The Wolf Within—The Truth About Why We Fear the Wolf

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Our love-hate relationship with the wolf, the animal that shares 15 thousand years of common ancestry with man’s best friend, the dog, suggests a deep conflict, one that is well hidden and maybe closer to each of us than we dare to admit. Are we hiding a skeleton in the closet? Why do we take great pains to understand and be good to our dogs whilst we hunt the wolf mercilessly?

 

We never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us (photo by Monty Sloan).

We never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us (photo by Monty Sloan).

 

Back in time, there were no wolves or dogs, only Canis lupus perantiquus (my name), the common ancestor of Canis lupus lupus, Canis lupus familiars, and 37 other subspecies. Humans, by then Homo sapiens sapiens, developed, not surprisingly, a particularly healthy relationship with this Canis lupus perantiquus. Both shared common interests, and humans were still just one of many species. The relationship was mutually beneficial and resulted in some humans favoring certain perantiquus and certain perantiquus finding human company particularly rewarding.

Natural selection favored the fittest and, as usual, species changed over the years. These changes can be so extensive that some species turn into new ones; others only into new subspecies. The Canis lupus perantiquus changed under selective pressure from humans and their environment and became Canis lupus familiaris. In a sense, we created this subspecies and all its variations to serve and protect us.

Some species react strongly to stimuli they have not experienced for thousands of years, the scent of a predator, for example. These alarming and life-saving key stimuli remain in the species’ gene pool, a kind of genetic memory. It is very unlikely that our fear of wolves stems from this kind of genetic memory; if we were that afraid of the wolf, we would never have gotten as close to it as we did. Perhaps we were afraid of the wolf in primitive times, but thousands of years of living in close proximity and cooperating would have changed that, as the least fearful members of both species would have benefited from the other. In those days, we can presume that the wolves that were least afraid of humans and capable of cooperating had better chances of survival and propagation (and ultimately turned into dogs); and conversely, the humans that were least afraid of wolves and were better at cooperating were more successful hunters, therefore survived and propagated (and ultimately turned into dog owners). Our fear of the wolf makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective, but perhaps it does from a psychological one. After all, we seem to fear what most resembles us—the enemy within!

Our fear and hatred of the wolf began long after the domestication, when humans took the first steps to distance themselves from nature, to enslave and exploit it—it happened when we invented agriculture. In the beginning, there was no war, only small-scale feuds provoked by the occasional domestic animal being taken by a wolf. The large-scale extermination of the wolf is not due to a single factor, but to an intermingled combination of factors that include mythology, religious zeal, environmental changes, economic incentives, and a deep psychological scar, as we shall see.

Mythology, such as Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables, evoke the wolf as evil, untrustworthy, conniving and cowardly, a greedy thief that will go to great lengths to devour a poor, little lamb, child or old person. Tales of Werewolves also exacerbated our fear and hatred of the wolf.

Religious convictions support our hatred of the wolf. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26-29). European farmers and American settlers were devout Christians, and they didn’t need a clearer incentive to declare war on all that crept upon the Earth. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-29)—and the wolf became the ultimate target and symbol of their mission.

There is a clear association between the wolf and the wild, the wilderness and the untamed. As Burbank puts it, “The New World wilderness, where the Pilgrims found themselves, was a sinister adversary, home of tribal savages who practiced evil. The Puritans regarded the wilderness itself as a howling beast, a wolf inspired by the Devil. In their desolation, they sojourned and their journey reminded them that believers wandered in a world of sin, a spiritual wilderness replete with Godless enemies and insane beasts that wanted only to consume the righteous.” (Burbank 1990:80)

Farming and the keeping of domestic animals in enclosures combined with the decimation of the wolf’s natural prey, forced the wolf to get closer to human settlements and to feed upon the occasional livestock. Today, most wolves avoid livestock when they have enough wild prey, but the wolves of the 1800s faced extreme food shortages and preyed upon cattle and sheep. That wasn’t a problem for rich farmers. Even the smaller family farms could have survived the subsequent economic loss. Nevertheless, governments attempted to solve the supposed problem by creating bounties in return for the head of a wolf. Besides shooting them, wolf hunters used traps, poison, denning (excavating a den and killing the cubs) and biological warfare (infecting captive wolves with sarcoptic mange and releasing them into the wild)—and so wolfing became a lucrative business.

