Will ‘The Grey’ set wolf conservation back?

February 6, 2012 at 10:02 pm 9 comments

A grey wolf

If you read the press at the moment, there is mounting pressure on wolves, particularly in America, where they have had a chequered history from the time Europeans settled on the continent.  It seems that the wolf is once again becoming fair game to be killed in their hundreds by whatever means necessary, whether this is aerial gunning, trapping, snaring or being shot.  Add to this the hysteria that is steadily building about wolves transmitting a tapeworm-like parasite to humans and you can begin to see that, once again, wolves are bearing the brunt of human hatred, fear, mistrust and ignorance towards a large predator that, actually, deserves none of this negative attention.

Amidst all this tension comes the release of The Grey, a blockbuster film that portrays the wolf as a manhunter.  And, in my opinion quite rightly, wolf advocates and conservationists all over the world have expressed their utter dismay at a portrayal of the wolf that will undoubtedly set back conservation efforts by decades.

As a long-time wolf advocate and conservationist, I have joined the protests about this film and in doing so provoked quite a response, not only from the director himself, Joe Carnahan, but also from others who have said: “Get over it, it’s just a film.”  But is it just a film?  Will audiences who have little or no real knowledge of wolf behaviour come away from this film with inaccurate opinions about the wolf?  Judging by the comments on the various websites talking about this film, there are a disturbing number of posts that suggest that some people are taking the film’s scenes at face value.  In other words, there are people out there who believe the scenes that depict wolves as blood-thirsty, man-hunters.  There are others who believe that wolves deserve everything they get and are cheering this film on, and seeing it as some kind of retribution against the wolf!  And then there are the macho, Rambo types who believe that this film is aimed at, and I quote, “manly types” who want their movies “real” and not portraying fantasy like werewolf and vampire films do.

Frankly, I’ve found reading all these posts very depressing.  Not because they show ignorance and a complete lack of regard for wolves themselves, but because with such an overwhelming lack of insight into the real problems in conservation, what chance do we have of saving species like the wolf that are predators, and as such are seen as dangerous?

Popular culture and our attitudes towards large predators

Of course everyone knows about Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, and these fairy stories are often cited as encouraging our negative perceptions of wolves to prevail, instilling a sense of fear about deep dark forests and what ravenous beasts might be lurking there.  The wolf as a beast eager to eat innocent grandmothers and little girls is deeply embedded in the human psyche.  It’s hard to credit that such a simple story would have such an effect, but for centuries this image of the wolf has been fuelled by stories like this.  The story perpetuates because it speaks to us on different levels.  To a mother wanting to safeguard her young, it is the bogeyman to be avoided, so she tells her little ones not to go off into the woods alone.  To the farmer, the wolf is a threat to his livestock, and so the wolf as a predator surely must be the ravening beast described in the stories.  To the hunter, the wolf is competition for his own quarry, an adversary that must be beaten (and even if this means the destruction of the adversary).  The point is, many of the stories we tell ourselves are used to justify our actions and behaviours.  So the wolf, rather than being just a wolf that is a large predator, it becomes something “other”, and the more evil and rapacious we make it, the easier we can salve our consciences at its destruction.

Losing decades of conservation effort

For the past two decades, the tide has been slowly turning for wolf conservation.  We now have more knowledge about the wolf than we’ve ever had, and populations have once again started to flourish in much of the wolf’s former habitats and ranges.  Research carried out in Yellowstone following the reintroduction of the wolf after an absence of seven decades shows conclusively the integral and important role it has in the ecosystem, and the effect it has on the whole trophic cascade of the park.   What has happened since the return of the wolf is that it has changed the behaviour of the elk which had overgrazed the park after it had been left to its own devices with no threat from predators.  With the browsing behaviour of the elk drastically changed, it has allowed aspen and willow groves to flourish once more, which in turn has returned available habitat for smaller species and which has also had a beneficial effect on soil ecology.  Moreover, a wolf kill feeds lots of other species, which impacts on the richness of the biodiversity in Yellowstone.

