National Wolf Massacre Puts Worst Human Instincts on Display

We humans are capable of so much good.  Behaviors borne from our better angels are so often on display, with innumerable acts of kindness quietly conducted day by day.

That was in evidence in dramatic fashion just the other day, when the Thailand Navy got word of a burning private vessel and sent one of its own to help. The crew got there but didn’t see any stranded people. They did, however, seeing the bobbing and sodden heads of some ginger-colored cats clinging to the few parts of the boat not yet submerged, with their little cries inaudible above the hum of the Navy boat and the swells pounding its hull.

The crew could have motored on, since the orders said nothing of cat rescue.

But the crew made a beeline for the boat. With a rope tied around his waist, one crew member dove into the roiling waters and swam to the fast-disappearing vessel. He found four cats and placed each one on his back and shoulders—and even the cats could forgive his dogpaddle stroke as he carefully made his way back to the ship, with the animals holding on by sinking their claws into his life vest.

The cats are now safe, dried out, and are the new residents of a local office of the Navy. 

Human Instincts Can Also Run Toward the Inhumane

Our interactions with animals are, to say the least, uneven. While there are endless acts of charity, almost always happening without fanfare or news coverage, there are also unending acts of violence and even malice.  There is a larger set of behaviors best characterized as thoughtless, where actors do not even recognize their actions are bound with moral questions and consequences for helpless animals.

The reality is rescue isn’t an option for most animals in crisis, as it was for the cats saved by the heroes of the Thai Navy. People  put animals at risk through uses of them that are routine and licit – conscripted against their will into the enterprises of agriculture, scientific testing, wildlife management, fashion, or some other business or industry or human whim. It often happens with the blessing, or even the participation, of government.

Last week, Wisconsin’s government, in collaboration with the trophy hunting industry and its adherents, did a terrible thing to wolves. Relying on a statute that Republican state lawmakers jammed through the legislature in 2014, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources organized a winter hunt of wolves – in fact, during their mating season. It was enabled by the Trump Administration’s pre-election “delisting” of wolves just before the November election, taking effect in early January and clearing the way for state’s anti-wolf politicians and wildlife agency to organize hunts and set men loose to kill. 

Despite hype and hysteria about them, wolves do their best to steer clear of people. There have been no recorded attacks by healthy wolves on people in the lower 48 states in more than a century. And wolf attacks on livestock are rare – and when they do occur, farmers get full compensation for the loss of the animals.

Wolves predictably go about doing their work, predating on deer and other wildlife and in the process, weeding out weak and sick animals, almost certainly acting as a bulwark against the plague of Chronic Wasting Disease that has been rampant in Wisconsin. The spread of that brain-wasting disease – which affects deer but may be transmissible to people – has cost the state and federal government tens of millions of dollars and threatened the state’s primary hunted species. Look at the range of wolves and the incidence of Chronic Wasting Disease and there’s no overlap.  Wildlife biologists and ecologists, including those at the Carnivore Coexistence Lab at the University of Wisconsin, note that there are healthy forests, more songbirds, and cleaner running streams due to the freely donated “ecological services” wolves provide.

Despite the beneficial presence of wolves, 27,000 people sought the opportunity to chase them down and kill them in Wisconsin, after seven straight years of uninterrupted protection on the federal list of endangered species. Within 48 hours from the launch of the season, the hunters and trappers had blown through the state-imposed kill limit of 119 and doubled the allowable take – killing perhaps 25 percent of the population in a spasm of killing.  That meant sons lost their mothers and fathers, mothers lost their daughters and sons, and brothers lost sisters. Yes, like people, wolves value and cherish their families. The social bonds with wolves, as those of us with dogs understand, are pronounced and powerful. Love and loyalty are the hallmarks of the canine spirit.

