The release of The Grey, an action-packed thriller set in the Alaskan wilderness that pits man against wolf, could not have arrived in theaters at a worse time for OR-7 (a.k.a. Journey) the male gray wolf that left his pack in northwest Oregon late last year and moved into California, solo, looking for a mate. In doing so, he became the first wild wolf to enter the state since the species was exterminated there, more than 80 years ago. And he’s been greeted with scorn from Northern California ranchers, some of who have expressed interest in finding, killing, and burying the animal. (Wildlife officials are tracking the collared animal via GPS, but delaying the release of the data to keep would-be hunters on a cold trail.)
The film’s release is also bad timing for wolf advocates who are trying hard to get wolves back under the legislative protection of the Endangered Species List. In Oregon, WildEarth Guardians has launched a boycott of the film based on its negative portrayal of the animals. The gist of the film: massive, bloodthirsty wolves terrorize survivors of a plane crash. Liam Neeson’s character fights back with makeshift weapons that seem better suited to a gang fight. The takeaway: wolves hate us and want to kill us. Another takeaway, via Outside’s Brad Wieners: It’s a dumb movie.
But how much can this movie do to inflate the image of the big bad wolf? Will it actually sway the many ongoing debates between wolf advocates and ranchers, who want more freedom to protect their livestock and want to pull wolf management duties away from the federal government?
“I think that it will, in fact, have a very detrimental effect on ongoing efforts to get protection back for the wolves,” says Marc Bekoff, a former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who now writes books about animal welfare and advocates for protecting wolves and other predator species. “The advertisements I’ve seen have really focused on an aggressive, predatory, and violent nature of wolves. They’re not like that. There’s only one documented case of a human fatality by a non-rabid wolf in North America in recent history*. Their major mode of existence is to live in cooperative, cohesive packs, but you’re not going to see this portrayed in a movie, because blood sells. Movies do not have to answer to the science. Movies like The Grey aren’t fact-based and I think they should be, given how accessible the facts are.”
Jon Coleman, an associate history professor at Notre Dame and author of Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, has studied attitudes and perceptions of wolves throughout American history. He notes that while The Grey certainly won’t do wolves any favors and is potentially dangerous for conservation efforts, there are also other depictions of wolves that have arisen in recent history. “There is the New Age wolf, which is a mystical animal, and there’s this ecological wolf that is [described as] a keystone animal and a bellwether about the environment. There is a collection of positive treatments of wolves that have certainly helped” conservation efforts.
Oddly enough, he says, it was someone who was responsible for eliminating wolves from the American landscape that also helped introduce romantic notions of wolves to American culture during the 1920s. “The guy I talk about in my book is Stanley Young, who was a bureaucrat. He was in charge of exterminating pests, such as wolves and coyotes. That was his day job. But on weekends he wrote folkloric tales” about wolves. Facing a future without wolves, did people want to create a new, more playful image?
If they did, they had a lot of undoing to do, first, because Young was far from the first to assign personalities to wolves. “Wolves are a proxy for all different kinds of threats,” says Coleman, be they natural, social or religious. “Mormons were depicted as wolves. Native Americans were continuously conflated with wolves. So historically, “killing wolves is a way to get back at a whole list of adversaries that you feel threatened by.”
Today, many Americans feel that big government is a threat. Regulation is a threat. The reintroduction of wolves was “sponsored by the federal government,” says Colemen. “So wolves are ripe to be a symbol of that government. I think that’s a lot of what fuels the animosity. Environmentalism does, as well. It gets down to an argument of who knows nature, and wolves get snarled in that debate.
Environmentalists and government officials present wolves as benign to human beings and then you have a rancher who might be economically effected and maybe emotionally as well if they see their livelihood being attacked by these animals. This is contrasted with this characterization – and maybe this is more of a caricature – of wolves as animals that do no harm. If you look at it from rancher’s perspective I can see where they are coming from.”
In other words, the debate isn’t just about what is ecologically sustainable, and what number of wolves is too many or too few. “If all the government had to do was worry about managing wolves, they could pretty effectively satisfy those who get their livestock threatened [through financial compensation], or they could cull populations that got too large.” But the government is also managing expectorations – both those of wolf lovers and those who are adamant that wolves do not belong in Western landscapes.
Because they live and work in packs, they’re more like us than many other predators. And their numbers also inflate fears – “one of the themes that keeps reoccurring in my research is the image of being surrounded by a pack of wolves,” says Coleman.
Go about 1:19 deep into the trailer for The Grey and guess what you’ll find? A scene in which the men, having survived a plane crash, are surrounded by a pack of wolves.
While he says moviemakers should stick to the facts, Bekoff concedes that facts aren’t what propel the conversation. “It’s got nothing to do with science,” he says. “It’s all to do with heart. It depends on what side you’re on.”
* A previous version omitted the words "in recent history" from Bekoff's quote about human fatalities. Other fatalities have been documented but they date back to 1910 and earlier. Also, conflicting investigations into a 2005 death near a garbgage dumb in Saskatchewan show the man was killed by either wolves or bear.
--Mary Catherine O'Connor