Fun, food, and fear: Farley Mowat and the lessons of Never Cry Wolf

Benjamin Corey

August 27, 2015

Being an arachnophobe is popular. It seems to be completely within the realm of reason and decency to severely panic at the sight of a spider of any size. Adult human beings will recount stories of their terror without a hint of shame — sometimes it even seems they do so with pride. While some may capture the spider under a glass, barricade it within using a sheet of paper, and escort it outside, it can be safely assumed that every year millions of spiders are instead crushed upon sight. The rate at which these creatures are dispelled suggests that they are an extreme menace to our society. It is a largely unquestioned practice; the slaughter has few protesters.

In the entire United States of America spiders kill less than seven people per year. All of the black widows, all of the brown recluse, all of the hobo spiders — a measly seven people.

At the end of the 1940s a massive wolf problem had developed in northern Canada. It was reported by hunters and farmers that wolves were slaughtering livestock by the thousands, eating hundreds of people per year, and were solely responsible for the severe declination of the hunters’ prized kill, the caribou. These beasts weren’t even hunting for food, they were killing them for fun. The hunters relied on the herds of caribou for food, not only for themselves but also for the dogs that made their lives possible, and over the last few years the migrating herds seemed to have shed thousands of members. It had become necessary to decimate the wolf population, said the hunters, and so Ottawa decided to investigate.

Farley Mowat was a recent graduate in the field of biology. Having declined to specialize in any particular biological area Mowat was singularly qualified for random government work, and so was recruited for the quest, which ultimately led to his book Never Cry Wolf. Ostensibly his charge was to examine and record the relationship between the wolf and the caribou, but it seemed clear to Mowat that the government assumed he would simply confirm what they had been told by the hunters and so be justified in carrying out an official lupine massacre.

Mowat was flown on planes of dubious airworthiness to a remote region of northeast Canada and dropped off with enough gear, beer, and ammunition to get him through the summer. By luck he happened upon a local trapper named Mike, with a nearby cabin which became Mowat’s base. The cabin itself was surrounded by caribou bones, revealing that indeed the caribou had been being killed at alarming rates. Mowat, of course, assumed the wolves were to blame.

A dentist from Minnesota recently shot, skinned, and beheaded a popular Zimbabwean lion. He had been named Cecil (the lion, not the dentist). People screamed, through their keyboards mostly, that this man was an evil monster, a psychopathic criminal, that he deserved an identical death. His home and office were picketed, people cried on television. It was a big deal.

On the same day this alleged psychopathic monster murdered Cecil in Zimbabwe something like 115 million cows were killed by corporate employees in the United States. For the one day of Thanksgiving last year 45 million turkeys gobbled their last gobble. I killed a couple fish the other day, small mouth bass. So far no one has threatened to burn my house down. The difference seems obvious though, the lion was killed for fun, these other animals were killed for food.

Fear is another excellent motivator in the killing of animals; human, spider, wolf, and otherwise. Hunters and farmers feared the wolf — a beast large yet low to the ground, silent, quick, carnivorous, and nearby. The reason provided for wanting to exterminate the wolves was to save the caribou, whom the wolves hunted in massive packs, slaughtering them by the thousands, and therefore the food supply. Mowat, to his own surprise, quickly found this reason to be false. The wolf family Mowat monitored consisted of a couple, whom Mowat dubbed George and Angeline, a second male, Uncle Albert, and three pups. The family held a range of hundreds of miles, marked regularly by the males (Mowat in turn marked his own territory, the plot of land from which he observed the wolves, in the same way. After an initial surprise at the new scent the wolves respected the boundary). Wolves then were not hunting in massive packs, but in small units of two or three.

This was when they hunted together at all. Mowat soon found that the herd of caribou came through only intermittently, and far from frequently enough to keep the wolves fed. One night while monitoring Angeline, Mowat found her seeming to almost dance through a field, leaping and twirling, “…when she raised her head I saw, quite unmistakably, the tail and hind quarters of a mouse quivering in her jaws.” This pattern repeated itself, and so Mowat had evidence that when the caribou were gone the wolves sustained themselves and the pups on mice. In an attempt at a controlled experiment Mowat decided to test the ability of another large carnivorous mammal’s ability to live off of mice alone, himself. The results not only confirmed that the mice, eaten in a sufficient quantity, did provide the necessary calories and nutrients, but also provided an excuse for Mowat to include in this book a recipe for Souris A’ La Creme.

When the caribou were available, the means of hunting the wolves employed was a screening technique. When they tracked down a herd they would take a run at some particular caribou, often one that seemed old, injured, or disabled. If the caribou was able to outrun the wolves in the first few seconds, the wolf would retreat, and search for a different subject. The effect was the ferreting out of the weak, sick, or infirm. Even a healthy newborn can outrun an adult wolf, so the wolves didn’t waste time trying to chase the healthy animals. They preyed exclusively on the weakest of the herd, and had no interest in the prized bucks that the hunters themselves were after. In the aftermath the wolves would return to a single kill over and over, stripping it of meat entirely before hunting again.

So the wolves killed only the weak and infirm, the slow caribou, and so had nothing to do with the decimation of the strong and young does and bucks. It was hard work killing these animals so they didn’t kill any more than they needed. A substantial part of their diet was mice anyway, so they killed far less caribou per year than would be expected. In addition Mowat regularly found himself snuck up upon by each of the wolves he monitored, wolves investigating an intruder who placed himself in sight of not only their den but of their pups, and suffered not so much as a growl. One by one his observations directly contradicted the propositions he had been sent to confirm.

Mowat is an author, a hilarious, articulate, and passionate author, before he is a scientist. This is in part because he was sent on somewhat of a sham of a mission, alone, with the bare minimum of tools, a short window of time, and almost no prior field experience. In this instance it took nothing from the relevance of his results. By monitoring the behavior of a small sample of wolves, primarily a single family, Mowat found reasons to question the basic assumptions about the nature of wolves and initiated the conversation as to their veracity. His findings, largely anecdotal and here ensconced in a strong respect of the wolves, have also been confirmed in far more rigorous studies since. Mowat would be the Jane Goodall of wolves, except he was out there far before her, naming the animals, recognizing in them traits humans selfishly claim as theirs alone, communicating his findings to the public with humor and vivid detail.

Mowat returned to the cabin after witnessing the wolves’ reductionist style of hunting to find Mike, and he asked him about the bones surrounding the cabin.

Mowat writes, “Mike replied with unabashed candor. ‘It was me killed those deer. I got fourteen dogs to feed and it takes maybe two, three caribou a week for that. I got to feed myself too…It is no use for me to shoot skinny caribou. What I got to have is the big fat ones.”

Mowat asks him how many in a year and Mike continues, “I’m a pretty damn good shot. Kill maybe two, three hundred, maybe more…Every trapper do the same.”

That this practice, the culling of the strongest caribou from all of the herds, might have something to do with the decline in the population of caribou had apparently not occurred to the hunters and trappers.

Earlier, Mowat is discussing the sexual habits of wolves: “Wolves are also strict monogamists, and although I do not necessarily consider this an admirable trait, it does make the reputation for unbridled promiscuity which we have bestowed on the wolf somewhat hypocritical.” Traits worse than this have been hypocritically, and inaccurately, bestowed upon the wolf. Mowat went home to share his finding and was met primarily with ridicule, defamation, libel, and slander. Even now as wolves are reintroduced to Yellowstone, our own Cascade mountains, and elsewhere these same disproven traits of blood-thirst, violence, and danger are being trumpeted again. Disregard that humans are the only species shown to hunt a species to extinction within a few generations, disregard that wolves have been in these lands for millennia, disregard that wolf attacks on humans seem to happen only a few times every century. Wolves are the dangerous intruder. Wolves, in short, are scary, and so must be destroyed.

Fun, food, fear. There are arguments for and against the killing of any animal for the purpose of any of those three. The consensus is in on killing for fun, it seems, the official stance of the internetted masses being against. Killing for food is far easier to defend, though there are certainly strong arguments against its necessity. Killing out of fear may seem the most obvious, but only if the fear is justified. Farley Mowat’s book encourages us to demand that the level of justification for something as severe as the killing of an animal out of fear requires sufficient evidence of their danger. Evidence being meaningful, objective, and repeatable observations, not accepted yet unexamined truths, and certainly not solely the stories of interested parties.

The demand for this level of justification is born not only of a soundly scientific mind, but of an ethical mind as well. Assuming we base our actions on such evidence, we would no longer be able to justify wantonly killing spiders, those non-dangerous beings that do the world a favor by killing disease carrying mosquitos and flies. To hold ourselves to a higher standard of justification in determining what animal is deserving of fear is to reduce fear itself. To reduce fear is to increase tolerance, patience, kindness, understanding, and maybe even love. If we are to act violently on our fears then let the bar for fear be set high. It isn’t too late for the wolf, though Farley Mowat feared it was, and it isn’t too late for us either. All it takes is a little courage.

Books in this review:
  • Never Cry Wolf
    by Farley Mowat

    September 12, 2001
    256 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Husband of Jillaine, father of Bobcat, teacher of 4th graders, grower of pumpkins, eater of ice cream. All hail Cascadia!

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