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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, August 31st, 2004


 

Vicious: Wolves and Men in America

by Jon T Coleman

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

This is a sick-making book. It chronicles and interprets Americans' relations with wolves by following a single European immigration path from southern New England in the 1620s to Colorado in the early twentieth century, by which time hundreds of thousands of the animals had been slaughtered, rendering them all but extinct in the United States. (By the way, not a single case of a wolf's killing a human being has been recorded in North America.) But Coleman, a Notre Dame historian who evinces impatience bordering on contempt for those who sentimentalize animals, isn't concerned with this environmental catastrophe -- which, as he makes clear, was explicable if not inevitable, given wolves' peculiar vulnerabilities and the insatiable demands of modern settlement and agriculture. Rather, he seeks to fathom the 300-year history of limitless sadism that attended the wolves' extermination. These canids were not merely annihilated: they were dragged behind horses until they ripped apart; they were set on fire; they were hamstrung; their backs were broken; they were captured alive to be released with their mouths or penises wired shut; their intestines were torn open by hooks hidden in balls of tallow left for them to eat. And as the abundant historical record shows, wolves responded to capture (they were regularly caught in traps or in their dens) not by lashing out but by submission; human beings as a matter of course ignored "a frightened creature's obvious pleas for mercy" and proceeded to torture. Coleman asserts that what he euphemistically calls "agricultural pacification" demands no explanation; but "why," he asks,"was death not enough?" The formal and informal campaigns to terrorize and exterminate wolves because of their ubiquity and the menace they posed to open-range livestock (the most concentrated form of wealth for most Americans for most of the country's history) are well documented, and Coleman proves an indefatigable researcher as he traces this orgy of brutality. But the very evidence he reveals renders the answers he offers to his central question unconvincing -- which makes his study all the more disturbing. Coleman asserts that since human beings aren't "intrinsically sinister," their behavior toward wolves has to be understood in its cultural and historical context. He thus looks to folklore and to the specific challenges that beset Euro-Americans. To be sure, killing and torturing wolves to some degree represented a desire to "bring order to a rambunctious natural environment" and were "expressions of revenge, anger, and dominion," as Coleman avers. But that doesn't make the behavior any more understandable or, for that matter, any less "sinister" -- after all, many instances of, say, sexual violence are for the perpetrator also expressions of revenge, anger, and dominion; and the lynching of African-American men in the South could be described in precisely the same terms Coleman employs to explain the torture of wolves: "conservative brutality"; "atrocities committed in the name of order, authority, and decorum." Although wolves plainly carried a great deal of folkloric baggage for Euro-Americans, they were hardly the only animals to suffer sadistic treatment; a variety of creatures "fell victim to an animal whose behavior mocked the rules of predation." "Human hunters not only attacked without constraint, they often expended more calories killing beasts than they gained digesting them. " And Coleman offhandedly notes,"Many rural Americans considered brutalizing wild creatures amusing. They recounted instances of stabbing, hacking, and pitchforking animals with fondness." The capture and torture of wolves was often recorded, but, for instance, raccoons (often treed for sport) probably suffered a no less atrocious fate. Despite his prodigious research, the author seems to be groping for answers to his intelligently and originally framed question, because ultimately cruelty isn't subject to the "historical analysis" he promises. That analysis can partially explain why cruelty was directed at certain targets at certain times, but it can't explain the cruelty itself; Coleman can't in fact tell us why death was not enough. As E. L. Godkin wrote in 1893, when trying to explain lynching,"We venture to assert that seven-eighths of every lynching party is composed of pure, sporting mob, which goes...just as it goes to a cockfight...for the gratification of the lowest and most degraded instincts of humanity. " The terrible truth (obvious in the photographs of the broken and mutilated victims in this book), the only explanation for the history Coleman records, is that given half a chance, too many men will behave viciously. (This is one of two sweeping and ambitious scholarly studies of animal-human relations in American history to be published this season. The other is Oxford's Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, by Virginia DeJohn Anderson. Also being published, by North Point, is Mark Derr's at times perceptive but somewhat cobbled-together popular history, A Dog's History of America. )


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