Why Do We Fear Wolves?
Throughout History, They've Been Made to Answer for the Sins of Men
Yolande Waddington walked to the Six Bells Pub for a pack of cigarettes around 10 p.m., slipping in before last call. It was Friday, the week before Halloween, 1966. Outside, the moon was a fat pearl. Inside, drinkers sipped pints at the polished wood bar.
The village parish of Beenham is located some 50 miles southwest of London, surrounded by sheep-freckled fields and stands of skeletal hawthorne trees. It is a storybook town: quaint brick houses with windowsills frosted in white; one pub; one primary school; one medieval church that was rebuilt after being torched by lightning. Today, as in 1966, Beenham is the sort of place where you know your neighbor, and you know who is new.
Yolande was new. She was 17-years-old and had arrived a few days earlier to start work as a farmhouse nanny. Photographs show her with dark swoops of eyebrows and a long plaid skirt. I do not know if she drank a pint or had a laugh or brought a book. I do know that she wore a sweater and a white headband. I know that some 30 minutes after arriving, she left the pub and stepped into a cool night. I know that after that night, Yolande was never heard from again.
Last July, I went to Beenham for two weeks to watch wolves. I had been studying the rhetoric of fear that surrounded them in America when I received funding to investigate an international angle at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust. Established in 1995, the UKWCT is an organization dedicated to “challenging any misconceptions” about wolves and showing the animal “as it really is.” Housed on a private estate less than a mile from the town center, the Trust keeps 10 wolves for the observation of visiting scholars and the visiting public. The public pays to see these “ambassador wolves”—listening to educational talks and photographing them through holes in the fence, or, if they have ponied up a bit more, maybe handing a wolf its daily chunk of bleeding meat. Profits are sent to wolf reintroduction projects abroad, from Bulgaria to India. It seemed to me that if you wanted to believe that wolf reintroduction was “Government-Sponsored Terrorism”—as a certain brand of American bumper sticker liked to assert—than the UKWCT was an international hub.
I grew up in Oregon, where the last decade of wolf reintroduction has polarized neighbors and towns. I knew what coyotes did to the woolly lambs on my grandfather’s farm, and I could empathize with those who had had wolves tear through similar sprawls of pasture. But I did not believe the bumper stickers that said wild wolves were terrorists, just as I did not believe that terrorists were lone wolves, as The Times of London had called the man who drove a van into a group of worshippers outside a mosque in the diverse Findley Park neighborhood a few weeks before I arrived in Beenham.
“All stories are about wolves,” writes Margaret Atwood in The Blind Assassin. But what is the wolf? If you look at what philosopher Noël Carroll calls its “symbolic biology,” you see an animal taxidermied from myth and history, sculpted into an opponent that man—now primed as hero—can fight. When it comes to wolves, we have so long animalized humans and humanized animals. And though I do not know how to reconcile the pain that either species can bring, I have staked myself to a solemn belief that unsnarling our old metaphors might help. As Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson writes in Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About Human Nature: “I do not consider the suffering that prey experiences from a predator a form of cruelty.” The difference between humans and other predators, Masson believes, is choice. The animal predator does not decide to draw blood: he kills so he can stay alive. Humans, of course, are different. This is why most wolf metaphors go slack.
To arrive at the UKWCT with the other students and wolf researchers by 9 a.m., I would take a public bus down the highway and then, at an unmarked road that led into the sprawl of industrial parks beneath Beenham, begin walking toward the Trust. My total trek was just less than two miles. Above me, the sky often hung like a damp, dark rag, heavy with the promise of rain. There were no sidewalks and no pedestrians, and the few vehicles that passed were mostly trucks and white unmarked vans that rattled toward the surrounding warehouses. Sometimes the drivers slowed when they neared me. Sometimes they sped past. I did not know which made my heart beat faster.
Soon the road narrowed to gravel and the hedges on either side grew taller and formed a sort of chute. I kept to a clip and tried to think of cheery reasons for why one soggy ballet flat would be poking out of a bramble-filled ditch. When I went to the Trust, I did not yet know the specifics of Yolande Waddington’s death, and I did not know about the girls who came after, the two nine-year-olds who had left their Beenham homes one April afternoon in 1967 to collect primroses. I did not know about The Telegraph headline that had asked, 30-some years later, “Can a Village Ever Get Over A Trauma Like This?” But I knew, intimately well, the shape of my own disembodied worry. No place to run, I would think, fingers tapping the bulb of pepper spray in my pocket. I had brought the keychain from America because I believed it might make me feel more confident. Still, I was aware that the one time I had been assaulted by a strange person on a strange street, I had found my body paralyzed: unable to reach for the canister in my purse, unable to find either fight or flight as the man’s arms closed around me. That time I had been lucky—another pedestrian had been able to intervene. But I felt my limbs had let me down. I did not want to wait to be saved.
After a few minutes, I veered onto a dirt footpath that bordered a pasture with big-eyed cows as it climbed into a shadowy forest. At these moments, I could pretend I was in an idyllic, pastoral dream. Here, the trappings of fairytale began to amuse me. I was a girl walking into the woods. I was walking to the wolves.
England exterminated its last wild wolf in the late 1600s—a distant era when royalty were known to dine on dolphin and clean their teeth with soot. I soon got the sense that reintroduction to the U.K. was a distant prospect, and maybe not even a conservationist goal. As the Trust’s “wolf keeper” Mike Collins told me, it was not just a question of whether the wolves were good for a place, it was a question of whether the place was good for the wolves. “They would get hit by cars here,” he said. “We just don’t have the wilderness for them yet.”
