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By Robert Sibley, Ottawa Citizen June 5, 2013
If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit.
For whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man.
-- Attributed to Squamish Chief Seattle, 1854
Should the wolves of Isle Royale be saved?
Biologists are debating whether to let this dwindling population -- located on
an island in Lake Superior off Thunder Bay -- go extinct. As Citizen reporter
Tom Spears recently related, there's now only a handful of the increasingly
inbred animals and, left to themselves, they will likely die out in a few years.
The quandary for the scientists is whether to leave the island's wolves to their
fate because we shouldn't interfere with a natural process, or use our
technological prowess for "genetic rescue."
The inclination, no doubt, is to intervene. We create greenbelts, national parks
and wildlife sanctuaries, all in the name of preserving those remnants of the
natural world we deem worthy, so why not save the wolves? The biologists'
dilemma, however, points up the paradox of our relationship with the natural
world. That fact that we can even indulge an impulse to save an animal
population reflects a kind of technological-mindedness that threatens nature in
the first place. Indeed, the concept of "wildlife" is a human
thought-construction rooted not only of our concern to protect nature, but of
our awareness that we are in many ways responsible for the destruction of so
much of the natural world.
I suspect your choice regarding the wolves -- salvation or extinction? --
depends on your location along the biopolitical spectrum. Are you inclined, at
one extreme, to be a red-of-tooth-and-sharp-of-claw Darwinian, or, at the other
end, a green ideologue who regards the human species as a planetary virus? Most
of us, I presume, occupy a place somewhere between Darwinian bloodthirstiness
and Walt Disney sentimentality. So how do we decide about the wolves? A
philosophical perspective is helpful.
Wolves and humans have much in common, not only biological (we, too, are
carnivores, at least until the vegetarians overwhelm us), but also geopolitical.
Wolves have the broadest natural distribution of terrestrial mammals, save for
humans. Millions of wolves once roamed throughout North America. However, human
encroachment, loss of habitat and campaigns of extirpation have reduced those
numbers and their range. Nowadays, significant wolf populations are found mostly
in northern Canada, the Yukon in particular, and Alaska. Arguably, this makes
the wolves of Isle Royale special, and, I imagine, the general sentiment would
be to save them.
As Marco Musiani and Paul Paquet observe in a 2004 essay, The Practices of
Wolves, in the journal Bioscience, "preservationist groups and large sectors of
the public (now) regard the wolf positively, viewing its preservation as a high
priority for wildlife conservation efforts."
The paradox, however, is that whichever way we decide we are guilty of what
environmental philosopher Neil Evernden refers to as "resourcism;" that is to
say, a human-centred world view that regards nature as a resource subject to our
Four hundred years ago, at the dawn of the Age of Science, Francis Bacon, the
father of the scientific method, argued that improving the human condition
requires us to be masters of the world.
This meant we had to "vex," "torture" and "enslave" nature to reveal its
secrets. Nature, in other words, was to be regarded as mere matter, dead stuff,
available for us to exploit to satisfy our desires, an object of value subject
to human will. This anthropocentric attitude, sustained by the scientific
rationalization of nature, resides at the root of centuries of environmental
Yet -- and here, to repeat, is the paradox -- this same world view is reflected
in our notions about saving the planet and protecting wildlife. The
human-centrism that marked the "death of nature" has been flipped on its head to
"protect" nature. As political scientist Sara Rinfret argues in a 2009 essay,
"species management involves using sophisticated technology to create a
disciplined, yet human-constructed, representation of the wild in the behaviour
of reintroduced animals." In other words, whether we save the Isle Royale wolves
or not, it is a matter of technology and, thus, a demonstration of our mastery
of the planet.
Why is this important to understand? Because regardless of our altruistic
impulses "resourcism" and "species management" reveal our radical separation
from the non-human. To borrow Neil Evernden's phrase, we are "natural aliens."
We can never return to the Eden of the African savannah. (Not that anyone in
their right mind would want to.) Yet, as Evernden writes in his classic 1985
book, The Natural Alien, to the degree we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge
this distance between the human and the natural, "we deny ourselves access to
(the world) as a home."
The wolves of Isle Royale offer an occasion for access. Admittedly, this is
still to regard them in anthropocentric terms, but there's no way around that at
this stage in our evolution, and we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking our
salvational efforts are egoless. But it is also true that, as humans, we
perpetually seek a deeper meaning to our lives, a greater sense of belonging to
something beyond our consciousness.
Our relationship with the non-human can be a source of that experience.
Wildlife activist Renée Askins sums it up admirably in her 2002 book, Shadow
Mountain: "Something mysterious happens when we look into the eyes of an animal.
We see something that is in us and yet without us, something we recognize and
yet is unfamiliar, something we fear but for which we long."
So, yes, save the wolves. Let us be worthy masters. It might makes us a little
less alien, a little less lonely.
Robert Sibley is a senior writer for the Citizen, currently attached to the