Mythology, religious zeal, and the economy go a long way towards explaining the hatred but don’t explain everything. One thing is to control competition (it happens all the time in nature). Another is to embark on radical extermination and, what’s more, find pleasure in the practice of torture (such as setting wolves on fire, skinning them alive, hanging them, etc.). Such barbarism suggests the real reason for our hatred is well hidden and maybe closer to our hearts than we care to believe or dare to face.

As with all organisms, human evolution happens quietly and slowly unless some sudden, drastic environmental change prompts the selection of unusual traits. The human brain was the sudden, single, dramatic cause that prompted a huge leap in the evolution of the species—and it was not an external cause, it came indeed from deep within us. The human brain enabled man to devise farming, then science and technology, and ultimately an anthropocentric religion. Farming enabled us to multiply far beyond the average rate up until that time and to colonize the entire world. Advancements in science and technology gave us the tools to subdue all life on the planet. Religious convictions provided us with motive and momentum beyond all rationality.

There is a high price to pay when evolution equals revolution. The (relatively) quick adoption of dualism and a mechanistic view of the world forced us to part with holism and animism, and left us with deep scars. In order to obey God, conquer the world and subdue all that crept upon our planet, we had to sever our connection with the natural, unruly, uncivilized world. To live up to the moral laws of Christianity, we had to go against our nature, denying who we were and where we came from. We had to cover our tracks. All that reminded us of our holistic past had to be oppressed, suppressed, forgotten. The wilderness in general and the wolf in particular reminded us of our true nature, the very same nature we despised. It became them and us. They were symbols of the unruly, the untamed and we, the purveyors of God’s wishes and civilized order. They symbolized what we were, not what we wanted to be. We had to subdue our own wild side, a legacy from our ancestors from many millions of years ago, which had proved highly efficient for survival, yet was despised and denied by the Holy Church. We were imprinted with religious zeal, which elicited the need to stifle the symbolic wild wolf inside each one of us; and we denied our origins, a strategy that was always only going to work on a short-term basis. A conflict of identity was inevitable; the werewolf represents perhaps our struggle to switch from an organic to a mechanistic worldview.

While the dog represents what we aspire to be, the wolf stands for what we refuse to acknowledge as part of us. The dog represents control, reminds us of our power, and is testimony to our ability to tame the wild. The wolf is our guilty conscience, it reminds us of our humble origins, represents the freedom we gave up, the togetherness we abandoned.

Through his fables, Aesop contributed to the creation of many myths that were detrimental to the wolf by depicting it with all the characteristics we despise most. Unknowingly, hence most ironically, in one uncharacteristic fable, he epitomizes our age-old conflict. In “The Dog and the Wolf,” the dog invites the starving wolf to live with him and his master, but when the wolf discovers that it involves being chained, the wolf replies, “Then good-bye to you Master Dog. Better starve free than be a fat slave.”

We became fat slaves by our own choice; and the wolf poignantly reminds us that there was a time when we had other options—herein the dog (wolf) lies buried*.

“Looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy was in us,” says Private Chris Taylor in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon from 1986. Echoing Taylor, I’d say: we never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us. As long as we will remain in denial of our inheritance, the scar won’t heal, and the enemy will remain well entrenched within us—and so will we keep fighting the wolf.

Keep howling!

 

* “That’s where the dog lies buried,” means “that’s what lies behind.” This idiomatic expression exists in many languages, e.g. “da liegt der Hund begraben” (German), “siinä on koira haudattuna,” (Finish), “där är en hund begraven” (Swedish), but not in English. Most interestingly, the Swedish expression “att ana ugglor i mossen” (to suspect owls in the bog) meaning almost the same, comes from the Danish expression “der er ugler i mosen.” Originally, it wasn’t “ugler,” but “ulver” (wolves), which makes more sense since an owl in the bog is nothing special. Since the two words in some spoken Danish dialects are difficult to distinguish from one another, it was translated incorrectly into Swedish, and the expression re-introduced in Denmark with owls substituting wolves. The expression and its history was too good for me not to use it in the context of this article. I hope the native English speakers will regard it as an enrichment of the language, rather than a nuisance.

 

16 Things You Should Stop Doing In Order To Be Happy With Your Dog

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Roger Abrantes in 1986

Cover photo from the author’s book from 1986 “Hunden, vor ven” (The Dog, Our Friend) (photo by Ole Suszkievicz).


