Stephanie Rutherford, Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022. 239 pgs. ISBN 9780228011088.
Reviewed by Endre Harvold Kvangraven.
Having written a literary non-fiction book about the cultural history of wolves in Norway,1 I was intrigued to find that Stephanie Rutherford has done something similar for wolves in Canada. In Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin, Rutherford traces how the sociocultural role of wolves in Canada has changed over time, and how this is reflected in a wide range of practices, from bounty-driven wolf extermination through ecological research to wildlife tourism. Her book is directed at a more academic readership than mine, but follows a similar format, with thematically arranged chapters that trace a rough chronology from the nineteenth century to the present day, complemented by a handful of carefully selected black-and-white images. Canada, of course, still has plenty of wolves, a considerable proportion of the global population, in contrast to the inbred, critically endangered sub-population hanging on by a thread in Norway.
Bridging environmental history, human-animal studies and conservation biology, Rutherford synthesises a range of environmental, sociocultural, and political aspects of human-wolf relations into a concise whole. Drawing on Foucault, she takes a biopolitical perspective, also engaging with thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembé, but avoids excessive theorising and presents the relevant points in a clear, easily accessible way.
Recounting frightening anecdotes about encounters between settlers and wolves, Rutherford notes that it is “almost as if there was a cultural template for them” (31). If so, this template is by no means unique to Canada or North America but spans across Europe into Russia. Exploring how wolf representations are developed in literature, she focuses on Ernest Thompson Seton, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Farley Mowat, all of whom were passionate about wolves, but in different ways, from seeking knowledge about them, wanting to eradicate them, and wanting to become them. She then goes on to trace how the rise of ecology and wildlife management as disciplines led to new understandings of wolves, touching on the work of renowned ecologists such as Adolph Murie, Aldo Leopold, Ian McTaggart-Cowan, and John B. Theberge, and paying particular attention to Douglas Pimlott’s work on wolves in Algonquin.
Since the mid-1960s, the Algonquin Public Wolf Howl has annually drawn hundreds, sometimes thousands, of tourists from far and wide, all hoping for the chance to hear wolves howling, but as Rutherford shows, this stands in sharp contrast to how the sound was perceived in times past. Where wolf persecution once functioned as a means of nation-building, wolves have now become a symbol of wild nature and a source of Canadian national pride.
Yet, wolves signify widely different things for different groups of people, and thinking of wolves as symbols can distract us from the fact that we are dealing with biological animals with needs, desires and agency all their own. Rutherford argues that our tendency to interpret animals symbolically entails “dividing and distancing practice[s]” which often result in “violence to the actual animals themselves” (145). Against this framework, she suggests that Indigenous understandings, which acknowledge the wolf’s impressive hunting skills and posit it as an animal we can learn from, come closer to respecting their full complexity.
In Canada, wolf persecution was clearly a settler colonial project. Settlers demonised the wild, but today, many wolf enthusiasts are led in the opposite direction, celebrating an “idealised wild” (145) that can entail a “contempt for the domesticated” (140). This is reflected in the popular but problematic practice of keeping wolfdogs, which are purchased in a quest for authentic connection with wild nature but generally turn out to be hard to handle. Tensions between the wild and the tame come to a head in Rutherford’s discussion of so-called coywolves, hybrids that seem to do just as well in urban areas as in wilderness. For Rutherford, the coywolf, having come into being as a consequence of past wolf extermination, which caused coyote populations to expand, is “an animal of the Anthropocene,” challenging species boundaries and blurring the divide between the rural and the urban (150). Many conservation biologists consider coywolves to be “impure” animals, “unworthy of conservation,” but the mixed ancestry of the eastern wolves from which they are partly descended only goes to show that “[t]he politics of purity has no place in the canine world” (161). Here, Rutherford’s arguments also pertain to the situation in Europe, where wolf recovery has largely taken place in areas dominated by agriculture, while wolf persecution has created the conditions for golden jackals to expand their range. The very flexibility and adaptability of canids render them peculiarly capable of upsetting entrenched notions of species and landscape.
Tackling ecologically complex issues such as the decline of mountain caribou, Rutherford offers nuanced and insightful analysis, pointing out how the BC government, unwilling to protect or restore critical caribou habitat fragmented by logging, mining and pipelines, has settled for the easy option of culling wolves, a biopolitical move justified on the grounds that wolves are not endangered in Canada. This is then contrasted against how the Salteaux and West Moberly First Nations have taken the initiative for a long-term caribou recovery plan that involves maternal pens and habitat restoration, offering hope that there will come a time when wolf culls will no longer be necessary. Rutherford’s discussion of Indigenous-led approaches to wildlife management, based on connection and intimacy, will be an eye-opener to many, showing that, at least in Canada, viable, place-based alternatives to conventional wildlife management already exist. To what extent this applies to other parts of the world could be a topic for further research.
In light of the already massive corpus of literature available on human–wolf relations, Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin brings readers up to date with recent developments and shifts the focus from the United States to Canada, which, after all, is where most of the wolves are. Most of all, it is an important book because it presents a vision of coexistence rooted in Indigenous knowledge systems that can provide a sustainable and more equitable model for our relations with nonhumans. It is a valuable, groundbreaking contribution that will be of interest to environmental humanities scholars and conservationists alike.
- Endre Harvold Kvangraven, Ulv i det norske kulturlandskapet (Oslo: Res Publica, 2021).