Interviews September 2004

Big Bad Wolf

Jon T. Coleman, the author of Vicious, on the history of America's fraught relationship with its most storied predator
book cover

Vicious: Wolves and Men in America
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Jon T. Coleman
Yale University Press
270 pages, $28.00

While hunting for waterfowl on the coast of Maine in 1664, an English writer named John Josselyn and several of his companions unexpectedly encountered a lone wolf. As historian Jon T. Coleman relates in Vicious, his new chronicle of the history of interactions between wolves and humans in America, the men immediately set their dogs on the surprised and outnumbered predator:

Josselyn's mastiff ... pinned the wolf by the throat, and the hunters bound his paws and carried him home between them. They staked him out in the yard with a rope around his neck and baited him with small dogs. 'We,' wrote Josselyn, 'had excellent sport.' The only glitch in the fun was a broken hind leg that prevented the wolf from defending himself properly. After the animals tired and stopped fighting, the men 'knockt out his brains.'

Coleman's book is filled with countless scenes like the one recorded by Josselyn, and it is their senselessly delighted cruelty that makes Vicious, in the words of the Atlantic's literary and national editor Benjamin Schwarz (New & Noteworthy, September), "sick-making." But as Schwarz also notes, these scenes frame the difficult and perhaps unanswerable question that is at the heart of this book—why European-Americans destroyed wolves not only so systematically, but, more importantly, with such gratuitous brutality.

Others have posed this question before, most notably the writer Barry Lopez in his book, Of Wolves and Men (1978), a new edition of which was re-issued earlier this year. Lopez blamed humans for their willingness to allow legend and storytelling to take the place of concrete knowledge about wolves—thereby fostering a perception of wolves as vicious beasts, worthy of limitless cruelty. Americans, he explained, have historically used wolves as a stand-in for their deep-seated fears of the wilderness and its unknowns. By exerting total domination over these animals, killers of wolves have sought to conquer the mystery of wild nature that has surrounded them at every step in the westward settlement of the nation.

Though Coleman likewise seeks to make sense of the cruelty inflicted on wolves, his approach is more historical than psychological. Vicious traces the history of human-wolf interaction from the first encounters between wolves and European-American settlers in colonial New England, to the near eradication of the species in the American West in the early part of the twentieth century, to the debate over recent efforts to reintroduce wolves into several national parks.

Whereas Lopez issued a scathing critique of humans' failure to understand wolves, Coleman tries to place violence toward the species in a more understandable light. Americans' misconceptions about wolves, he argues, along with the detached cruelty toward them that such misconceptions inspired, grew from the necessity of protecting livestock from wolves' depredations, and from the inevitable tendency of folklore to exaggerate people's fears. Coleman points out that cruelty toward wolves has never been limited to sadistic individuals, and can, in fact, be found even in the attitude of federally administered efforts to eradicate them. As late as 1937, for example, government pamphlets advised ranchers on several methods of "killing puppies in their dens," while in Alaska, Fish and Game officers hunted down entire packs with the aid of helicopters and high-powered rifles.

A survey of American popular culture and mythology reveals the surprising extent to which the concept of the wolf as a monster has worked its way into the nation's collective consciousness. Vicious points to an array of examples, including everything from the sinister wolves of children's fairytales, to a nineteenth-century dispute between Mormons and their detractors, in which, as Coleman writes, "both Mormons and Gentiles fought for the right to call each other wolves."

As he explores this history of the highly fraught human-wolf relationship in America, Coleman brings an unusual array of disciplines and sources to bear on the subject, weaving together such disparate areas of study as folklore, biology, economics, and politics.

Coleman is an historian at Notre Dame. Vicious, which began as his dissertation at Yale, is his first book.

Coleman and I spoke by telephone on August 11.

Emerson Hilton

Author photo
Photo credit

Jon T. Coleman


In your introduction, you write that the inspiration for Vicious came from a sudden realization that the history of colonization and westward expansion in America is in many ways linked closely to the history of animals and their relationships with humans. When you decided to look more closely at that link, what made you focus on wolves?

Initially I wanted to look at dogs in early America, because they're the one species that both Native Americans and European-Americans had in common. But it was very hard to find sources about dogs. I found much more about wolves. What really intrigued me about them was how they brought together environmental history and cultural history. You have all these fanciful stories being told about them, and you can look at the history of those stories and how they've evolved, but you can also look at the history of how Americans have gone about protecting livestock from wolves' depredations.

You characterize your book as a non-traditional hybrid of history and folklore and science—a "mutant," to use your words. It must have been a challenge in some ways to incorporate several different disciplines into your research. Were you familiar with folklore or animal biology before?

I had a little familiarity, but not much. I have no formal training in either folklore or biology, but I tried to approach them as part of the larger historical question. My aim was to find where those disciplines come together and to see that intersection as a frontier, where there isn't a sharp boundary between them.

Were you surprised to discover how prominent a place wolves have had in Americans' imaginations for such a long time?

I wasn't surprised by it, though some of the early stuff was a bit eye-opening. Basically, English colonists arrived in America, ran into wolves, and passed bounty laws right away—in the first years of settlement. I didn't expect to find that immediate concern with getting rid of them, though I had some idea that it began very early.

Your book ends by discussing a fairly recent shift in how Americans think about wolves, marked primarily by a growing sympathy for wolves' plight, and by efforts to reintroduce them to several parts of the country. Along with this shift in public opinion, a spate of books that you call "wolf studies" have tried, for the first time, to explain wolves' behavior and to condemn Americans for inflicting so much suffering on them over the years. Though you commend the fact that these books dispel a number of misconceptions about wolves, you seem to take a somewhat critical stance toward some of the arguments they put forth.

The aim of a book like Barry Lopez's, for example, which I think is also the aim of several other books, is mainly to dispel myths about and hatred toward the animals. That's not a bad thing, but that work's been done, so I didn't want to write another book along the same lines. I wanted to address similar questions about wolves, but I wanted to answer them in a different way. Lopez asks a question in his book that I'm concerned with in my book as well, which is, Why do people kill wolves, and why do they do it so brutally? The difference is that I wanted to provide a more historically informed answer; I wanted to use wolves to investigate the coming together of history, biology, culture, and folklore.

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