Here is a list of 16 things you should stop doing in order to make life with your dog happier and your relationship stronger. Difficult? Not at all. You just need to want to do it and then simply do it. You can begin as soon as you finish reading this.

1. Stop being fussy—don’t worry, be happy

Like most things in life, being a perfectionist has its advantages and disadvantages. When you own a dog, you tend to live by Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. There are so many variables that things seldom go 100% the way you expect. You can and should plan and train, but be prepared to accept all kinds of variations, improvisations, and minor mishaps along the way as long as no one is injured, of course. In most situations, less than perfect is better than good. Why worry about perfection—a concept that only exists in your mind—and doesn’t make anyone happy, neither you nor your dog?

2. Stop being too serious—have a laugh

If you don’t have a good sense of humor, don’t live with a dog. Dog ownership gives rise to many mishaps where laughter is the best way out. Mishaps are only embarrassing in our minds. Your dog doesn’t even know what embarrassment is, and you should follow its example. As long as no one gets hurt, just laugh at your and your dog’s mistakes.

3. Stop your desire to control everything—take it as it comes

When life with a dog is often dictated by Murphy’s Law, if you attempt to control your dog’s every move, you’ll end up with an ulcer or fall into a depression. Give up your need to control. Of course, you should be able to manage your dog’s behavior reasonably well for safety’s sake, but you should let go of anything that is not a matter of life or death. Reasonable rules are necessary and serve a purpose, but total control is unnecessary and self-defeating. Take it as it comes and keep smiling!

4. Stop apportioning blame—move on

When things go wrong, and they will, I assure you, don’t waste your time apportioning blame. Was it your fault, the dog’s fault, or the neighbor’s cat’s fault? Who cares? Move on and, if you found the scenario all rather upsetting, try to foresee a similar situation in the future and avoid it. If it was no big deal, forget about it.

5. Stop believing in old wives’ tales—be critical

The world is full of irrational, unfounded old wives’ tales. These days, the Internet provides us with quick and easy access to a lot of valuable information—and a lot of junk as well: bad arguments, bad definitions, unsubstantiated claims, fallacies, emotional statements, pseudo-science, sales promotions, hidden political agendas, religious preaching, etc. Of course, in the name of freedom of expression, I believe everyone should be allowed to post whatever they like, even the purest and most refined crap—but both you and I also have the right to disregard it. Use your critical thinking. Don’t stop asking yourself, “How can that be?” and “How did he/she come to that conclusion?” Suspend judgment and action until you have had time to ponder on it and, if necessary, seek a second and third opinion. If the argument is sound and you like it, then do it. If the argument is sound, but you don’t like it, don’t do it and think more about it. If the argument is unsound, reject it and think no more about it. Make up your own mind and do what you think is right.

6. Stop caring about labels—be free

We are over-swamped by labels because labels sell, but they only sell if you buy them. Should you be a positive, ultra-positive, R+, R+P-, balanced, naturalistic, moralistic, conservative, realistic, progressive, clickerian or authoritarian dog owner? Stop caring about what label you should bear. When you enjoy a great moment with your dog, the label you bear is irrelevant. A label is a burden; it restricts you and takes away your freedom. Labels are for insecure people who need to hide behind an image. Believe in yourself, be the dog owner you want to be and you won’t need labels.

7. Stop caring about what others think—live your life

You spend very little time with most of the people you meet, significantly more with family and close friends, but you live your whole life with yourself. So, why care about what other people think about you as a dog owner or your dog’s behavior, when you probably won’t see them again or will only ever see them sporadically? If they like you and your dog, fine. If they don’t, it’s not your problem.

8. Stop complaining—don’t waste your time

You only have a problem when there is a discrepancy between the way things are and the way you expect them to be. If your expectations are realistic, try and do something about achieving them. If they’re not, stop complaining, it’s a waste of time and energy. If you can do something about it, do it. If you can’t, move on. Period.

9. Stop excusing yourself—be yourself

You don’t have to excuse yourself or your dog for the way you are. As long as you don’t bother anyone, you are both entitled to do what you like and be the way you are. You don’t need to be good at anything, whether it be Obedience, Agility, Musical Free Style, Heel Work to Music, Flyball, Frisbee Dog, Earth Dog, Ski-Joring, Bike-Joring, Earthdog, Rally-O, Weight Pulling, Carting, Schutzhund, Herding, Nose Work, Therapy, Field Trials, Dock Dogs, Dog Diving, Disc Dogs, Ultimate Air Dogs, Super Retriever, Splash Dogs, Hang Time, Lure Course Racing, Sled Dog Racing or Treibball; and you don’t need excuses as to why not. You don’t even need to excuse the fact that your dog can’t sit properly. Change what you want to change and can change; and don’t waste time and energy thinking about what you don’t want to, don’t need to or can’t change. Do whatever you and your dog enjoy, however you like, so that both you and your dog are happy. It’s as simple as that!

