Sunday, September 24, 2006

Wolves: Friend or Foe?

I’ve always been fascinated by wolves, especially the huge contradictions in how we perceive wolves. From the myth of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, being raised by a she-wolf, to Little Red Riding Hood, our views of wolves have swung wildly from nurturing mother to an embodiment of all the evils that threaten mankind; the wolf at the door, throwing someone to the wolves, and a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Clearly, for a large part of our history, wolves have been perceived as evil, terrifying creatures that preyed on man.

But this wasn’t always the case.

Back when man was primarily a hunter, wolves and men respected each other and coexisted in relative peace. They were both efficient predators, keenly intelligent, and lived in highly structured social groups. They understood each other and were, in many ways, kindred spirits.

Then man began domesticating animals, and some wolves were brought to heel and became men’s companions. The wolves that didn’t make this transition were soon viewed as a threat because they couldn’t be controlled.

Men’s lives grew even more distant from their former hunter lifestyle. They began plowing the field and the forest became less and less familiar to them. Soon it turned into a frightening place full of dangers that they didn’t know or understand anymore, and wolves were one of those dangers.

Man quickly forgot that wolves weren’t savage killers, but efficient predators who helped cull down herds of elk, moose, and deer. (Wolves also helped keep these herds strong by preying on the weak and sick.) But man saw only that they competed for the same food source, and they felt threatened. And as much as they feared the wolf, they also feared their own natures, which had once had so much in common with the wolf.

It was easier to focus on the wolf.

They began demonizing wolves and grew to fear him, their fear growing to unreasonable proportions. In their minds, they began to assign wolves dark powers and man’s fear quickly bordered on hysteria. Within that hysteria and fear, the werewolf was born. Soon the human wolf was lumped with witches and demons and sorcerers, an instrument of evil, and the modern concept of the werewolf emerged.