Many of us working in conservation have been encouraged in recent years by what we have seen as a real and tangible move away from the Red Riding Hood syndrome and more towards a degree of tolerance.  Of course, it would be very naive to think that all in the wolf conservation garden was rosy.  It isn’t.  But there have been some very dramatic strides in progress, and especially across Europe.  I can cite many cases of changes in attitudes towards wolves in countries like Croatia, Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, and Norway.  The changes aren’t wholesale, but enough to show that there is hope for the future of the wolf once more in what is left of wild (relatively) landscapes.

So, yes, in my view, this film and others like it, do push conservation efforts back by decades.  And unlike the fairy stories in print, the imagery being brought to us in graphic, high definition on huge screens, give us visual (and dare I say visceral) imprints that many will find hard to shake off the next time they walk through a wolf inhabited forest or tundra.

Restoring the balance

Having worked in wolf conservation for over 20 years, I am well aware that portraying wolves in too positive a light can also be damaging to its conservation.  There are many wolf advocates who want wolves to be portrayed as large, cuddly dogs with friendly dispositions and loving and generous natures.  Somewhere between this depiction of the wolf and that of a blood-thirsty, ravening beast lies the truth.

The wolf is a wolf.  It is a predator, it is a large carnivore, it eats meat to survive, a wolf kill is not a pleasant sight.  Equally, wolves can be friendly, playful, loyal, and to many of us, very beautiful animals to observe in their natural habitats.   What we humans are very bad at doing is accepting other species for what they are and adopting a “live-and-let-live” approach.  Instead, we are myth-makers, and the types of myths we make depend on our deeply entrenched attitudes and beliefs in that particular era.

It will be a sad day if we end up sliding back to the times when eradication of the wolf was the only thing that mattered.  And films like The Grey do help to form public opinion, and they continue to fuel the ignorance, fear and hatred that for centuries has led to the destruction of the wolf across the whole of the northern hemisphere.

Joe Carnahan accused me of being ignorant because I have not seen the film.  The trailer tells me everything I need to know and I can read the reviews to form an opinion.  I have no desire to see a film that perpetuates the myths nor to put money in his pocket which will further support the damage he has done, and will continue to do as long as unenlightened people go and see this film.   His knee-jerk reaction to my Twitter activity has only served to confirm my opinion of him, and it isn’t a good one.

Some of the recent blogs and reviews about ‘The Grey’

Marc Silver in National Geographic – Would Wolves Act Like the Wolves of The Grey

Professor Marc Bekoff in Psychology Today – The Grey Has it All Wrong

Dr Paul Paquet in the Calgary Herald – Pack of Lies

Sonia Horon, Global Animal blog – The Grey: A Bad Fairy Tale About Wolves

And in an attempt to end a piece of film footage that is positive about the wolf, here is the much acclaimed advert by Olgivy and Mather:

Please also check some of our short videos from Russia on our YouTube Channel.  The people who filmed these wolves work and live alongside them in the deepest taiga forests of Russia.  If anyone understands the true nature of wolves, it’s these guys, and they will tell you a completely different story to that portrayed by Joe Carnahan and his colleagues:

Entry filed under: Conservation, Conservation Education, Environmental Education, Ethics, Wolf Conservation. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rose McMahon  |  February 7, 2012 at 12:50 am

    There was a brief discussion of the issue in the newspaper review during R4’s Broadcasting House on Sunday. The participants totally missed the point, wondering whether wolf tastes like chicken. One of them mused on who decided which animals it was OK to eat.

    Utterly frothy, frivolous nonsense.

    • 2. education4conservation  |  February 7, 2012 at 7:48 am

      HI Rose, The film’s director, Joe Carnahan, wanted the cast to eat the wolves, and ordered the carcasses from a trapper. This is supporting wolf trapping and killing, which is one of the most barbaric ways for them to die.