What was particularly diabolical was that more than 9 of 10 of the successful hunters used dogs to hunt the wolves – with Wisconsin the only state in the nation allowing this form of wolf hunting. It’s akin to dogfighting, albeit outside of a pit. The hunters set their packs of hounds to sniff out, trail, and chase wolves – with animal fights the inevitable consequence. They fix transmitters to the dogs’ collars and track the chase with a handheld, directional antenna.  When an animal is corned or down, the hunters follow the signal to that point and shoot the wolf. And if a hound is injured in the process of attacking and fighting with wolves, the hunter actually receives compensation – for knowingly put the animals at risk.

Pictures on the Facebook pages of the hunters show grinning hunters bear-hugging slain animals, as if to signal that they had vanquished a powerful creature and shown superior predatory ability.  They conveniently forget the role played by the dogs, the night-vision equipment, the radio telemetry gadgetry, and modern firearms.  If they had gone out alone with a knife and triumphed — morality of it aside — there might have been some physical prowess they could claim.  But not with all their advantages. A fair fight it was not.

Wolves at Risk Everywhere

Outside of Alaska, the biggest two populations of wolves in the U.S. inhabit the Northern Great Lakes and the Northern Rockies. The Trump Administration rulemaking on wolves that took effect in January removed federal protections for wolves across nearly all of their range in the contiguous states. A decade earlier, also in an act of pre-election pandering, Congress removed protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies, with President Obama signing a larger spending package that included an anti-wolf rider.

The consequences of that delisting in the Northern Rockies have also produced a sickening body count. Like Wisconsin, Idaho has perhaps 1000 wolves. A hunter there may kill up to 30 wolves per year, 15 by hunting and 15 by trapping.  Hunters and trappers killed an astonishing 570 wolves during the recently concluded hunting season there. There’s no state requirement to eat the meat, an acknowledgement that dogs are not part of American table fare and that this was a set of serial violence driven by vengeance and the visual of putting a trophy on display.   

Montana kills hundreds, too, and state lawmakers there, as in Idaho, are considering a set of bills to eliminate the few restrictions that exist. There are bills in those Legislatures to allow snaring on public lands, to extend an already long trapping season, and to impose no bag limits – meaning that a hunter can kill as many wolves as he wants. Anti-wolf lawmakers in Michigan and Minnesota also have introduced wolf hunting and trapping bills.

There’s something deeper driving this zealotry. It’s an instinctive fear of other predators – an atavistic instinct to kill other powerful creatures so we can establish our dominance and create safe communities. But reality must check these worst of our instincts. The truth is wolves don’t show up on any serious-minded registry of human safety hazards.  COVID-19, Chronic Wasting Disease, automobile accidents, domestic violence, mass shootings, falling off ladders, and a list too long to enumerate are the more tangible threats today. Something is amiss when there’s no evidence of “reality monitoring” – with the brains of these willing participants in wolf massacre unable to distinguish between imagination, fantasies, and thoughts and externally generated events that actually occur in the real world.

The argument that wolves are a threat or a menace is just part of the false framing. It’s a flimsy rationalization for humans masquerading as deputized controllers of alleged crimes committed by wildlife. They don’t want to admit they kill for the thrill of it, but instead to attach some social benefit to their selfish actions. In a broader sense, wolf killing is often a proxy for their other sense of entitlement and an outsized list of grievances – a strike-back at their critics who, they think, don’t understand the harsh realities of life. 

With the din of this gunfire, barking, and snapping shut of steel traps now quieted for the moment, there’s more than just the body count of the wolves. There’s mourning in wolf country – the mourning of the survivors. There’s not one wolf out there who isn’t still emotionally suffering from the loss of his or her family member or members.

Given the reckless state actions, the federal government must step in and restore protection so wolves are not extirpated from the few pockets where they hold on. We need enough Americans of conscience to demand the restoration of long-held protections for these rare animals. We need more than howling at the moon.  We need action.  Join us. Tell Governor Evers to protect the Wisconsin wolves here.

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