[NOTE: The following, a collaborative (or even interdisciplinary!) effort by my brother and me, is cross-posted from “Rick Lamplugh’s Blog.” I hope you enjoy this very different post on “Retired But Not Shy.”]
For the last three years I have concentrated on reading and writing about the times and troubles of wolves. Early on I became interested in the worldwide hatred of these essential predators and the myths, folklore, and lies that feed it. My interest grew to the point that I devoted a chapter of my book, In the Temple of Wolves, to the topic.
Recently, I found myself writing about wolf hatred and thinking about racism. I wondered whether the attitudes and beliefs that foster racism are similar to the those that fuel wolf hatred. If so, perhaps wolf hatred should be called “wolfism.” In comparing wolf hatred and racism, I do not want to demean any person or group that has been the target of discrimination. But if wolfism and racism are comparable, then perhaps the types of social, legislative, and cultural changes that helped races coexist could reveal tools that could help humans and wolves coexist.
After sitting on this idea for a few months, I decided to call my brother George and discuss it. He is a historian who lives in and has studied and written about the American South. Surely he would have insight into racism. Over the course of a couple of months, we had phone and email conversations comparing racism and wolfism. The more I described wolf hatred and the more he talked about racism, the more commonalities we saw, the more wolfism seemed to fit.
This blog post distills hours of those conversations between my brother the historian and me the wolf advocate into just a couple of pages of core ideas. This post marks a trailhead from which to explore wolfism further. These core ideas are areas to investigate along the trail. The post begins with a brief timeline of racism and wolfism in America.
Historian: In this country, racism started with both slavery and initial colonial-Native American encounters. By the mid-nineteenth century, white Americans, many of them descended from northern European Protestants, developed what historians call nativism, a dislike, distrust, or fear of various ethnic groups they regarded as strange, exotic, or threatening —for example, Irish Catholics, Chinese, Japanese, and eastern Europeans—who had been entering the US in waves that would not crest until World War I. Stereotyping obviously is part of the process of nursing racial or nativist antagonisms.
Wolf Advocate: Like racism, wolfism appeared early in American history; it arrived with the initial settlers of North America. Soon after founding the first colony, settlers began persecuting and killing wolves—just as they would do to Native Americans and slaves.
The colonial government and citizens promoted a stereotype of the wolf as a heartless monster to fear, one who kills livestock and humans. Bounties were offered, and settlers declared war against wolves. They did not just take the enemy’s life; settlers viciously attacked and brutalized wolves in ways much worse than those used on other predators. Eventually, the only wolves left in the lower 48 states were hiding in the remote northern part of Minnesota.
Historian: After the Civil War, three–count ’em, three–constitutional amendments (13th, 14th, 15th) were adopted to free the slaves and to protect their civil and political rights. Yet, over the next generation, states gradually stripped away these rights: the Southern states through so-called “Jim Crow” laws (“legalized” racial segregation), states in other regions mainly through custom and tradition. Meanwhile, the federal government did next to nothing, and, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court actually accepted legalized racial segregation in social and political relations in the South in two key decisions, the best-known of which, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), would be the law of the land until the Court reversed it in 1954.
Wolf Advocate: While attempts to protect the civil rights of Americans started after the Civil War, it took much longer before any attempt was made to protect wolves. In 1973 the federal government passed the Endangered Species Act, and wolves were listed as endangered. The ESA requires every state with wolves to have a wolf management plan. The US Fish and Wildlife Service reviews and approves each plan.
While that sounds like solid protection, protection for wolves was stripped away just as rights of American citizens had been slowly stripped away. State wolf management plans vary widely, and many are corrupted by special interest groups such as associations representing livestock raisers. These powerful groups are always looking for ways to strip away protection for wolves. Too often they succeed.
In Idaho, for example, the wolf management plan is to kill all wolves except the minimum number the plan requires kept alive. In Oregon, wolves are currently offered more protection. Oregon ranchers, for example, are required by law to use non-lethal means to keep wolves and livestock separate. In Idaho, wolves are killed to keep them away from livestock and elk. Perhaps Idaho’s wolfism could be compared to the racism of one of the states in the deep South, and Oregon’s to that of a Northern state.
