John Berger’s ‘Why Look at Animals’ (1980), across an ‘abyss of non-comprehension’. Hybridity of experience and the possibility that humans have a place in the wilderness without leading to its destruction are eschewed in favour of binary opposition. What this means is that the werewolf is a powerful figure to consider this division and motion to what the monstrous werewolf has to tell us about the enmity between wolves and mankind.

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