The Company of Wolves

This Christmas has been delicious in many ways, but my highlight of the festive season has been Gordon Buchanan’s two-part documentary Snow Wolf Family and Me on BBC2. Traveling to the remote Canadian Arctic, an area too hostile for human settlement, he attempts to observe and understand a family of white wolves that dwell there. Remarkably, the wolves have never before encountered humankind; what follows is the development of an intricate relationship between the cameraman and his wolves as they learn to trust one another, against the backdrop of a barren arctic wasteland.


Gordon mentions how wolves have gained a surprisingly poor reputation, despite their dedication to companionship and pack welfare. His comments reminded me of the countless references to wolves in literature, usually depicted as evil, menacing, deceptive and murderous. One of the first novels that truly scared me was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a fierce, wonderful book that remains one of my favourites:

“Just then the moon, sailing through the black clouds, appeared behind the jagged crest of a beetling, pine-clad rock, and by its light I saw around us a ring of wolves, with white teeth and lolling red tongues, with long, sinewy limbs and shaggy hair. They were a hundred times more terrible in the grim silence which held them than even when they howled. For myself, I felt a sort of paralysis of fear. It is only when a man feels himself face to face with such horrors that he can understand their true import.”

Even in human history, we seem to cling to the idea that wolves are somehow more fearful than other creatures. When I visited Paris in June, I remember reading about a man-eating wolf pack that killed forty people in 1450, after entering the city through a breach in its walls. The leader was named Courtaud, and was thought to have bright, red fur; the Parisians eventually cornered the pack on the steps of the Notre Dame cathedral, and speared the wolves to death.

Why do we hold onto these negative portrayals of wolves as carriers of evil, but then praise the lion for pride and nobility?


I’ve been particularly interested in wolves (and lynx, bears and beavers) after reading George Monbiot’s intriguing articles on rewilding this year. Rewilding is the idea that, since we have destroyed, diminished and wreaked havoc on the delicate ecosystems in which we live, we could benefit from reintroducing certain species back into our countryside to enrich and expand our biodiversity. For example, in Scotland there is a major problem with excessive deer populations destroying tree plantations, despite the attempts to cull them. Wolves would provide a natural predator to the deer, and create tourism opportunities like those found in Romania.

Obviously, as lovely humans, the first thing we think of is not: ‘What an excellent idea! We need to give something back to our wildlife after everything we’ve done to them.’ Ignorant fools have already expressed their outrage at the idea of letting wolves roam loose around our sacred isle, in a manner that cries, ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?!’ Unfortunately, I have no time for these people. I never want to see anyone mauled by wildlife, but if the risk is slightly increased in exchange for a rich, beautiful and healthy ecosystem, it just seems absurd that we would still prioritise the safety of our horribly ballooning population over our cherished and vulnerable wildlife.

The worst part is that so many people still think humans and wildlife are disconnected, as if the food in our supermarkets just appears from the abyss. It’s not a case of ‘us or them’; the more species we push into extinction, the less stable our ecosystems become, and the more likely we will be unable to feed ourselves.

I recently read in BBC Wildlife magazine one of Chris Packham’s columns about the ‘ecological illiteracy of our media’:

“In March this year, tabloids reported that Lydia the ‘killer fish’ had been spotted 1,000 miles off Cornwall; Lydia, an underwater weapon of mass destruction en route to terrorise our green and pleasant land. Except that her species, the great white shark, kills under 15 humans a year, whereas we slaughter tens of millions of sharks annually. We are 1,000 times more likely to be killed by lightning and 1.3 times more likely to have our life terminated by a failing vending machine than to be taken out by a shark. We also have a 100 per cent chance of not being a victim of shark attack if we stay on dry land where we belong.”

I will never understand how humans have developed the idea that we are above other species, and somehow superior to them, when in reality we just got evolutionarily lucky. It is now time to use our ‘supreme intelligence’ to reconnect with nature and start putting other species above ourselves.

You can find out more about rewilding here, or visit Population Matters for more on the human population. And here is a wolf I did. Happy new year!



11 thoughts on “The Company of Wolves

  1. Interesting article, certainly at the intersection of man and wolf is a complex one.

    We have a cabin in Wyoming some hours from Yellowstone, and on occasion head over to the museum in Cody. One year, they had a presentation on wolves and their re-introduction. They posted a board that on one side that was mostly comments from visitors from the East who said things about how beautiful the wolves were, and the natural harmony was restored. On other side the local people, often ranchers reported they kill our livestock, slaughter our pets…

    Wolves have been very good for Yellowstone, making the ecosystem much healthier in many ways no one expected. Still I’ve never forgotten that museum display, and how complex the issue of man and wild when they intersect can be.

    Have a great new year.

    1. That is interesting! I hope they can find a way for wolves to coexist peacefully with us, although they seem to be doing well from what you say. I really hope we’ll see them in Scotland soon!

      Happy new year!

  2. “I will never understand how humans have developed the idea that we are above other species”
    Maybe because we are able to intellectually and concretely able to apprehend environment (due to our link to fire that other living organisms doesn’t have?) but not yet able to discern it from biodiversity. In another word, we are not yet able to see that outside word is two wholes in diverging development, and not only one whole supposedly harmonious. Environmentalism (to understand our context as one whole) is the problem. It would be much more clever to understand that living organisms fights environment.

  3. I loved the show, and love Gordon (actually a family friend, so I have a particular loyalty to him) but the impression that the show gave of these wolves being unstudied and so little being known about them was erroneous. Prof Dave Mech, among others, has been studying the Ellesmere population of wolves since the mid eighties, and has only recently had to stop putting radio collars on individuals due to Inuit sanctions ( As a scientist, it’s disheartening when years of research is made to look like it didn’t exist! But – hopefully the show (and the research) will help to change people’s attitudes about wolves – it would be great to see them back on our shores.

    1. Oh lucky you to have him as a family friend! My mum loves him.. I didn’t know about that, although they did an article about the same wolves in BBC Wildlife magazine this month, and they did talk more about general scientific research in that. Hopefully we’ll see them in Britain soon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s