My turn: Recent trial highlights differences between American, European views on wolves

Posted: Wednesday, November 10, 2010

There are many people who recognize that Romeo was a unique wolf and a valued member of the Juneau community. There are others who take sardonic pleasure in knowing the wolf that I, and many others, believe to be him was killed. It is essentially a clash between traditional European views of wolves and emerging American views of wolves.

There is no "natural" way for humans to interact with wolves. The type of human society which exists near wolf habitat largely determines wolf-human interactions. Hunting societies typically hold wolves in high regard. Societies which raise livestock usually fear large predators and attempt to make them extinct. Early Europeans were understandably ignorant regarding the values of ecological diversity and the roles that large predators play in maintaining ecosystems. They did not migrate to North America to live in the wilderness or because they valued wildlife. The goal was to eradicate wildlife and to convert North America into a replica of Europe. Euro-Americans feared wolves, and many of them even believed in werewolves. Therefore, men who were adept at killing wolves were regarded as heroes. This was the dominant view of wolves and the people who killed them until about the middle of the 20th century.

In the last 60 years, the American public has come to view wolves in a very different light. Wildlife biologists continue to find evidence regarding the values of ecological diversity and the vital roles which large predators play in maintaining ecosystems. Scientists have also debunked the European superstitions which led many people to fear wolves. Most Americans, including the majority of Alaskans, live in urban areas and do not own livestock. It has also become widely acknowledged that hunting, especially for urbanites, is generally an economically inefficient means of obtaining food. In a nutshell, most people no longer view wolves as a threat to their safety or economic well-being. Furthermore, survey data indicates that the majority of the public, even in conservative Western states, hold positive attitudes regarding wolves. These attitudes are particularly prevalent among younger people.

It was in this context that Romeo was able to befriend dogs and to sit on a frozen lake as skiers passed by. Romeo's behaviors intrigued and delighted those who embrace the emerging American view of wolves. However, having a large segment of the community valuing a wolf apparently enraged those who cling to the old European view of wolves.

Whenever cultural values and norms shift there are often reactionary groups and individuals who feel threatened. When people or animals behave in a manner which deviates from the roles they are supposed to play in socially constructed hierarchies, it causes confusion and fear.

Killing, torturing or inflicting some other form of punishment on these individuals are attempts to restore the supposedly threatened social order. This is why many African-Americans were lynched in the 1930s for being "too prosperous." Whites who recognized the inherent worth and dignity of African-Americans were also subjected to various forms of harassment. In most cases, the criminal justice system does not evolve as quickly as a society's collective conscience. This is why reactionary individuals were often able to murder African-Americans and civil rights workers with impunity.

For Park Myers and Jeffery Peacock, killing the black wolf I, and many others, believe to be Romeo, and the black bears, was certainly an opportunity to prove their bravery and hunting skills by collecting some trophies. It was also an opportunity to punish the people who welcomed Romeo as a valued member of the community and refused to acknowledge he was a "dangerous beast." Without dangerous wildlife, Myers and Peacock are reduced to a couple of poachers who shot bears while they were eating hot dog buns and a wolf who would have been as hard to stalk as a beagle. Peacock's request for an autographed copy of Nick Jans' book "The Glacier Wolf" and Myers sending a photo to Peacock of the Empire article regarding Romeo's disappearance, were among their ways of collecting more trophies and gloating over the pain they had inflicted on the Juneau community.

History has shown us that it is relatively easy to kill people or animals who symbolically represent evolving values and cultural norms. However, the social forces they represent cannot be killed, and the legal system eventually catches up to society's collective conscience. It has been said that it takes more than guns to kill a man. It also appears that it takes more than guns to kill a wolf.

• Simon is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Alaska Southeast. He specializes in environmental sociology and political economy. His current research focuses on the political economy of Alaska's wolf and bear policies and the social and ecological impacts of various forms of hunting.

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