Friday, January 28, 2011

The Big Bad Wolf

"Oh, grandmother, what big ears you have!"
"The better to hear you with"
"Oh, grandmother, what big eyes you have!"
"The better to see you with"
"Oh, grandmother, what big hands you have!"
"The better to grab you with"
"But, grandmother, what a dreadful big mouth you have!"
"The better to eat you with"

Conversation between the little girl and the wolf
in "Little Red Riding Hood," The Brothers Grimm, 1812

We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be —the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.

Farley Mowat, Canadian conservationist and author,
Never Cry Wolf : Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic Wolves (1963)

Throughout the centuries we have projected on to the wolf the qualities we most despise and fear in ourselves. 
Barry Lopez, well-known U.S. nature writer

Little Red Riding Hood: The Big Bad Wolf is about the deceive the innocent girl.
Illustration by Carl Offterdinger, end of the 19th century.
Source: Published by Wilhelm Effenberger (F. Loewes Verlag), Stuttgart, end of the 19th century.

I was reading Little Red Riding Hood to my two-and-one-half-year-old  son yesterday. And it got me thinking about the narrative and what it says. Now, I do not want to overly deconstruct a fairy tale, nor am I saying that this fairy tale is bad for kids. I am not suggesting that at all. What I am saying, however, is that I noticed how the fairy tale is a simple children's morality story of good and evil.

The well-known fairy tale positions the wolf in the narrative as bad, or as some some would say, evil. Although there are various versions, the plot has the wolf eat the grandmother, disguise itself in the grandmother's clothing, with the aim to deceive Little Red Riding Hood long enough to gain her trust, and then eat the little girl.

It is only her cries or screams that are fortunately heard by a hunter, who saves the girl by slaying the Big Bad Wolf. The grandmother escapes unharmed from the wolf's belly and, in some versions, the girl, too.

In this simple morality tale, the wolf is bad; the girl is pure innocence and the hunter good. Now, I am not trying to quibble here, but I happen to like wolves and think they are beautiful and noble animals who are only acting according to their instincts and design.

So, this begs the question on where wolves gained such a reputation as duplicitous conniving animals who ought to be slaughtered. For one, we need look no further than the perennial best seller, the Bible. Wolves are referenced thirteen times in the Bible as symbols of greed and destructiveness. And during medieval times in Europe, the belief in werewolves only added to the wolf's woes.

Wolves are predators and they have certainly been the bane of farmers and ranchers worried about protecting their sheep and chickens and other livestock. Even so, there are humane measures available besides the need to shoot wolves.

Even so, I suspect that wolves have gained a bad reputation far exceeding whatever damage and heartache they cause farmers. This is most evident in the United States southwest. For example, legislators in Montana and Idaho want the wolf removed from the federal Endangered Species Act. But I am now acting as the advocate of the wolf and I say this: Do they deserve the reputation as the worst of all animals? And, equally important, should we not let good science have precedence over local and regional politics?

Wolf As Endangered Species 

The Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) was added to the federal list of endangered species in the United States, in 1974, in accordance with the U.S. Endangered Species Act (1973), administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service., which reports:
Gray wolves once lived in much of the contiguous United States. They were only absent from a portion of California,the southwest corner of Arizona and from the red wolf range in the southeastern United States. By 1974, when gray wolves were listed as an endangered species, their breeding range had been reduced to a small corner of northeastern Minnesota and Isle Royale, Michigan.

Individual wolves were periodically observed in the West, but there were no breeding packs. Recovery efforts have since restored the wolf to many areas of its historic range, including portions of the Southwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the western Great Lakes Region.
According to a 2006 census, there are an estimated 11,000 grey wolves in the U.S., half residing in Alaska, which is not covered by the Endangered Species Act. Worldwide, there are an estimated 200,000 wolves in 57 countries, compared to approximately 2 million in earlier times.

Howling Wolf: Dakota, a grey wolf at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, howling on top of a snowy hill: 6 April 2008. "We humans fear the beast within the wolf because we do not understand the beast within ourselves": Gerald Hausman, U.S. author.
Photo Credit: Retron
Yet, politics plague the wolf, and it matters little which political party is in power. For example, both the Bush administration (Republican) and the Obama administrations (Democrat) agreed that the grey wolf ought to be removed from the list of endangered species across the Northern Rockies while maintaining protections in Wyoming.

In August 2010, the U.S. District court overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) decision to remove grey wolves in the Northern Rockies from the endangered species list.  One of the principals of the lawsuit Defenders of Wildlife said: "The court’s ruling makes it clear that decisions under the Endangered Species Act should be based on science, not politics."
There are a number of other organizations fighting to ensure wolves remain on the list, including Endangered Wolf and Sierra Club,, to name a few.

Myths die hard. The myth of the Big Bad Wolf survives, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and has done so for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It will take producing a different narrative, which writers like Farley Mowat, Barry Lopez and Gerald Hausman, among others have done.

It will also take a new series of books for children. So, I vote for a new series of books, something in the order of the Beautiful Noble Wolf. What do you think?

Note: I am still fine-tuning the schedule for this blog, and, accordingly, I am making some small changes. Great Scientific Advances will move to Thursday from Wednesday, and now be called Great Advances in Science. In addition, I also plan to have a Guest Blogger series beginning in February 2011.


  1. In 2006, I was invited to give a talk at the University of New Mexico about my then forthcoming book. After my visit, my wife and I visited a wolf sanctuary. During our visit, I asked if it were possible to enter their enclaves (to interact with them). You can view a few photos here:

    At one point, the wolves began to howl in response to a howl elsewhere in the sanctuary. It was one of the most moving and spiritual experiences that I have ever experienced.

    If memory serves me right, there are very few recorded attacks of wolves on humans. If we are to be afraid of another species, we should be terrified of mosquitoes, as they kill more people in an afternoon than the wolf has killed since time immemorial.

  2. Hi Gad,

    Very well said. Wolves are beautiful and noble animals. Our fear is not based on science or on evidence, but on something else altogether different. Thank you for sharing your experiences and the photos.


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