10. Stop feeling bad—act now

If you’re unhappy with any particular aspect of your life with your dog, do something to change it. Identify the problem, set a goal, make a plan and implement it. Feeling bad and guilty doesn’t help anyone—it doesn’t help you, your dog, or the cherished ones with whom you share your life.

11. Stop your urge to own—be a mate

The ownership of living beings is slavery; and, thankfully, slavery is abolished. Don’t regard yourself as the owner of your dog. Think of your dog as a younger and less experienced mate you are responsible for and needs your guidance. You don’t own your children, your partner or your friends either.

12. Stop dependency—untie your self

Love has nothing to do with dependency, obsession and craving, quite the contrary. Love your dog but don’t create mutual dependency. Have a life of your own and give your dog some space. You and your dog are two independent individuals. Enjoy living together as free agents, not being addicted each other. Stop projecting yourself onto your dog.

13. Stop turning your dog into a substitute—show respect

A dog is a dog, and it is indeed a remarkable living being. Love it, enjoy its company, but don’t make it a substitute for a human partner, a friend, a child or a spouse. To expect anyone to be a substitute is the greatest disrespect you can show to a human as well as non-human animal—and to yourself. Stop letting your dog play a role for you and begin to love your dog as a dog.

14. Stop rationalizing—be truthful

All relationships are trades: you give and you take. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as there is balance. Be honest with yourself: what does your dog give you and what do you give your dog? If you find that one of you is almost solely a giver or a taker, think about it and redress the balance. Your dog needs you, just as you need your dog and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you both are givers and takers. You didn’t get your dog just to save the poor, little creature. You got your dog so you could both enjoy a solid and fruitful partnership.

15. Stop wanting what you can’t have—be happy with what you’ve got

That is a very common human characteristic: you always want what you haven’t, and you are blind to all the good you do have. Your dog gives you a great deal, and the two of you can be perfectly happy together, even if your dog is not particularly good at anything. It’s amazing how dog owners say they love their dogs, and yet they spend most of the time trying to change their behavior. Focus on what you do have, not on what you don’t, appreciate it and be grateful for it.

16. Stop fighting yourself—follow your heart

There are many different ways of being a good dog owner, and yours is your own and different to everyone else’s. It’s your life. As long as you don’t harm anyone, live it the way that feels good for you. Listen to experts, ponder on their advice, but, at the end of the day, do what you feel is right for you, follow your heart. Be yourself.

Life is great!

 

Can my dog be happy or sad?

Sad dog on hardwood floor.

If it is a sin to attribute human characteristics to other animals, it must also be a sin to say that because we do, they don’t, because we can, they can’t.

 

If you ask me “Can my dog be happy or sad?” I will ask you back “Can you?” and if you answer, “Yes, of course,” then I’ll say, “In that case, probably so can your dog, albeit differently from you—a difference of degree, not of kind.”

Anthropomorphism means to attribute human characteristics to (other) animals.  The argument for anthropomorphism is valid enough: if I can’t prove (verify) something, I’d better disregard it (at least scientifically)—and I can’t prove that my dog is happy, sad, or loves me.

Yet, it seems to me, that the opposite (of anthropomorphism) is as wrong. It is true that we can’t prove whether an animal can be happy or sad, but we can’t prove either that it can’t. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We know nothing about one or the other. All we can see is behavior and the rest is guesswork.

If it is a sin to attribute human characteristics to other animals, it must also be a sin to say that because we do, they don’t, because we can, they can’t.

Bottom-line: Don’t assume that others feel the same as you do, not your fellow humans, not other animals. Don’t assume either that they don’t, because they might.

Life is a puzzle, enjoy it!

"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

If animal behavior fascinates you, you will enjoy "Ethology—The Study of Animal Behavior in the Natural Environment," the book and course by ethologist Roger Abrantes.
Enrolling for this course puts you in direct contact with the author to whom you can pose any question while you complete your coursework. Click here to read more and enroll.