      • 3. Rose McMahon  |  February 7, 2012 at 3:04 pm

        Yes, I realise that. The people on the radio didn’t, hence the musing on what wolf would taste like.

  • 4. Jim  |  February 7, 2012 at 1:48 am

    Good article. However, I tend to think the fantasy films involving werewolves contribute to demonizing of real wolves as well.

    • 5. education4conservation  |  February 7, 2012 at 7:51 am

      I agree Jim, but the difference between this film and that of one about werewolves is that it has attempted to portray wolves realistically, whereas at least werewolves are obviously in the realms of fantasy. As much as people say “it is only a film”, there are plenty of people out there who will unthinkingly take it at face value and who will believe that this is the nature of wolves. In this day and age, it is totally irresponsible of the film’s directors and producers to help to continue to vilify a species in this way all for the sake of box office dollars and to fulfil their own macho-fuelled fantasies.

  • 6. Ida Lupine  |  February 8, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    I agree – we know that werewolves are absolute fantasy and folklore, and they are part human, there’s a human component which makes them a sympathetic character throughout their portrayal.

    The timing of the release of The Grey, when wolves are vulnerable and have no longer have Federal protection, and the trapping and consuming of wolves continues the myth of an adversarial relationship between man and wolf, and makes this irresponsible filmmaking, to me.

  • 7. Shaun  |  June 28, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Okay, I don’t want to play devils advocate here but…. I don’t think this film will set back wolf conservation. I really want to see this film yet I’m a huge advocate for wolf conservation. I like horror and gore which is why I want to watch this film. I’m also interested in seeing the film because it features wolves (maybe my opinion will change after I’ve watched it).

    Anyone that tries to use this film to advocate wolf exterpiration must already have a severely negative view on wolves and I’d have a lot say to anyone that decided wolves are ‘bad’ just because of a film.

    Having said that, there was a lot of negativity towards sharks after the Jaws movie was released but with the advances in modern filming effects anyone with sense should know that what happens in a film isn’t a good interpretation of the real word these days.

    In my opinion, wolf conservation relies on positive education as with many issues – I had an argument the other day with someone who said “global warming must be false because this summers been miserable”. I suppose that last comment proves the naivity of some and could have just ruined my whole argument, although it was more of an opinion 🙂

    • 8. education4conservation  |  June 28, 2012 at 4:39 pm

      Sadly, Shaun, when I read all the comments that were made after the film when it aired in America, there was a significant number of them that were forming their opinions and perspectives of wolves based on this film, or at least it was reinforcing what they believe from other stories and myths, much of it negative. It was quite depressing reading. And a lot of people, unfortunately, are naive enough to belief the fantasy and fiction. I’m also not one for censorship, but in this case it does make the job for wolf conservationists that much harder. You also have to set this in the context of what is currently happening in America, where there are still a lot of wolf haters (irrationally much of the time), and this is just grist to their mill too. The reason wolves have been so badly persecuted for centuries is because of the negative perceptions which are formed for a whole variety of reasons culturally and socially, but which all have the same effect of it being bad news for the wolf. And even today, when we know so much more about the wolf and its important role in the ecosystem, there is still unreasonable hatred towards it. The wolves in this film weren’t portrayed as werewolves and wolves of fantasy but as larger than life wolves that were made to look as realistic as possible, which also shapes people’s perceptions. I perhaps wouldn’t have cared so much about this film if overall we had a far more enlightened worldview of the wolf. Sadly, this is not the case, and unlikely to be the case for a long time to come.

  • 9. Shaun  |  June 28, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    There does seem to be a big difference in attitude towards wolves between the states and Europe… Everyone I come across here in the UK as well as in Canada have had either a neutral or positive view of the wolf yet I’m forever reading about whats happening in the U.S with the conservation status and legislation change.

    When I was finishing up my Zoology degree in 2010 I did a big study on wolf conservation worldwide and they seemed to be taking the wolf off protected status over there. I’ve been off the radar for the past year but now I’m reading up on it all again it seems to have gotten worse 😦


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