Lurking behind all this was the question of public opinion, which seemed to be primarily a question of fear. Though there have been almost no non-rabies wolf attacks in Europe in the last century, a 2009 study showed that 48 to 53 percent of U.K. teens had reported being afraid of the animals. This fear was, in part, a remnant: from a time when the Saxons had called January “wolf month” because it was when you were most likely to be “devoured of Wolves”; from the era in which Scottish highlanders had erected refuges called “spittals” to shelter travelers “overtaken by night,” according to James Edmund Harting’s 1880 text British Animals Extinct Within Historic Times. Nowadays this fear seemed an inheritance, worn like a reflex or an old tic, like opening your mouth and having your grandfather’s unfashionable crikey seep out. But what was its cost?
“The animal predator does not decide to draw blood: he kills so he can stay alive. Humans, of course, are different. This is why most wolf metaphors go slack.”
“I have come to believe that fear is a cruelty to those who are feared,” writes Eula Biss in Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. When I read this, I thought of the wolf, and then I thought of the people we had turned into them, from Cotton Mather calling Native Americans “Ravenous howling Wolves” in 1689, to The New York Daily News’ headline about the Central Park “Wolf Pack” exactly 300 years later. In Songlines, Bruce Chatwin notes that wargus, the Middle Latin word for wolf, is the same as the word for “stranger,” and Harting writes that the Saxons once referred to outlaws as “wolfs-heads”—unprotected by the law and liable to be killed anywhere, like animals. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Gratiano references “a wolf, who hanged for human slaughter,” a line that smacks of metaphor until you read reports from medieval Germany of wolves that were dressed in human clothes, wigs, and masks before being strung up at a town gallows. The line between an evil man and an evil wolf has always been thin.
In other words: how have we tried to reconcile the evil that lies within our human communities and human hearts? We have made it strange. We have made it an outlaw. We have made it a lone wolf.
The ten wolves at the UKWCT, meanwhile, were rarely alone. Wolves traditionally live and hunt in packs, and the animals at the Trust lived between four enclosures with their mates or their siblings. I often found myself staring through the chain-link at three Arctic siblings, the biggest of the onsite wolves. Unlike the others—European wolves whose fur fell on a spectrum of dirtied snow to cookies-and-cream to the gray-brown of a young bird’s downy feathers—the Arctics were white and tinged with gold. When they rolled over into the grass, their bodies fell like Slinkies, first the front half and then the back half lolling into the sun. In these moments, the wolves reminded me of my old dog.
But later, when I would kneel in front of the fence with a plastic bucket to offer an Arctic its daily hunks of cow or deer meat, I might feel a quick bump of tooth against the blue plastic of my glove, and then, a second later, hear the smash of his teeth slicing through the bone of his bleeding meal. It was a noise like rock-fall, and it always sent a bump of awe rolling up and down my spine. What big teeth you have, I would think, instinctively running my tongue over the smooth ridgeline of my own jaw. The wolf, of course, would not respond. He was just a carnivore being a carnivore. Those teeth were not all the better to eat me with.
In the earliest printed version of Little Red Riding Hood, published in France in 1697, Charles Perrault writes about a dawdling girl “running after butterflies, and gathering bouquets of little flowers.” In this version, there is no woodcutter to intervene. The girl dies. At the end of the tale, Perrault notes that “young lasses” should not listen to strangers unless they want the “Wolf” to get his dinner: “I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition–neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!”
The 19-year-old man who killed Yolande had been drinking at Six Bells when she walked in. I do not know if they spoke, or if he just trailed out behind her, like the lingering bass note in a song. He was a local truck driver with a glass eye from an air-pistol accident, a man who, in the words of another town resident, had once been the “the kid who ‘pull[s] the wings off insects.'” When I read this back home in America, I found myself ragged with an old, familiar grief. Yolande’s naked, stabbed, and strangled body had been found in a ditch on a farm I had seen on my daily walks. The spring after her death, the same man left the bodies of Jeannette Wigmore and Jacqueline Williams in a retired gravel pit just northeast of my footpath. Every day, I had unknowingly walked beside the churchyard cemetery that held their graves.
So listen: I don’t like Little Red Riding Hood. I don’t like that the girl is swaddled in a cloak of victimhood from the start, and I don’t like that she is punished for stuffing her fists with bright sprays of flower. I don’t like the salesman sleaze of the wolf, and I don’t like what the legend continues to do for the intelligent, caramel-eyed animals I observed at the Trust. But because I was raised to like walking alone—hiking through mossy forests and also kicking across neighborhood sidewalks, humming Stevie Nicks beneath my breath—I resent that this is the only wolf tale I cannot easily shake. For all that I want to toss out about the story, I hold onto a pebble of wary truth.
I think back to the night that my body froze. It was August, and I had left a Minneapolis brewery when the sky was still smudged with light. Though I had seen a bartender escort a man out a minute earlier, my mind raised only a small red tassel of concern as I walked to my bike a block or so away. When I heard the thunk of steps behind me on the sidewalk, I told myself to be cool, to keep walking, to chill out. A split-second later, I changed my mind and saw the blurred wax of the man’s drunk face just as he flung his arms around me. My voice, meanwhile, had dried up. In France, having a hoarse voice is called le loup—you have been silenced by the fear of a wolf.
Two things, I know, are true. Humans are scary, and wolves have long been one of our scapegoats. As scholar Martin Rheinheimer writes about 18th century Denmark: “The entire fear of death [is] thus put into the wolf hunt.” But I want new medicine for my fear. I want new language for my rage. After all, it can be dangerous to be a woman. It can be dangerous to walk alone. But we live, we walk, we sing and raise our fists. Somewhere, a wolf bites through a bone. That wolf is just a wolf. There is no other moral here.