Friday, January 27, 2012

Adventure classics -- Predators in a shared landscape

Of Wolves and Men

by Barry Lopez


When I first read Barry Lopez’s 1978 study, Of Wolves and Men, I expected to learn something about wolves. And I did. But as the title implies, Lopez is as interested in the intertwined history of our two species and human beings’ understanding of the predators who have haunted our imagination since prehistory.

The first of four divisions in his book deals with wolf behavior and biology, which Lopez does in beguiling detail. But how much do we really know? He gives a wry estimation in the book‘s introduction that the amount of observed behavior of wolves in the wild amounts to only a fraction of their actual life. How much, he wonders -- and we wonder with him -- takes place beyond these bounds?

The remaining portions of the book deal in more detail with how human beings have perceived wolves. (Perhaps Lopez believed he was better able to interpret his own species from having a specimen -- himself -- under constant observation.)

“The wish, of course, is to uncover some underlying theme that synthesizes all perceptions of the wolf, all allusions to him, in one grand animal. . . But I am not hopeful that a feeling of integration will be forthcoming. And even if it is, I don’t think it should be trusted.”

Lopez’s accomplishment lies in raising difficult questions rather than supplying easy answers. Even while admiring wolves, he cautions us not to place blame too easily on those who have demonized the wolf.

“The wolf. . .continues to generate more adamant positions and to trigger more powerful
emotions than any other large predator in the northern hemisphere, especially if the question is about where wolves might fit in a landscape shared closely with humans,” he writes in an afterword to the book’s 2004 edition.

But it’s not a question only applicable to wolves.

What should my daughter and I do when we and her young children see coyotes running during daylight hours in a suburban Texas park where small children play?

Or how should society deal with an orca who kills a human being in an amusement park? With owners of private zoos, such as the man who opens the doors of cages full of predators in rural Ohio? Or with the law enforcement officials who believe they have no recourse except to shoot the animals on sight? With any of the creatures whose lives human beings continually encroach on?

At least, Lopez concludes, let us “thank this enduring creature, Canis lupus, for standing by while we continue to pursue . . .the implementation of a universal justice that would include all we see living around us.”

Note: As I prepare to post this, it looks like a bad day for wolves. Their protected status as an endangered species expires in the U.S.’s Western Great Lakes region. And today’s Dallas Morning News featured a review of the movie, “The Grey,” a fictional account of wolf attacks in Alaska. No doubt wolves will survive, as they have since Paleolithic humans first threw spears at them.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a month of fictional animal adventures with Smoky, the Cowhorse, by French-Canadian cowboy/author/artist Joseph-Ernest Dufault. The man better known by his pseudonym, Will James.)

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