Vicious. The word connotes being evil for reasons of personal satisfaction. At least, to me it does. I recently finished reading a book by this title, “Vicious: wolves and men in America” which explores the first encounters of European settlers with both wolves of the eastern U.S. and Native Americans. (Published in 2004 by Yale Univ. Press.) The author, Jon Coleman, sets up an interesting perspective in the beginning where he states that he will explore the miscommunications between Europeans and wolves, as well as Europeans and Native Americans. For the most part, he keeps up this framework of exploring communications by analyzing historical records and folk lore. He discusses how wolves’ body language was ignored or misinterpreted. Consider this excerpt:
The story of Old Whitey, however, undermined the predator’s legendary bravado. Whitey was terrified. The traps snapped and he panicked. He demolished foliage, shredded his coat, and cracked his teeth in wild fear…Whitey sank before his conquerors. He advertised his submission, but the hunters wanted to dispatch a worthy foe rather than execute a cringing subordinate. They interpreted the gestures to fit their vision. They saw stoicism in the beast’s passivity, not fear.” (pg. 214)
One element that keeps this book fresh is Coleman’s approach of dissecting wolf anecdotes and lore and sorting them into several typologies: defenseless travelers alone in the woods, wolf legends and hunting rituals, and wolf as civic outlaw. Coleman analyzes folklore and historic anecdotes alike, explaining how they helped the new settlers to construct a sense of reality that allowed them to expand their civilized territory – even demanding that nature be made subservient to them. Wolves were cast as entities that inverted the natural order – people were made to be food items, whereas nature was supposed to feed people, for example. He recounts bear and wolf hunts from New England that were organized as community-building efforts by townspeople. Circle hunts allowed large groups of people to form a wide circle, then walk inwards, flushing quarry to the center where it was dispatched with quickly. Circle hunts made the townspeople feel safer, bonded them against a common foe, and contributed to the beginning of the downfall of the wolves of New England.
Coleman has a knack for weaving in interesting historical tidbits that were new to me. For example, in the introduction he describes a scene where no other than John James Audubon – that famed woodsman of conservation – stands over a pit trap in the Ohio River Valley while a farmer (who had dug the pit around his property) slices the hamstrings of caught wolves, hoisted them out of the pits and then sicced his dogs on them. One wolf fought, her legs dangling uselessly behind her. Another one was “worried to death” by the dogs. And Audubon’s reaction? He was not shocked or outraged. Rather, Coleman reports that watching wolves get torn apart was “a sport that both he and the farmer found normal and enjoyable.” (pg. 2)
In this book, Coleman writes about myriad ways in which men killed wolves in the East, Mid-West and West. And his writing is bound to make you squirm in your chair. He describes how wolves backbones and skulls were smashed with logs and rocks. How they were baited with bits of lard and meat wrapped around dozens of mackerel hooks, meant to slice their insides apart until they hemoraged to death. They were hunted with mastiffs. They were shot. Their jaws were wired shut and they suffered no end of abuses at men’s hands.
“The last wolves did not die brokenhearted, longing for open fields and meaty prey. They died afraid, biting at steel contraptions and vomiting strychnine. Far from wistful, the deaths of the last wolves were spasms of terror that capped lifetimes of anxiety.” (pg. 213)
You have to get to page 228 of the text before Coleman finally states that it is people that are vicious. It took him a few hundred pages to explain this sentiment, but after reading all the ways people killed and mangled wolves across the continent, the reader is firmly grounded in his perspective. He wrote:
“Some of their motives were comprehensible. But once they caught their animal foes, why did they beat, bait, torture and humiliate them? What explains the pleasure so many found in wolf abuse? One answer: human nature. They may smile, hug, rescue kittens, write thank you notes, and attend support groups, but people are vicious at the core.” (pg. 228)
Wow. That is a hardcore assessment of humanity, and it makes the title all the more intriguing.
This book does not cover much of the reintroduction efforts aimed at bringing wolves back today. In the last few pages, Coleman references “when the federal government will give the management of the wolves back over to the states.” (And we all know how that is going.) He makes some small references to how the cultural landscape has changed in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Arizona – places were wolves are rebounding – in the intervening years since wolves were wiped out. But his main focus is on the slice of time when the wolves of the east and west were first encountered, when war was waged, and how the battles of the war were carried out. The biggest thrust, I would say, is Coleman’s focus on the nature of in the interactions between “man and beast.”
This is a very readable book – even if you have little background in wolves of North America. On a biological note, he does little to distinguish between different species or sub-species of wolves on our contient. Red wolves are never parsed separately from gray wolves, and Mexican wolves are never mentioned either. Coleman deftly avoids getting mired in discussions of “canis soup” and though he’s very careful with place names – all wolves are just “wolves” in this text. He does discuss coyotes too, in the context of extermination campaigns and how they were viewed by people. But if you are seeking a nuanced discussion of Canis lupus and C. rufus, this book does not address it.
That’s not to say this is a shortcoming – it is not – I just want to be clear that the book is not meant to address the issues of species boundaries. Rather, it’s largely a historical text about how people and this animal interacted, and how these interactions are a reflection of the “bestiality” in men and the “humanity” in wolves.
We’re more alike than not, is Coleman’s message, if we’d just bother to listen to each other.