For a number of years now, the grey wolf has been the primary North American charismatic megafauna to be associated with the environmental movement, particularly that involving preserving wilderness habitats. Beyond the environmental movement, wolves capture imaginations (and cliches) like no other animal in the American consciousness, from werewolves (both scary and…uh…well, not quite sparkly) to truck stop t-shirts, and then some. Unfortunately, attraction in the symbolic value of wolves doesn’t always translate to care for the actual physical animals; I’m willing to lay odds people spend more money on wolf statues and shirts and other tchotchkes than they do donating time and/or money to nonprofits that work to preserve wilderness, or contacting their elected officials about wilderness and wildlife protections.
And because Wolf is such a popular totem, s/he’s often taken for granted. It’s gotten to the point where some people are reluctant to admit that Grey Wolf is their totem because so many others essentially choose Wolf because s/he’s “cool” (to borrow an idea from this excellent essay by Ravenari). And, bringing things back to the environmental movement, I’ve heard environmentalists stereotyped by more conservative factions as “just people who think wolves are puppies and trees need hugging”. Which can make it tough sometimes to admit either being an environmentalist or liking wolves/Wolf the totem/etc.
To be fair, there are reasons for the sparkly stereotypes. There are environmentalists who think that all you need to do is recycle your old newspapers, or who are convinced that everyone needs to get off the grid and be vegans. And there are people who claim Wolf as a totem who never go any farther than that claim, and maybe reading the entry for Wolf in Animal-Speak (not no actual books about wolves). Sometimes people grow out of it and get more critical thinking skills or depth of understanding; others simply stay put. Either way, Wolf often becomes a mere mascot for surface interpretations of pretty complex topics. But that doesn’t mean that there is no value to the Wolf = environment connection.
For example, I was reading about how wolves are not only hunters but skilled scavengers as well. Hunting is dangerous, especially when it comes to going after big game. The payoff is better in the amount of meat, but the risk of severe injury or death is significantly different between hunting a rabbit, and hunting an elk. And carrion is even less dangerous, as long as it isn’t too old and moldy. So what wolf, needing to eat out in the wild to survive, would turn down an easy meal? Yet scavenging isn’t seen as sexy in American culture, other than in certain subcultures where the DIY (do it yourself) ethic is valued. Wolves, in mainstream culture, are usually depicted as ferocious hunters taking down large game, sometimes even supposedly as lone hunters. (Anyone remember that scene in Wolf where Jack-Nicholson-the-werewolf takes down a full-grown deer all by himself–in human form?*) In popular media, scavenging is largely left to the much-maligned vultures (this maligning is largely undeserved, as I explain here).
Human scavengers get a bad rap, too. There’s a lot of pressure in this culture to buy the newest, most bestest material goods EVER. If you buy secondhand, or get things repaired, it’s assumed that it’s because you simply can’t afford anything else, poor you (literally). Yet a lot of the people who apply the Reuse portion of Reuse-Reduce-Recycle to their everyday lives are perfectly capable of buying new–but choose not to. Of course, you have people who have to go that route, whether it’s only being able to buy clothing at Goodwill, or spending a lot of time dumpster diving out of sheer necessity.
So we can metaphorically equate the scavenging efforts of wolves to those of humans, as well as the attitudes toward scavenging–it’s supposed to be invisible in the powerful. At the same time, hunting, and particularly solitary hunting, is seen as the epitome of skill and worth, and so people who primarily make their living at a well-paying day job and throw their money around are seen by many as more successful or important than someone who lives more modestly within their means. The pursuit of the individual paycheck, and the hunt for the big game, is seen as superior to making use of what the “successful” have discarded.
Yet Wolf is an important symbol in all this. Wolf does both, and finds both to be nourishing. Having the skills to be able to both hunt and scavenge means more opportunities than in specializing in only one of those. In addition, scavenging carcasses is a necessary way to prevent the spread of disease, and other effects of leaving dead bodies around too long, as well as requiring fewer deaths overall; it’s good for the environment. Similarly, though for some different reasons, human scavenging and getting the most use out of secondhand resources is also good for the environment by creating less demand for new materials and reducing waste.
So there’s a good bit to be learned from Wolf in all this. Versatility, and not being afraid to do what needs to be done, regardless of what that is, are key points here. Wolf is both Hunter and Scavenger, and perhaps Wolf’s human counterparts may be able to take this lesson and apply it to real-world change.
* Okay, admittedly, Jack Nicholson made an awesome werewolf as far as I’m concerned. However, his awesomeness should not be taken as natural history by any stretch of the means.