The Psychology of Wolf Fear and Loathing
Featured Image: Canis lupus bailey © Larry Master
By Kirk Robinson
Why is the wolf, above all other species, including bears and mountain lions, so widely hated and feared?
We frequently hear two explanations for why wolves are so feared, loathed and hated, one being the folklore and fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, etc.) that we inherited from Europe; and one being that wolves kill livestock and compete with humans for wild game.
The problem with these explanations is that they are only the tip of something deeper. They don’t explain why wolves were singled out in the fairy tales in the first place. Nor do they explain why wolves are feared and hated more than are other large carnivores, like bears and cougars, that compete with humans for wild game and occasionally prey on livestock. So, while fairly tales and depredation might partly explain why many Europeans and Americans fear and hate wolves, a deeper explanation underlies the animosity. (Also, Europeans seem to be further along on the learning curve than Americans in this respect, as wolves are being allowed to make a comeback in several European countries.)
My conjecture is that the deeper explanation has to do with the fact that wolves are in many ways more like human beings than are any other animal species that we have shared the landscape with – at least since modern humans left Africa. They are very social, just like humans, and live in extended family groups (packs) just as our ancestors did. All members play a role in providing and caring for the family group, just as our ancestors did – at least until injury, sickness or old age becomes disabling. And there is good reason to think that wolves and humans enjoyed a kind of mutualism when humans were nomadic hunters & gatherers, in which they helped each other acquire food. Wolves probably led humans to sources of huntable game, and humans probably left plenty of scraps for the wolves, similar to what we see today in Yellowstone, where ravens lead wolves to game and share in the spoils of the hunt.
Now, so far this might seem like a good reason for honoring and respecting wolves instead of fearing and hating them. But here’s the twist: As humans became more “civilized” and less dependent upon (and hence more removed from) wild nature, they simultaneously developed the idea that they were special – a little lower than the angels, as it were. And with this came a kind of self-hatred and fear of our uncivilized but natural impulses that had to be suppressed in order for civilization to exist. In this connection, I think Freud is illuminating – especially his book Civilization and its Discontents. Thinking in terms of the core Freudian constructs, id, ego, and superego, the job of the superego is to censor the id and keep it under control by means of guilt to suppress anti-social drives and impulses. But at a price: foregone satisfaction – hence the discontent. (Nietzsche, who predated Freud and really should be credited for the idea of the unconscious, referred to “the wild dogs in the cellar” that are constantly clamoring to break free.)
You can probably see where I am going at this point: Everything that we have come to loathe about ourselves, including our tendencies toward aggression and our basic animal nature and various bodily functions (“cleanliness is next to Godliness”), we civilized ones now project onto wolves, since wolves have no compunctions in this regard.
This helps explain why the wolf is equated with Satan in Christian lore – wolves are the enemy of the sheep, just as our base impulses are an enemy to civilization (and more immediately, to one’s social identity and acceptance by the flock).
This might also go some distance in explaining why we love dogs so much: they are domesticated wolves, analogous to civilized people with strong superegos. It doesn’t go the whole way in explaining why we love dogs so much, I’m sure. But perhaps it at least explains what made it possible for us to love dogs simply for what they are.
This explanation suggests that fear and loathing of wolves is indicative of alienation from and animosity toward wildness (unconquered, untamed nature) in general, as expressed by a compulsive need to try to control it and overcome it. This folly can be understood as the metaphorical meaning of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9).
Might the foregoing explanation help us learn to coexist with wolves? Can we use it to improve the prospects for the ecologically-critical but socially and politically difficult recovery of wolves across the country? Let’s share our ideas through Rewilding Earth, then with our neighbors.
Kirk Robinson is the founder and executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to founding Western Wildlife Conservancy, Kirk earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and taught courses at universities in Montana and Utah for 15 years. His favorite activities are exploring the wildlands of the American West and trying to learn to play fiddle tunes on acoustic guitar. Kirk is a charter member of TRI’s Rewilding Leadership Council.