Wolves Are Still the Bad Guys in Children’s Media. Let’s Change That.
By portraying predators as villains, we are influencing how our children perceive the natural world
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Last summer my daughter, Josephine, and I visited a zoo that houses two wolves, both of which were born in captivity. Josephine had approached all the other animals at the zoo with curiosity, but when I pointed out the wolves, she stopped in her tracks. “Are they bad wolves, Mama?” she asked with fear in her voice.
I explained that wolves aren’t generally dangerous to people—and can even benefit biodiversity—but in her three-year-old morality that separates the world into good guys and bad guys, the wolves’ reputation had already been cemented as cruel and villainous. And I knew exactly where that view had come from.
Over the previous year, with her father working as a nurse on the front lines of the pandemic and me trying to maintain my journalism career with little or no childcare, we watched more movies than I care to admit. During all those hours of guilt-inducing screen time, I’d noticed a disturbing trend: in children’s media, wolves are often shown as bloodthirsty killers, chasing heroic figures across a frozen landscape.
Wolves have been portrayed negatively in Western literature and folktales for thousands of years, from Aesop’s fables to Little Red Riding Hood to the Three Little Pigs, so I wasn’t surprised to see this cliché as well in movies like Beauty and the Beast. But because recent decades have seen a shift from trying to exterminate wolves to spending millions of dollars on their recovery—and because one of the biggest barriers to wolf reintroduction is human antipathy—I was dismayed to discover that even newer films like Frozen and The Secret Life of Pets 2 perpetuate the stereotype of the big bad wolf. Predators like sharks (sometimes called the “wolves of the sea”) get similar treatment, despite the fact that most wild predators pose far less of a threat to humans than domestic dogs.
I’m thrilled by the possibility of listening to the howls of a wolf pack while camping with my daughter in our backyard mountains.
The stories we tell our children influence how they perceive and interact with the world. And while there are still geographic and cultural pockets where wolves are unwelcome, we’re moving toward a future in which more of us will have to coexist with these animals. Wildlife managers have successfully brought Mexican wolves back to parts of the Southwest, while gray wolves are recolonizing the Pacific Northwest on their own. Last year, Coloradans voted in favor of reintroducing wolves to the state’s Western Slope, where I live. I was among those who voted for reintroduction; I’m thrilled by the possibility of listening to the howls of a wolf pack while camping with my daughter in our backyard mountains.
If this happens, I don’t want Jo to be as terrified as she was seeing captive wolves at the zoo last summer. To counteract the “bad” wolves flashing across our screen, I’ve begun telling her stories of times I’ve seen wolves in my own life. I try to impart the reverence and awe I’ve felt watching such creatures in the their natural habitat, but since my stories apparently pack less of an emotional punch than a Disney movie, I’ve also begun seeking out books and films that show a different side of wolves. So far we’ve watched Balto and Wolfwalkers, the latter a 2020 film about a girl who turns into a wolf and must help save her fellow canines—and the wild lands they inhabit—from vengeful humans. For a less fantastical take, the book Bringing Back the Wolves, by Jude Isabella and Kim Smith, is a scientifically accurate story of how the reintroduction of wolves to the greater Yellowstone area restored entire ecosystems, right down to the grasses and plants.
Isabella (who, full disclosure, I’ve worked with in the past) recently shared that Bringing Back the Wolves was included on the American Library Association’s 2020 list of banned and challenged books, highlighting just how deeply entrenched our cultural biases against wolves are. While these prejudices took shape during a time when many people of European heritage saw wolves—and the wildness they symbolize—as something to be reviled, tamed, or outright eliminated, we’ve reached an era in which those views are no longer necessary and may even be harmful.
Today, if we hope to preserve whatever wildness is left in the world, we need to tell our children fewer stories that portray integral parts of nature as evil and more that show predators and prey alike as part of an intricate web that sustains us all. So if you’re cuddling up with a movie or children’s books this winter, take a moment to consider how the media you choose may impact your child’s relationship with the natural world.