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.

Do you think that this central question, of why humans went to such great lengths to kill and torture wolves, can be answered with any kind of finality?

Yes and no. I think there is still a very fundamental mystery there. That mystery to me is epitomized by the kind of livestock owners who dig pit traps, and when they find a live wolf in there, jump into the trap and—encountering this animal who is cowering before them—brutalize and kill it. I don't know if you can ever understand why an individual behaves on that level. But when you're looking at the violence of an entire culture toward something, I do think you can find some explanations.

To me this kind of violence is partly the result of an accumulation of stories and myths about wolves, and partly the result of the fundamental problem Euro-Americans had with these animals who were endangering their livestock and their livelihoods. The violence became enmeshed with colonists' struggle to pass down legacies to their children—whether those legacies were economic, in the form of livestock, or cultural, in the form of stories and legends.

Your subtitle is "Wolves and Men in America," though you were only able to trace one specific immigration path from southern New England to the Midwest and on to Colorado and Utah. Do you think you'd have found a different relationship between wolves and humans in different regions of the United States?

I think you would find variations. Just about anywhere you would find people passing on some of the stories that I talk about in the book, and dealing with similar conflicts between livestock and wolves. But you would see people applying these myths and legends to the historical contexts of their own regions. You might have different kinds of wolves, as well—especially in the south. From Virginia to Kentucky to Texas you'd be dealing with red wolves, as opposed to grey wolves or timber wolves. How much violence is perpetrated against wolves in a given region has to do with what animals they're eating, and whether other animals, like deer, are thriving in the area.

What about Canada, which, compared with the United States, still has a fairly thriving wolf population, and which is really just a few hundred miles north of the path you've traced. What do you think explains that difference?

In Canada, you have much larger intact areas for wolves to hang out in. The fur trade predominated for much longer in Canada, which kept agriculture and animal husbandry on a much smaller scale than it ever was in America.

One of the most interesting things you demonstrate in your book is how the history of Americans' interactions with wolves have been intertwined with, or representative of, certain broad themes in American history. You mention the historian Richard Slotkin, for example, who's studied the extraordinary violence that has consistently accompanied the westward expansion of European civilization in North America. Though his theory of "regeneration through violence" has traditionally been applied to conflict between Europeans and Native Americans, you suggest that it can also be applied to the violence that accompanied efforts to eradicate wolves. Can you explain Slotkin's idea a little bit, and how it fits into your book?

What really brought this idea of regeneration to my mind is that in these stories, and in the hunting traditions I describe in the book, you see the phenomenon of "inversion"—of overturning a world that is out of order. Euro-Americans continually encountered different forms of wilderness—different forms of savagery. And Slotkin's notion is that when this particular group encountered savagery, whether in the form of people or behavior they perceived as savage, they developed cultural traditions—stories and myths—that gave them permission to lash out savagely themselves. This seems to be at the heart of it.

What's so interesting about the situation with wolves is that the colonists were encountering a form of savagery, but it wasn't savagery directed at them—it was directed at their animals. So colonists were drawing upon these encounters between wolves and livestock and sewing them into a larger tradition. Soon killing a wolf was no longer really about killing a wolf, but about overturning many different kinds of wildness—or a whole social order they didn't agree with.

In some ways, then, the colonists' interactions with Native Americans—in their minds, at least—were similar to their interactions with wolves?

In some ways, yes. And you see this conflation continually.

You also discuss the appropriation of the word "wolf," and its use as a powerful label in disputes between different groups of Euro-Americans. Were you surprised to be able trace the threads of your story back through so many phenomena that didn't ostensibly have anything to do with wolves themselves?

It's amazing how often the metaphor is used. I guess you'd expect it, given how negative a metaphor it is, and because of its implication of aggressiveness. But I was fascinated by all the many different variations on the wolf metaphor, and the places it pops up. Take the Mormon example, for instance, where you have a religious group and its detractors actually fighting over the right to call one another "wolves." In that case, the metaphor actually meant something different for each group.

Since about the mid-twentieth century or so, there have been several instances of people setting out into the wilderness to live with wolves, or of people attempting to integrate wolves or wolf-hybrids into their lives at home in order to write about the experience. What's your take on this kind of radical romanticizing of wolves—and of wild animals in general?

I would hope to make people question some of the assumptions implicit in projects like that. You wonder why a person feels compelled to go and have that kind of experience. Sometimes people ask me, "Have you gone to hear wolves howl?" or "Have you spent time in the woods looking for wolves?" Personally, I've never felt that I needed to encounter wolves in person in order to write about them. What you're actually encountering when you do that is your own imagination of what you think the animal must be like. I didn't want to write, or even come close to writing, that kind of book. I wanted my encounters with these wolves to be through the historical sources and through the truly scientific literature. When people go out there to do close observation studies, either formally or informally, there are all kinds of assumptions that they bring to the table with them. Which is fine—I don't want to set up these living-captivity experiences as in direct opposition to what a lot of scientists are doing, or to what I'm doing as an historian. I certainly used some of that material: Lois Crisler, who adopted a pack of wolves and tried to become a part of that pack herself, is someone I looked at in the book. But I wanted to look at wolves using a historical viewpoint instead of a very subjective one. Since there is a whole genre of wolf captivity narratives—of human beings living with wolves—I used Crisler as an example in one of my chapters.

Right, and she ultimately kills her wolves—she can't handle them.

Yeah, a lot of those experiments do end pretty sadly.

People think they can coexist with these wild animals, but don't realize going into it how wild they really are.

What's interesting to me is that you really see the two social systems coming together. Sometimes wolves' social behavior frustrates human owners or observers, especially if they become attached to the animals. Someone might become attached to the leader of the pack, for example, but then that leadership gets supplanted and the wolf starts behaving differently. Or the person finds him or herself having to protect the animal because its social station has changed and the pack may have decided to kill or ostracize it. When wolves are out on their own, these politics play out without any sentimentalizing. But when humans get involved it becomes much more complicated.

You explain in the book that to some extent the eradication of wolves in this country has been largely unavoidable—if not, in many cases, justified—particularly in cases where wolves have interfered with people's ability to practice agriculture or animal husbandry. Is this "agricultural context" of wolf killing still something that should be given fair consideration in our efforts to reintroduce wolves?

The ranchers in the west won't let you not consider it. I tried to make the point that you do have this shift in opinion toward protecting wolves, which is a pretty dramatic change if you look at the past history and how unanimous wolf-hating was among Euro-Americans. But the shift toward protecting and appreciating wolves isn't unanimous. It's much more ambiguous. A sizeable part of the population now sees wolves in a positive light, but there's also a sizeable population—livestock owners in the west, for example—who don't like them at all, and who point to reintroduction efforts as symbols of government intrusion, which they like even less.

A wolf can't differentiate between killing an elk in a national park, which we don't disapprove of, and killing a privately owned steer on land just outside of the park, for which they can be shot. Do you think there's hope for re-introduction efforts given this problem?

I do think the reintroduction is going well. The wolves certainly have one advantage over the ranchers, which is that they're more economically viable than ranchers in terms of bringing tourists into the park. There are people who head out into Yellowstone at four o'clock every morning just to see the wolves. It's a bit of a surprise, because everyone thought the wolves would just avoid everybody. But the wolves put on a show almost every morning, and they're quite a draw.

Have you considered working on another animal history? I can imagine a number of others—the beaver? The buffalo?

Actually, for my next project I'd like to do a history of the fur trade in early America. There have been a lot of histories written about the trade, but I'd like to focus on the fur itself, and really do it from an animal's perspective. I'd like to do more than just one species, too, and go south this time—expand outside of New England.