Just as Southern states stripped away rights with Jim Crow laws, the protection of wolves will be reduced—and many more wolves will be killed—if the animal is removed from the overarching protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.
Historian: Recent developments seem to parallel in some ways what you think could happen if wolves are removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The Supreme Court, which had accepted Jim Crow at the end of the nineteenth century and ordered integration of public schools in 1954, recently gutted some of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The result? Some states are busily passing laws that make it more difficult for minorities and the poor to vote, on the unproven ground that there has been lots of “illegal” voting.
Wolf Advocate: Neither the federal Endangered Species Act nor any state plans that I know of promote specific ways to change the attitude toward wolves from one of hatred to one of respect. A benefit of framing wolf hatred as wolfism—and similar to racism—is that we can then study the social, cultural, and legislative changes that helped reduce racism, and perhaps find ways to reduce wolfism. This might make advocating for wolves–the process of changing attitudes–more effective and less frustrating.
Historian: Part of changing attitudes is educational and can involve circulating pieces (in books and on blogs, perhaps articles in the press, even commissioning children’s books) that counter the arguments and rationalizations of folks who believe that “the only good wolf is a dead wolf.”
Another part of this process is cultural, and this is where I think you might have trouble, unless you, and those who think as you do about wolves, can find ways to present the wolf in a positive light. And even that will not be a slam dunk: consider how many movies Sidney Poitier made to push the process of recognizing African Americans as people, not stereotypes; how much time gays have spent working to achieve the same civil rights as straights, including the sanctity of marriage; how long the Women’s Movement had to educate and propagandize before their members and their concerns were taken seriously.
Wolf Advocate: In terms of the educational part of the process of changing attitudes, I know of several authors who have written children’s books that aim to improve the negative stereotype of wolves. To have a strong impact, those books need to reach a large audience.
In terms of cultural change, a tactic similar to the one used in 2006 to reduce the killing of sharks—another unloved predator–might work. A conservation organization, WildAid, enlisted Yao Ming, a Chinese professional basketball player, to front a public awareness campaign aimed at reducing the demand for shark fin soup, a delicacy so popular in China it was pushing some shark species toward extinction. The campaign had a simple and clear message: stop eating shark fins. It took six years and the help of many people and organizations, but the campaign succeeded. Could a campaign with the message “Stop killing wolves” succeed if a known and loved celebrity backed it? Is there a better message?
Historian: The only possible “cure” for racism is when white adults engage with other races in meaningful interactions that at least challenge and, ultimately, perhaps overturn negative stereotypes. When children grow up in close relationships with kids of different races, they are more likely to accept what we now call diversity, and as a result less likely to pay attention to things like skin color.
Wolf Advocate: So a possible path to reducing wolfism is to find ways that today’s younger generation can grow up in a closer relationship with wolves and accept wolves as an essential part of nature’s diversity.
There are wolf sanctuaries around the US that educate the public about wolves, while providing wolves a safe haven. Many sanctuaries have “ambassador wolves” that handlers take to schools so kids can see, touch, hear, smell, and feel a real wolf. They can learn how wolves fill essential roles in nature, that wolves are not the monsters portrayed by myths and lies. Those kids will one day be voters and may even be advocates fighting for wolves.
Historian: Yes, but on that second point, note that, while the US Supreme Court seemed to buy into the concept of starting social change with children, ordering school integration to begin at the elementary level in implementing the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, it has taken several additional generations even to begin to come close to what the Warren Court had initially hoped to achieve. And, as current headlines remind us, we are not there yet.
Wolf Advocate: The earlier reference to the long struggle of blacks, gays, and women is an important reminder to all wolf advocates. Wolves were only reintroduced into Yellowstone and Idaho in 1995, just coming on twenty years ago. Two decades is not very long in terms of creating cultural change.
Rick Lamplugh is
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In the Temple of Wolves
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: