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Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction
Jules Howard

The Last Wolf

The Last Wolf - Jim Crumley As of this month, July 2014, there have been more than 2,800 wolves killed in the United States in only six of the states. Wyoming, Montana and Idaho held only about 1,600 wolves prior to delisting. Even with their reintroduction after wolves being wiped out in the U.S., wolves have never regained anything close to their natural range or original numbers.

But this book was not about U.S. wolves, it was about the lack of wolves in Scotland. Although the author does talk of wolves in the U.S. and Scandinavia, the focus is on bringing wolves back to Scotland. The wolf has been missing from Scotland for more than 200 years, which is probably why I never thought of there being wolves in Scotland at all.

Overall I felt the strongest part of the book was when the author used hard data and spoke of the illogical persecution of wolves. The history of tales regarding wolves was interesting, though at times the author did use this aspect a bit as a crutch. The prologue, in which the author essentially summarized his overall argument, was the strongest because the superfluous material was left out.

But, the author had a real issue with waxing poetic, especially in the latter half of the book. He even included a number of chapters that were solely a tale of a fictitious wolf which was quite filled with purple prose and were completely italicized (dramatic enough?). The author also spent entirely too much time on analyzing old passages from books and reports regarding wolves trying to nail down when and where the last wolf died in Scotland. These passages were dull and did not elucidate the issue at hand well at all. Some of the analysis would have been fine, but between too much analysis and waxing poetic, the overall impact of the book became watered down. I found this rather unfortunate because ultimately his goal is to reintroduce wolves to Scotland where they once roamed a very long time before man interfered.

The author did make good points regarding how ecosystems suffer without a top predator of the caliber of wolves. This is well highlighted by the overpopulation of deer in Scotland and other parts of the globe where wolves or top predators are missing or in depleted numbers. Top predators are well-known, at least in the biological/environmental fields, to keep ecosystems in check and therefore healthy.

Overall the book would have been stronger, and the appeal for wolves back in Scotland stronger as well, if the author had juxtaposed more the lack of wolves in Scotland with other worldwide locations that either did not lose them or have brought them back. Also, while I understand his goal in the book regarded Scotland, the narrowness of Scotland felt restrictive, especially since it felt rather repetitive in the way he chose to write it (especially the old passages and verbatim repeats). I would also have liked to see no purple prose wolf chapters and less waxing poetic.

Noteworthy quotes:

I did enjoy the aspect of referring to Native Americans as more in tune with the land and pushing for wolves to come back. However, when speaking of Eskimos they stated they respected the wolf etc., but they hunt the wolf. I absolutely hate this dichotomy.

They too hunted it for its pelt and later for bounty paid by the government for dead wolves.

The wolf that was handed down from the old darkness was a slayer of babies, a robber of graves, and a despoiler of the battlefield dead. The wolf that howls in our dusk is a painter of mountains.

Ah, but then the story grew legs, became what the Norwegians call ‘a walking story’. My friend heard it again two weeks later from a completely different source. The ‘concert from wolves’ at 200 metres had become a slavering pack that confronted the man and threatened him so that he had to drive them off, and was lucky to escape with his life. ‘That was in 14 days,’ he said. ‘What about 140 days? Or 140 years?’

You will also be asked to believe that the history-making wolf-slayer was a MacQueen, a stalker and a man of giant stature. He would be. Wolf legend is no place for Davids, only Goliaths. He was six feet seven inches. There’s a coincidence – the same height as Scotland’s greatest historical hero, William Wallace, or at least the same height as William Wallace’s legend has grown to in the 700 years since he died. Like Wallace, MacQueen was possessed of extraordinary powers of strength and courage; and in addition he had ‘the best deer hounds in the country’. Well, he would have. You would expect nothing less. The wolf he killed (with his dirk and his bare hands) was huge and black. Well, it would be, you would expect nothing less. And it had killed two children as they crossed the hills accompanied only by their mother. What, only two?

In the Navajo Way, people are responsible for taking good care of their livestock. If a wolf takes a sheep, it is not the fault of the wolf. The wolf is only behaving like a wolf. The shepherd is the guilty one – for not paying close attention and protecting the flock. – Catherine Feher-Elson, Wolf Song, 2004

There can be no reliable history of the wolf. Histories, after all, are only ever written by people, and there is no species less qualified and less entitled than yours and mine to write that particular history.

Wherever in the world a thoughtful relationship between man and wolf still remains, there is ample evidence – carved, painted, written and word-of-mouth – of an ancient and inherited respect for the wolf as a teacher. It is one of the great ironies of the evolution of our species that long before we began to think in terms of exterminating the wolf we spent a great many centuries learning to be more wolf-like, learning not just how to hunt more efficiently but also how to live better lives, by inclining towards a society based on the family unit that was both independent and interdependent, but also permitted the wanderers, the loners, the ones that never quite fitted in with the family structure. Today we are still apt to refer to such people as ‘a bit of a lone wolf’, and that may be truer than we think; it may be all that has survived from that ancient era when our forefathers watched the wolf and saw a role model there.

By then, of course, religion in general and Christianity in particular had transformed our ideas about our relationship with the natural world. Suddenly a jealous God had given us dominion over all the other creatures. Suddenly the Son of God was the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the flock, and everyone knew that the flock’s number one enemy was the wolf. So if Christ was the Good Shepherd, the wolf was demonised as the agent of the Devil. An illustration in the Book of Kells shows a wolf with the Devil’s tail instead of a wolf tail, a character assassination worthy of Gerald Scarfe. Christianity has always made exceptions in its doctrine of compassion and turning the other cheek.

All the ingredients of the European wolf fable are in place: it is winter, the wolf is large and black, a figure is crossing the winter landscape (the addition of two children is an adornment), the hunter is huge and possessed of great strength and will surely prevail so that the wolf-oppressed population can rest easy in their beds again, and walk the hills alone in winter with impunity and with their vulnerability unexploited.

The thing about a moose is that it is so useful to people; hunters love to hunt them and people love to eat them. (I’m with them there: I had a moose steak in Norway and it was sublime.) But you don't put a wolf head on your wall and you don't eat wolf steaks, and only in Alaska did I ever meet a man who owned up to using wolf fur for his mitts and to trim the hood of his parka.

This is terrible reasoning. So because people love to hunt and eat moose, let's not worry about them. But because wolves aren't traditionally eaten or placed on walls as trophies let us save them? I don't understand why the author even bothered with this inclusion, it weakens any argument he made previously. Yes, wolves are important top predators, but don't diminish the role moose play and their lives.