13 Ways of Looking at a Wolf

#EcoList of Things We Love

Cybele Knowles
Oct 7, 2016 · 4 min read
“Gleipnir” by Walton Ford, 2012. Watercolor, gouache, ink and pencil on paper. Image courtesy of Walton Ford and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Perhaps more than any other wild animal, wolves capture our imagination — so when we look at a wolf, we often see not the animal itself but the symbolic guises we’ve wrapped it in. Here are 13 ways of looking at a wolf.

1. In many of the world’s ancient religions, wolves are viewed as our mythic family. Among others, Turks, Mongols and the indigenous Ainu people of Japan believed wolves were our ancestors, and the Ojibwe American Indians call the wolf “brother” (Ma’iingan).

2. A foundational Roman myth tells the story of a she-wolf who rescued and cared for abandoned twin baby brothers, Romulus and Remus. The boys would grow up to become the founders of Rome. (In other words, at the root of Western civilization there is a mother wolf.)

3. In Europe in the Middle Ages we began killing wolves in large numbers, dealing the deadliest blows to wolves through government-funded killing campaigns and programs. Wolves once roamed the northern hemisphere, but today they occupy only a third of their historical range, having been eradicated from much of Western Europe and the majority of the United States and Mexico.

4. Some wolves that have survived being trapped take precautions thereafter to avoid traps. But some of these wolves locate traps through scent, dig them out of the ground, and even defecate on them.

5. Wolves in legend and lore often appear in frightening costumes. The wolf of “Little Red Riding Hood” fame is a home invader, liar and murderer. Belief in werewolves was so prevalent in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries that people were tried and executed for lycanthropy (werewolfery) — and also wolf-riding and wolf-charming. Norse mythology is shadowed by the monstrous, chaotic wolf Fenrir. He is bound with a magic ribbon but will break free on Ragnarök (Norse doomsday) to devour the god Odin.

6. Fear and hatred of wolves can still be heard in our figures of speech: A con man is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A merciless creditor is a wolf at the door. A kind of uninvited sexual comment is a wolf whistle.

7. “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be: the mythologized epitome of a savage, ruthless killer — which is, in reality, not more than the reflected image of ourselves. We have made it the scapewolf for our own sins.” — Farley Mowat, Never Cry Wolf (1963).

8. Wolves love pups. When the alpha female becomes pregnant, a surge of prolactin (the “nurturing hormone”) is experienced by all members of the pack, male and female. The entire pack gets involved in preparing for the birth and taking care of the pups: digging the pupping den, finding food, providing milk, and playing with the young wolves.

9. By the 1940s wolves had been exterminated from all of the contiguous United States except for a portion of Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Fortunately, before it was too late, wolves were the first animals to be protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act when it passed into law in 1973. Due to unflagging conservation efforts by citizens and advocacy groups, some wolf populations in the United States are recovering — but still under threat.

10. “The caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf who keeps the caribou strong.” — Inuit proverb

11. Wolves are a keystone species: a plant or animal that plays such a crucial role in its ecosystem that without it, the ecosystem would be radically different or even cease to exist. A keystone species can even alter the landscape where it lives. After wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s following a 70-year absence, the ecosystem regained much of its former biodiversity with increases in populations of beavers, trout, cottonwoods and willows.

12. Dogs and wolves descend from a common ancestor. The close genetic relationship between these two canids must explain, in part, why people love wolves so much. In wolves we see the wild counterpart to the dog, the first domesticated animal.

13. “We listened for a voice crying in the wilderness. And we heard the jubilation of wolves!” — Durwood L. Allen

Flotsam is a list of wild things we think are cool. Send us your ideas at flotsam@biologicaldiversity.org.

Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. More info at www.biologicaldiversity.org

Cybele Knowles

Written by

Communications Associate, Center for Biological Diversity

Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. More info at www.biologicaldiversity.org

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