Review of Wetherell, Wildlife, Land, and People

Naturalist Ernie Kuyt assessing the viability of a Whooping Crane egg at Wood Buffalo National Park, 1 August 1988. Canadian Field Naturalist. Internet Archive

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Donald G. Wetherell, Wildlife, Land, and People: A Century of Change in Prairie Canada. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016. 640 pgs, ISBN 9780773547919.

Reviewed by Ian Jesse.

Recently, historians increasingly work to understand how humans have related to animals in the past. Harriet Ritvo pioneered the subfield of animal history and it has been carried on by many others including Susan Nance, Dolly Jørgensen, and Joanna Dean. Wildlife, Land, and People, continues this exploration by examining the changing connections between humans and non-domesticated animals in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Through the use of archival, newspaper, literary, and scientific sources, Wetherell argues that “by the late nineteenth century, the view that wildlife should serve the economic, social, and personal needs and goals of incoming settlers was entrenched in private and public life.” He suggests this way of thinking was prevalent from 1870 until the 1960s, when science and society understood animal life as “an interconnected web whose individual elements could not be removed – and neither could new elements be added to it – without bringing change to an ecosystem” (xxvii).

Wetherell divides his study into three sections. Part One outlines the ecological changes that occurred in the Prairie provinces and the agrarian view that shaped human and animal relationships after 1870. Part Two examines cultural and scientific views of animals and identifies a dichotomous mode of thought that is traced through most of the study: Wetherell finds that prairie Canadians tended to view animals as either “friends or foes” (74-114). For example, some farmers viewed particular species of birds as friends because they consumed insects or weeds; species that threatened those same farmers’ crops or livestock were enemies. The view of a wildlife species as a friend or as a foe was not always straightforward. Wetherell demonstrates that the same species could fit the characteristics of either category depending on a person’s relationship to that animal in their environment. For example, different communities debated which category the crow best fit into during the early twentieth century. Farmers considered them friends because they devoured a variety of pests, but sport hunters perceived them as foes because they also destroyed the eggs of game birds (93-94). Such polarizing views are shown to have given way, for the most part, to a more complex understanding of ecosystems by the 1960s.

In recognition of the fact that there is no universal relationship between humans and wild animals, Part Three, which is by far the largest section of the book, comprises ten chapters that each serve as a case study. These chapters explore state conservation efforts, eating wild animals, hunting animals for sport, interactions between farmers and wildlife, the use of animals by First Nations to engage with the economy, trapping animals for fur, and the presentation of animals in national parks, museums, and zoos. This range of topics emphasizes the particular context of human-animal interactions. While there is no singular narrative to follow through this section, the chapters are all united by shared environmental, political, and social developments in a specific geography: prairie Canada. Because of this loose structure, readers will have an easy time drawing information from discrete chapters relevant to their own interests. Wetherell covers three Canadian provinces but the broader implications of this book will no doubt be of interest to historians who examine the complicated relationships between humans and other animals in varying temporal and spatial contexts.

Image from page 1763 of “Hardware merchandising September-December 1919” (1919). Internet Archive

Wetherell shows that each province managed human/animal relationships in different ways. This is best demonstrated in the chapter on the connections between animals, First Nations, and economic stability. By the 1930s, prairie governments had implemented registered trapping programs in which leases granting exclusive access to fur-bearers in a particular location could be obtained. To receive a lease, trappers needed to submit a formal application. This process, Wetherell shows, marginalized Aboriginal trappers who “had a poor grasp of English and no skill at paperwork” (314). By the 1940s, Manitoba and Saskatchewan recognized the communal practices of First Nations and began to issue group leases. Although imperfect, this was at least an attempt to “grapple with the social and economic needs of Aboriginal and other northern people” (317). Conversely, Alberta ignored First Nation status and continued to register trap lines on an individual basis and in the order in which the government received applications. Such differences highlight the distinct political and bureaucratic circumstances in which human-animal engagements developed and were managed.

This book concentrates on rural districts, with the result that relationships between humans and urban wildlife do not appear. Wetherell does bring the story into urban centers when he focuses on zoos. He traces their growth after World War II, when zoological societies increasingly collected and displayed more exotic species to attract curious visitors. However, aside from taking the reader into these highly artificial settings, the author does not emphasize wild animals in cities. The reader is left wondering how animals such as raccoons and squirrels were perceived in cities like Edmonton and Calgary.

Wetherell’s book is not just a story of people and wildlife; it is about the ways in which a society envisioned its relation to the world around it. Environmental histories often have bleak endings, but his refreshing conclusion leaves room for hope. While there is much to regret in the modern history of human-animal relations in the prairie provinces – consider, for example, the depletion of plains bison caused by human actions – societies can move forward in positive ways; attitudes towards wild animals in prairie Canada did eventually shift and humans began to see them as more than just friends or foes. Such changes, however, do not occur without great effort to alter public perceptions. As Wetherell points out, such endeavors require us to evaluate which human-animal relationships should be given preference and what we are willing to sacrifice so that we may co-exist with other species. Wildlife, Land, and People is an important step in this direction.

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Ian Jesse

Ian J. Jesse is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Maine. His research explores the varied connections between wild animals and rural communities in the Northeast. He received 2017-2018 Fulbright Doctoral Student Fellowship and currently holds a University of Maine Canadian-American Center Fellowship.

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