Myth of the man-eaters and the malleability of species

If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man.
~Chief Seattle

I was recently listening to an episode of MonsterTalk called “The Big Bad Wolf.” In it, they interview an author who is firmly convinced that the infamous Beast of Gevaudan was in fact a wolf or wolves. At the beginning, the show’s host asks listeners who are disturbed or concerned about the show’s contents to write in. I found such a warning interesting.

What I found even more interesting was a co-host’s question/comment about creatures, other than humans, with histories. Wolves in 18th century France were likely different animals with different behaviors than the wolves we know from 21st century Alaska or Canada. The basics, of course, were probably the same. If an animal changes too much, it becomes something different. But I don’t think anyone can deny that the human factor at work in 18th century France and 21st century Alaska is very different. Such differences may cause different behaviors. For starters, the peasants who dealt with the Beast of Gevaudan lacked guns. The frontiersmen of early America were well versed in their use.

The coyote of Texas is very different from the coyote of New England. The coyote I know is native to my area, long-legged and small. The New England coyote is a recent immigrant, less leggy and larger, suspected of having wolf genes. And even among those populations, a coyote living in Mason County, Texas, is different from a coyote in Harris County, Texas.

After all, if we see marked differences in the behavior of individual pods of orcas (the fish-eating residents vs. the mammal-eating transients), then I don’t think it’s so much of a stretch to say that the behavior of 18th century French wolves is different than that of 21st century Alaskan wolves, or even Mason County coyotes and Harris County coyotes, nevermind Harris County coyotes and New York state coyotes.

Humans are animals, and most of what we are is merely highly developed variations of what we see in other animals. No one will say that humans are the same no matter where you go and no matter what time period you refer. I don’t believe that other species are frozen in time and space, either. Animals don’t just adapt physically or spatially. They also adapt mentally.

So to say that wolves never kill people simply because we have few, if any, documented cases of modern wolf attacks is a fallacy. Wolves are predators. If other wolves and even bears have been attacked, there is no reason to say that we cannot be attacked (or haven’t been attacked) ourselves. I believe it was Barry Lopez, in his book “Of Wolves and Men,” who suggested that we ask the Native Americans if they have any tales of wolf attacks on humans. As much as some of us (I, in particular) love wolves and seek to undo some of the psychological damage of early American history, we cannot turn a blind, optimistic eye to the facts.

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