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25 september 2012

Wolves, like sharks, are apex predators with a bad name. But unlike sharks, and all the worse for them, they've shared habitats with humans for millennia.

Wolves have a truly unique cultural imprint on humans, so universal and deep that it seems almost innate in us. There are lots of other predators that attack our flocks; there are other pack hunters, there are even other canines (foxes, coyotes, various wild dogs) that impinge on our spaces. But wolves are creepy, terrifying, malevolent – or alternatively, noble, unbowed, supremely loyal to their community.

Cultures worldwide vary greatly in their appraisal of wolves, and the same cultures, across time, have varied just as greatly. As Marvin notes, it can be hard to see the wolf behind the image, a wild animal doing pretty much what it has always done: breeding, hunting, eating. Even their signature behavior, pack hunting, is misunderstood. We imagine that a crafty, deceitful clan of wolves collaborates to mislead and fall upon a noble stag, expertly striking at the point that a previous round of attacks has made weakest. But it seems that pack hunting is far less insidiously coordinated than we imagine. Ethological studies indicate that wolves hunt pretty much individually even as they operate in groups. Their prey succumbs to the shock of repeated individual uncoordinated blows. The outcome is no less deadly than the result of stratagem would be, but it's far less personal. Wolves just try to eat, like any other creature; they aren't particularly dastardly about getting their dinner.

At the same time, they probably aren't the cuddly puppies of 20th-century literature from Farley Mowat to Jean Craighead George.

Marvin is good on both real wolves and the wolves of legend. He chronicles the long, difficult campaigns waged in Europe and America to rid landscapes of wolves – as well as the long, difficult campaigns subsequently waged to return wolves to those same landscapes. As a species, humans seem to have a short attention span and a severe indecisiveness problem. Do we want wolves exterminated, or don't we? The problem, naturally, is that "we" are not a univocal community. Stockherders fear wolves' threat to their livelihood; urban environmentalists see that threat as the tiniest of inconveniences in a world of dwindling biodiversity. Both, on their chosen scale, are correct.

And the intimate connection of wolf lore to the human psyche makes the problem more pointed. Wolves not only make an awesome t-shirt, they have been imbricated in human relationships to the Other for millennia. Very few other animals have generated a whole mythology about mutual transformations, human to beast and back again, as wolves have in the legends of lycanthropy. As Marvin demonstrates, it's hard to talk about wolves and humans without talking about werewolves, despite their 20th-century devolvement from creepy towards campy. Wolf howls may be making an eco-aesthetic comeback as nature's classical music, but nobody likes to hear people howling.

Marvin, Garry. Wolf. London: Reaktion, 2012.