The Psychology of Wolf Fear and Loathing

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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.

Canis lupus bailey © MasterImages

Canis lupus bailey © MasterImages

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

Kirk Robinson

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.

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Van Howell - June 29, 2019

A fine little essay. I’ve had a parallel theory about bullfights, in which the matador represents the conquering, penetrating shaft of light, and the bull is almost always black… Two manifestations of the male principle, one wild and fecund, the other civilized, effete, and sterile, with a foregone conclusion (but just enough of a chance of a reversal to keep it interesting). The suffering of the bull must be heartbreakingly genuine, and his humiliation must be absolute—down to the ignoble hauling of the corpse off the stage, dragged away on a filthy tarpaulin by a blinded horse. The hoofed feet of the swaying upside-down freshly-dead bull flutter impotently in the air. A moment later, the next bull comes charging out, fierce, proud and noble, crackling with electric animal energy. If he begs for mercy as his end nears fifteen minutes after this dramatic debut, the crowd will mock, jeer, and boo; he will be poked and goaded to make it seem a little like a fair fight. Inside this ritual is the legacy of Catholic, Gnostic, ultimately Zoroastrian myth of light conquering darkness… (But in fact the real creative principle involved the mutual conquest of light and dark; one penetrates, but the other devours. From this union comes all that lives.)

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Hazel Curtis - July 1, 2019

Humans claim to be civilised but cannot respect the natural cosmic laws that apply to the continuance of all life species, and seemingly are devolved and becoming more so as to education and knowledge concerning the nature of all species, their purpose, and our relationship with them. Further that we ourselves are threads in the interconnected evolutionary chain, and were they to realise cannot survive without them. Wolves, bears and other predators, are natural and necessary. They are not beasts of the idd conjured up by the over exaggerated, imagination of those whom do not understand them or know them. Nor a threat to mankind, however there are a sub species of human that are devolved and a predatory threat to them, of which is causing extinction of them and all other species. This must change and as proffessional wild life, experts, scientists and true conservationists, qoute :not (trophy hunters) or and other killer groups, but those whom have lived with wolves, bears and such and ubdeesrand their true natureand the contrasting error, whether caused by hysteria , propaganda, motive, to kill of which there is no need especially at a time of threat of extinction, that in turn will gave a nick on effect throughout the living chain including domestic animal and human. Need to solve the human problem of killing what they do not understand or just want to delete out of utter ignorance or will to understand the consequence. When all the tools and availability are there to coexist and cohabit our mother earth as it was meant to be. Isnt it therefore time, we truly becane civilised and evolved, rather than be trapped in medieval thinking that is a stagnation.

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Kirk Robinson - July 1, 2019

Interesting to compare: from the Colorado Springs Gazette on June 29:

“The idea of wolves generates more emotion than does the idea of most other species of wildlife because wolf families are very much like human families,” said Koch, who also oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican wolf recovery program in the Southwest the last two and a half years. “That accentuates either our love or our hate for wolves. We gravitate toward them because we see them as being like us or we recoil in fear because we fear they are like us.”
https://gazette.com/coloradans-asking-themselves-is-it-time-to-bring-back-wolves/article_fc9af11e-8eca-11e9-8e94-afb087dc52e0.html

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Steve Langdon - July 4, 2019

That is a whole lot of propaganda Kiirk just regurgitated.
It is a proven fact that wolves kill pack members. That wolves kill cubs. That wolves will kill and eat each other after decimating their prey base. Wolves have been singled out because they are the most efficient killer out there and reproduce faster than coyotes. Other predators are only singled out when they are over populated which they are in many western states. It is not “fear” that hunters, Ranchers and rural people feel for the wolf. It’s the reality of wolves as they are as beautiful as they are destructive.
Kirk’s view on wolves is not based off reality or science. It is based off the fairy tale notion that some how wolves are some magical creature that balances nature with the help of all their predator friends.
Kirk’s love of the wolf is blinding him to reality and this hurts the wolves and wildlife science.

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Connie Poten - July 5, 2019

Another reason is less interesting–the basic unattractive need people have for being superior to something else. Most wolf-haters are on a lower rung of society. Wolves threaten them because wolves are so intelligent, self-sufficient and exhibit a fine, well-knit society. Some people hate this because it shows how they are being left behind by today’s society. Long ago I worked on a story that included bear poaching in Tennessee, which was and probably still is, rampant. The people I talked to had been convicted of poaching bears. They called bears their brothers. They lived in a backwater, very poor, watching society move forward without them. They took their fear and rage out on the bears because they could. That meant someone was beneath them on the ladder.

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Nathan - July 8, 2019

I think that another analysis might be helpful. Canines are often associated with “maleness” in human cultures while felines are often associated with the “feminine” principle. I remember reading that ranchers fear and loathe wolves more than mountain lions. The traditional rural male fears other men. The fact that a male wolf is a fellow male does not evince the kind of empathy that one would hope. Sadly, it is contrary and perhaps facing this lack of empathy from male humans to one another might help us treat wolves better. #brocialist

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Helen McGinnis - July 12, 2019

I am a wolf advocate, but I’ve chosen to advocate cougar restoration in eastern North American because I have the impression that a great many people LOVE wolves passionately, as much as others HATE them. It amazes me that some wolf opponents mention public safety, when as few as two people have been killed by wolves in the US and Canada since 1900. I’m thinking people don’t like wolves because they prey on their livestock, especially cattle–much more than cougars do. Stockmen don’t like wolves, so they readily accept other assumed bad qualities, such as being dangerous humans. Maybe people love their dogs more than they love their cats.

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