Dangerous Animals

In 1998, Essex County passed a law prohibiting the “importation and release within the county of dangerous animals.” This was at the height of the wolf reintroduction debate and was never applied to people who import pit bulls, mean cats bulls, honeybees or any of the myriad other animals that can and do hurt people far more often than wolves. The hatred of wolves is a deep-set one that has only recently begun to fade; in fact, in 1996, the Defenders of Wildlife reported that:

“New York residents support reintroducing wolves to the Adirondacks by a margin of 8 to 1… Not only is support for wolf reintroduction in Adirondack Park high among New Yorkers and New England residents, but there is strong support among the park's residents. Among Adirondack Park residents, 3 out of 4 (76 percent) support reintroduction of the eastern timber wolf to Adirondack Park, while 19 percent oppose… Furthermore, two-thirds (67 percent) of hunters residing in the park support reintroduction. Eighty percent of New Yorkers support reintroduction, while only 10 percent oppose. More than 84 percent of all New England residents want to bring back the wolves.”
Recent studies have shown that wolf attacks on humans are incredibly rare, especially compared to attacks by pit bulls, mean cats, bulls and honeybees, and that even the damage to ranching stock is negligible (the Defenders of Wildlife have paid only $52,000 to a little over 50 ranchers to pay for livestock deaths around Yellowstone since wolves were reintroduced there and Montana has far more livestock than the Adirondacks). So why is there still and opposition, and such a vocal and stiff one, to reintroduction? Some of the clues can be found in folklore.

Today, I was looking through old copies of the New York Folklore Quarterly from the late 40’s and early 50’s. One of the prevailing themes was the danger provided by wolves, bears and pumas. In the Spring 1948 edition, there was an article entitled “Wild Animals of Southern Erie County” by Ethelyn Weller, which retold frontier stories of dangerous creatures that are still passed down in the farmhouses of rural Erie County. To quote Weller:

“By 1830, farmers who lived in the vicinity of Morton’s Corners had become so desperate over the attacks of the wolves, which, running in packs, were destroying sheep in flocks for miles around, that they determined to get rid of them at all costs.

Accordingly, on a day set for the purpose, some 500 farmers from Concord, Collins, and North Collins gathered at Morton’s Corners, chose leaders, and in groups spread out over the country in a mass wolf hunt… The hunt continued for several days, but no wolves were seen possibly because so much noise and so many men tramping about in what were previously the animals’ unmolested haunts frightened them away. At any rate, no one ever heard of a wolf again in that part of the county.”
Weller continues with descriptions of wolves with “teeth bared and bloodshot eyes fixed on the [hunter’s] dog,” of ferocious bears that hold off entire packs of dogs and panthers with mystical ties to local Indians. She concludes by saying: “there are many such stories, but these have stood the test of the years, probably because they picture pioneer life in this section of Erie County so accurately.”

Several other editions of the Quarterly detail the persistence of belief in werewolves in many parts of New York. I particularly enjoyed one from the Winter 1951 (“Another Werewolf” by Henry Shoemaker) where a North Country farmer marries a “darkly beautiful” young woman only after promising to never see her unclothed at night. He comes home late one night with a gift for her and accidentally knocks the blanket off of her lower half, revealing a pair of wolf legs and a tail; he flees the house, never to return.

While folklore isn't the defining entirety of a people's belief system, it does give clues into what is important, valuable, amusing and terrifying to them; it is a window into their worldview. Despite what Ms. Weller believed back in 1948, I don’t think that the events she recorded reflect everyday frontier life, or even accurately describe exceptional events. How many tales do we have from the 1820s and 30s? Why were these ones maintained and passed on? Why are tales of wolf-men (and women) still told in isolated houses and farmsteads?

It is my belief that the wolf, and to a lesser extent the bear and panther, represent the wild antithesis to civilized life. In the cities, these lines need not be drawn since there is no question of the civilized nature of life. Out in the country, however, the wild presses close, especially for the farmer whose life is a constant struggle to contain and control the wild. Having myself worked as a farmhand, I know that on a farm, an incredible amount of time is spent pulling out weeds, keeping away predators and parasites, struggling with rocks and cutting away at the dingweeds. The demon wolf becomes the symbol of the wild destroyed and man triumphant. “We don’t have wolves around here anymore” becomes synonymous with “we don’t have Indians around here anymore” and “we don’t have wilderness around here anymore.” For those that grew up with stories of great, and triumphant, wolf-hunts and the battles of man and dog against bear or wolf, the thought of purposely reintroducing a wolf into the landscape is counter-intuitive, a regressive step that spits in the face of their struggles to make a living out of the land.

-Posted by Jesse

1 comment:

Natalie said...

Hey Jesse, didn't Thoreau say that "In wildness is the salvation of mankind"?