Wolves and Horses

It’s been the lowest snow year anybody around here can remember. For nearly a month now we have looked onto a green garden where normally there are still huge white mounds skulking in the shadows.

Which, of course, is all good for those long late-winter conversations, when local friends come visiting. There is nothing, after all, quite so inclusive as talking about the weather.

Sometimes, during a visit, one of us might branch off into our own field of interest. The visitor might talk about guns (in which I have little interest) or I might launch into a diatribe about western policy in the Middle East (which they certainly don’t care about).

Anxious not to appear ungracious we usually quickly return to the weather or a rerun of the old favourite: Ford vs. GM vs. Dodge. As in: who makes the best pick-up truck. (In the interests of full disclosure we have a Dodge Ram but I actually think they’re all rubbish.)

This week, however, there was something new. Or at least a new angle on an old theme. Olli, who lives five or six miles away and so is one of our closest neighbours, came hurrying in one morning with a story that had us riveted.

The night before, as he was chain-sawing on his huge rolling piece of wilderness land, and out of reach of the rifle that he keeps in his tractor, he looked up to find himself surrounded by a pack of wolves.

Now wolves are not unusual around here. Although we rarely actually see them, we hear them frequently. Some times we wake to their howling in the pre-dawn darkness. Safely tucked up in bed, I love the sound: primal, powerful and redolent of a time before the settlers came.

In recent months a resident pack of seven or eight has worked its way through the bush in our valley, taking deer and elk.

In one brazen attack, several weeks ago, they apparently seized and killed Tucker, a large and muscled Pyrenees Mountain Dog belonging to Forest, a close friend and one of our guides in the summer.

A few days later I visited Forest one afternoon and the wolves were back, standing on the edge of the clearing and howling to each other. With four small children, as well as sheep and cattle, he was nervous.

Nothing divides the environmentalists and the pro-development gang around here more than the plight and fate of wolves.

One group, the more free-living hippyish types, see them as an icon of the wilderness, fat in times of plenty, scrawny in times of famine, embodying a spirit of freedom and independence than mankind has lost in its rush to regiment.

The other, the rednecks, consider them vermin; crafty, sly, diabolical; a species that should be extirpated from the wild so that farmers and their cattle can sleep undisturbed at night.

Now wolves, according to the statistics I can find, are not particularly dangerous if you are a human, rather than a white-tailed deer or a snowshoe hare.

My best research indicates that only one person has been confirmed killed by wolves in north America in the last 50 years. That attack was a couple of years back in Saskatchewan in northern Canada.

(A couple of weeks ago a lady jogger in Alaska was found dead, also the apparent victim of a wolf attack. I haven’t yet heard confirmation either way.)

Be that as it may the myth of the wolf stalking and taking people from their remote homesteads is a powerful one. But why? Why do they have such a bad reputation?

A few years back, when I was serving as a foreign correspondent in Russia, I began to research for a magazine article on wolves in that country. It soon became clear that our attitudes towards them says more about us as than it does about them.

Wolves, in Russian folklore, often represent the devil. Sometimes their image was engraved into churches to represent sin and temptation and treachery and trickery. To this day many local jurisdictions pay for hunters to kill wolves.

I thought this barbaric until I came to north America where practices are much the same. Until 20-odd years ago the authorities in BC used poison to kill wolves, with the inevitable toxic results for the wilderness.

Presumably all this prejudice has come down to us from our homesteading forefathers who, as they fought for survival on the hardscrabble lands, vilified any animal that made their life more difficult.

If a wolf track was spotted near a dead cow or sheep, it was presumed a lupine interloper must be guilty, regardless of whether it had actually killed the animal or was simply scavenging the carcass.

At the crux of the argument between rural Canadians over wolves, is in fact the debate over man’s place on the land, especially the land that is still wilderness.

For the Old-Timers, and those who claim that legacy, the wilderness was there to be tamed, developed, exploited, logged, hunted and mined. It was a resource to be put at the service of man.

But times have changed and many of those now living in our area are the descendants of back-to-the-land hippy types who moved to the bush half a century ago to be at one with nature.

They espouse a gentler more co-existential approach which, though occasionally air-headed, seeks to counter the hegemony of resource extraction.

It was among these more colourful, fruity types that Kristin and I spent Easter Sunday as they sipped home-made wine and smoked the last of their winter stash of marijuana.

The sun shone down, the grass was green, somebody played a guitar, we chatted and played football with the kids. All in all it was a glorious spring afternoon.

This was definitely the wolf-loving crowd who have little time for traps and snares and poisons and guns.

But perhaps life in the wilderness defies easy analysis, I found myself musing. For those who are just passing through – hunters, campers, snowmobilers, government officials – it is easy to pontificate about what should and should not be.

And with the wolves safely across the river from us – we have never seen or heard them on our side – perhaps it is easy for us armchair wolf-lovers to pronounce them no hazard to humanity.

But then I thought of Forest’s frown as he wondered whether the wolves might possibly ever attack one of his children.

And I looked at Olli’s face and saw the fear that had crept into his existence as the pack circled his horses and his house. A man in his seventies living alone in the wilderness, fearing the dark, moving shadows in the bush. Statistics were of no comfort to him.

The morning after Olli’s encounter with the wolves, they returned again to his 500-acre plot of land. This time they began to surround his horses. One, seemingly a bitch, sat and watched his front door to see if he would make an appearance.

When he did, snapping some quick video footage before he grabbed his gun, they slowly loped off. Two hours later he was sitting at our kitchen table relating the incident, his hands shaking slightly.