What Does the Wolf Say?

Sometimes popular culture can expose and also help evolve our prejudices. An example is our ever-shifting attitudes toward wolves. "Hey there, Little Red Riding Hood," a new car commercial opens with the throaty pop song as a sleek, red car zooms along a darkly wooded highway. Suddenly the driver stops. In the road, stands a wild wolf. This is no deer caught in the headlights. True to centuries of our demonization, the wolf is growling, sharp teeth barred as if for attack.

Though there is no recent history of a wild wolf attacking humans, this archetypal image of a menacing wolf seems hard-wired into our reptilian brains: Wild wolf = danger = death. But in fact, we humans are the real attackers. Our Grimm stories and primitive fears have led us in earlier centuries to slaughter wolves into extinction.

If this commercial were in the Wyoming woods, the man could simply get out of his car and shoot the wolf on sight -- for no other reason, except that state law has declared open season on wolves. These once federally protected and nationally popular wolf packs are now in the crosshairs of hunters, ranchers, and politicians.

These interest groups have ignored real science like "The Green World Theory," and "trophic cascades," that document how wolves help restore damaged ecosystems by limiting overgrazing so that grasses and streams and other wildlife, such as birds and beavers flourish. In focusing their wildlife management on wolf hunts, Northern Rockies states, such as Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Minnesota have sadly regressed to a past century's hatred and trigger-itch. Why this violent return to barbaric policies that eradicated wolves from the lower 48 states and destroyed the balance of healthy ecosystems?

The brutal and shortsighted state wolf control laws show how ranchers' and hunters' intolerance still dominates and determines our wildlife policies. Prejudice makes an indelible mark. When one is prejudiced -- whether about race, culture, or wolves -- reason can't persuade or educate. It's ranchers and hunters who need to be controlled, not wolves.

Even though Defenders of Wildlife has long compensated ranchers for livestock lost to wolf predation; even though some far-sighted ranchers are practicing common sense and non-lethal policies, such as not grazing injured or young cattle in range of wolves; even though national polls profoundly favor wolf reintroduction, the return to wolf hunting in these Western states is once again systematically destroying wolf packs. So as a nation, we must speak for the wolves. We must directly address the dark heart of such hatred. We must call it by its proper name: bloodlust and bigotry.

It may take national protests, environmental lawsuits, and another generation to grow out of such long-held prejudice. That's where this new car commercial comes in. The driver and the wolf are in a classic standoff on the dark road. Then the man simply revs his motor. The wolf whines and leaps away into the forest. This scene is the reality of human-wolf encounters. Wild wolves avoid us, fear us, and run away. It is humans who fear, and hunt, and mercilessly slaughter wolves. We do it with steel traps, aerial hunting, rifles, and poison.

At the end of the commercial, as the man zooms off, he turns to the backseat and his little daughter, clad in a red-hooded jacket.

"What does the wolf say?" he asks his daughter.

"Ahwoooooooooo!" the little girl howls, speaking the universal language of wolf.

This 21st century little Red Riding Hood girl is not in danger, her father doesn't have to kill a wolf to prove his power or manhood; and most importantly of all, the child is speaking for wolf. For wildness and a new generation of tolerance. To speak the language of another species, to howl like a wolf, is to embody empathy. And evolution.

The Red Riding Car commercial is like an advertising version of a very old Native American lesson taught by many tribes. For indigenous peoples, Wolf is sacred; she teaches independence, but also loyalty and fierce family bonds. The late Native teacher, Paula Underwood, an Iroquois oral historian, told the story passed down to her from generations of elders: "Who Speaks for Wolf." This story asks those with trigger-itch prejudice against wolves to stop, like the father, and carefully consider his children's future. Imagine an ecosystem again stripped of wolves, without another top predator to help balance this green world.

"Long ago," Underwood begins her ancestral story -- Wolf was a brother to the People. Wolf sang songs to the tribe and they would howl back. The children would follow Wolf through the forest to "learn from him." But one day the People had so outgrown their territory that they believed humans and Wolf could no longer live together "in such a small space." Tribal councils no longer listened to their Wolf brother and there was no one left to speak for Wolf.

The tribe considered hunting down Wolf People. But after much thought -- certainly no mindless shooting on sight -- the People realized that they would lose their brotherhood with other animals and be a lonely, diminished people. They would become just Wolf Killers -- "A people who took life only to sustain their own." They would become "a People who took life rather than move a little." The tribe decided they must always share territory and "learn to consider Wolf."

This is a lesson the wolf-killing states have not yet learned. But their children may be listening to this Native American wisdom. Their children may be unlearning generations of prejudice as they see the many benefits of living alongside wild wolves. Like the little girl in Red Riding car commercial, the next generation may be learning and echoing: "What does the wolf say?"

The question now is: Can those of us who "consider wolf " in our ecosystem health howl loudly enough to drown out the voices of prejudice? Now that Montana Senator Tester has safely won his congressional seat, can President Obama made good on his 2008 inaugural decision to stop this senseless slaughter of wolves? Can he use his elective powers and our support to stop Western states from their relentless winter kill of wild wolves?

Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author of 17 books, including Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals and the new children's book, Leopard and Silkie, named as a winner of "Outstanding Science Books for K-12" by National Science Teacher's Association. Her new novel is The Drowning World.

Howl out for the holidays -- learn more about wolves in Yellowstone and get involved in wolf protection.