Humans and the various canids belonging to gray wolf species complex possess the most complex relationship of any two beings currently living on this earth. At one point, they are our cherished companions, often closer to us than we ever could be with other people, and on another point, they are the reviled predators that might take a child in the night.
We have clearly defined relationships with other predators. Leopards and cougars, well, we might hunt them for sport or photograph them in the wild. But we never become closely aligned with them, except for those eccentrics who dare to keep such dangerous predators as pets.
People living in the Eurasian Pleistocene brought some wolves into their societies. Wolves and humans should have been competitors. We should have had the same relationship with each other as spotted hyenas and lions do in Africa now. But at some point, humans allowed wolves in.
Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg demonstrate that many humans throughout the world have had some kind of relationship with wolves. In some cases, it is or was a hunting symbiosis. In others, they were totemic animals.
In their work, Pierotti and Fogg contend that the relationship between humans and wolves broke down with the rise of Christianity in the West. I don’t think that’s when it broke down. It started to become complex when humans began to herd sheep and goats.
In Kazakhstan, wolves are hunted and revered at the same time. The Kazakh people herd livestock, so they must always worry about wolf predation. Stephen Bodio documents this complex understanding of wolves in his The Hounds of Heaven.
“They hunt them, kill them, chase them with hounds and even eagles, take puppies and rear them live, identify with them, make war on them, and claim descent from them,” writes Bodio. This description sort of fits modern humanity’s entire relationship with this gray wolf complex. We pretty much have done and continue do almost all of these things.
Wolves, coyotes, and dingoes have killed people. So have domestic dogs. In the French countryside, wolf hunts were considered a necessity to protect human life, largely because has the longest and best documented history of wolves hunting people. The dispossession of rural peasants and the depletion of game in the forests created conditions where wolves would consider humans easy prey. Lots of European countries have similar stories. And when Europeans came to North America, they knew about the dangerous nature of wolves, even if they had never even seen one themselves.
Humans have declared war on wolves in Eurasia and in North America. The wolf is extirpated from much of its former range in Europe. They live only over a limited range in the lower 48 of the United States.
Man fought the coyote with the same venom and lead he threw at the wolf. The coyote’s flexible biology and social behavior meant that all that effort would come for naught. The coyotes got slaughtered, but they rebounded. And then some. And the excess coyote pups found new habitat opened up with big ol’ wolves gone, and they have conquered a continent, while we continue our flinging of lead and setting of traps.
In Victorian times, Western man elevated the domestic dog to levels not seen for a domestic animals. They became sentient servants, beloved friends, animals that deserve humanity’s best treatment.
And in the modern era, where fewer and fewer Westerners are having children, the dog has come to replace the child in the household. Billions of dollars are spent on dog accessories and food in the West. Large sectors of our agriculture are ultimately being used to feed our sacred creatures.
A vast cultural divide has come to the fore as humans realize that wolves and coyotes are the dog’s wild kin. Wolves have become avatars for wilderness and conservation, and coyotes have become the wolves you might see out your front window.
Millions of Americans want to see the wolf and the coyote protected in some way. Dogs of nature, that’s the way they see them.
The rancher and the big game hunter see both as robbers taking away a bit of their livelihood. Humans are lions. The canids are the spotted hyenas. And their only natural state is at enmity.
Mankind’s relationship to these beings is so strangely complex. It greatly mirrors our relationship towards each other. We can be loving and generous with members of our own species. We can also be racist and bigoted and hateful. We can make death camps as easily as we can make functioning welfare states.
And these animals relationships with each other are just as complex. Wolves usually kill dogs and coyotes they find roaming their territories. But sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, they become friends, even mates. Hounds can be trained to run down a coyote, but sometimes, the coyote and the dog become lovers in the forest.
Social, opportunistic predators that exist at this level of success are going to be a series of contradictions. Dogs, wolves, and coyotes certainly are. And so are we.
It is what we both do. And always will.