Some tales have long lives. Even if they are just, well, tall tales. I encountered one such story 11 years ago, when, ahead of a trip to Italy, a friend advised that I should look into “the re-introduction of wolves and how hunters and farmers perceive the situation.”
The friend, whose family has a home in Umbria, had been hearing about wolf attacks on sheep, alpacas, and other barnyard animals from local farmers, for whom the killings were both financially and emotionally wrenching. Local hunters too, appeared disgruntled about new competition for their prized prey: cinghiale (wild boar). The wolves, some of them told me when I met them, were not native to the area. They had been planted there by the government.
Fears originating from myths, folklore, and religious beliefs that have resulted in the persecution of wolves for centuries. Many of those fears persist to this day. Replica Wolf and Fox Hunt (ca. 1616) a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
No one really questioned that story. Fresh off of publishing several reports in the Journal on the war against wolves in the United States, where the canids had indeed been reintroduced in the northern Rockies in the 1990s, I didn’t either. But when the owner of a local agriturismo operation talked of the wolves being parachuted in via government choppers, it gave me pause. Not that animals haven’t ever been repatriated that way. In the 1940s, 76 beavers were parachuted into Idaho’s backcountry. But free-falling wildlife into former habitats isn’t exactly standard practice. “This helicopter thing is beginning to sound like a Black Ops conspiracy theory!” I wrote my friend back then. And indeed it was.
Truth is, while wolves had been wiped out from most of Central and Northern Europe for some 100 years, they had held on in the forests of Eastern and Southern Europe. Legal protections in the 1970s helped their populations rebound and spread from there. Yet, to this day, stories about wolves being deliberately released into the wild are repeated across Europe, from Italy, to Finland, to Germany, and beyond. Generational memory may be to blame. Since few in these areas were alive when wolves were abundant, their resurgence could seem unnatural. And perhaps sudden: Wolf populations in Europe have increased by an astounding 81 percent since my 2013 Italy trip.
As reporter Paul Krantz explains in this issue’s cover story “An Uneasy Return Coming soon!,” myths like the ones I encountered, as well as fear, politics, and conflicting interests, are behind the European Commission’s proposal to downgrade the wolf’s protected status in Europe. This is no different from here in the US, where efforts to delist the keystone species from the Endangered Species Act continue to this day.
The article reminded me, yet again, of the common thread running through many of the conflicts we are seeing around the world, be it human vs. nonhuman, or human vs. human: It is hard to accede land and resources to communities we perceive as outsiders, to beings whose habits and cultures are foreign to us; it’s hard to return rights we don’t remember being taken away.
There are no easy solutions to such conflicts, but keeping an open, curious mind, like some of the sheep farmers featured in Krantz’s report, can be a start. In the absence of that, tall tales that can be used to justify persecution will persist.
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