Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wolf Empire

Our book today is "Wolf Empire" by Scott Ian Barry, a big, luxuriously-produced coffee table book full of the author's black-and-white photographs of the wolves he's followed and studied for years. There's a heartfelt introduction, lots of heartfelt prose to accompany every photo, and heartfelt testimonials from Tom Brokaw and Robert Redford.

Just about the only way this book could be any more harmful to wolf welfare would be if each copy came with a complimentary steel trap.

Barry is an emotional writer; his prose is to natural history what Windham Hill is to jazz. He deplores the way wolves have been demonized by the folk stories of every ancient and medieval culture in the world. But his good intentions seem to blind him to the fact that angelizing wolves is equally deplorable and equally dangerous. Both take a complex living species and abstract it into the realm of metaphor. And as any student of the Holocaust will attest, exterminating a metaphor is a whole lot easier than exterminating a people.

We can't fault Barry's intentions - his love of wolves, his desire to protect them by educating the public about them, these things are clear throughout "Wolf Empire."

But you can do a world of harm with the best of intentions, and Barry does several continents' worth. He claims that he wants more than anything for wolves to be seen as independent, glorious beings in their own right - but in his introduction, where he talks about wonderful, transforming experiences he's had lecturing audiences (including an enormous one in Madison Square Garden) he's had showcasing wolves to high schools, nature advocacy groups, and general audiences. But in the black and white pictures he so helpfully supplies from these transformative events, we see two things: first, Barry himself, looking dreamy and hipsterish, and second, and very, very much worse, in the pictures Barry is holding a leash. The animal on the other end of the leash has black fur and glowing eyes, but it isn't a wolf anymore. That bears repeating, as sad as it is: a creature that can be led on a leash and induced to howl in front of an audience is not a wolf anymore.
And so, what point are you making by parading around such a spectacle? You can go on all you like about your 'packmates,' but this creature you're leading from auditorium to auditorium by leash and chain? She doesn't want to be there and would bolt if you gave her the chance. Parading her around - even for the laudatory purpose of showing people she's not the bogeyman - removes the very thing you most want her to keep: her individuality, her status as a member of an equal nation. If William Lloyd Garrison had accompanied his abolition lectures with a Negro on a chain ... well, it's hardly necessary to finish that sentence, is it? The heart of all equal rights considerations - Negro, Sioux, female, gay (these have been mankind's challenges in recent quasi-enlightened times) - is dignity. In a future we can only hope for (one Barry obviously hopes for), the self-evident next steps will be taken, and nobody will think about treating wolves (and tigers, and elephants, and oxen, and dolphins, and eagles, and whales and so on and so on) with anything less than the same dignity that the inventors of the word 'dignity' so spottily bestow on members of their own kind.

If establishing the basic, separate, individual dignity is central battle for wolf welfare, Barry is quite unintentionally hurting the cause. His black and white photos are astonishing in their intimacy; they aren't always perfectly composed, but their sheer access is something the photographic record will turn to for years to come (especially once the last wild wolf is eradicated from the world). But the shots he's chosen, and especially the text he's written to accompany them, counterbalance their worth.

He's constantly warning himself out loud about the dangers of anthropomorphizing his subjects - and that's just as well, since he's constantly doing it too. One beautiful female wolf is named Kim Basinger. Another is called Cary Grant. In neither case is there the faintest resemblance (aesthetically speaking, the canines win paws-down), but the mere act of making the comparisons, of impulsively talking about wolves as though they were furry, quadrupedal humans, opens a hole in the floor - and through it goes every drop of dignity. The worst such example in "Wolf Empire" is surely the shot of a young female in full diurnal shed, her thick, luxurious fur temporarily splotchy and largely missing. The caption? "Don't Look at Me - I'm Naked!" It's enough to make you throw your feces at somebody.

Although it hardly needs saying, the problem with this kind of anthropomorphizing, the problem with characterizing wolves as furry humans, comes not from watching them while they play or frolic or resemble Kim Basinger - the problem is when, after you've accepted them on those grounds, they do something according to their nature. So when Flora the circus elephant, harrassed finally beyond enduring by the daily beatings, whippings, and starvings of her handlers, snaps during her 'housewife' routine at a show in Alabama, throws her vacuum cleaner through the torso of her trainer, crushes two other handlers to death, and rampages down Main Street in her apron and house slippers, humans feel not only frightened but betrayed - the police on Main Street shoot her down with just that much added feeling of justification.

That's not the way, and "Wolf Empire" isn't the way (even the title suggests a political entity, a rival state - when, after all, has history ever been kind to empires, from Rome's to the Reichmarshal's to Darth Vader's?).

What we need is a radically different approach, a radically different idealogy, an idealogy in which wolves (and all the other great races, but we'll focus for now) aren't intrusively photographed, led into auditoriums on chains, or equated with movie stars but simply LEFT ALONE, to be themselves in their own world.

Humans don't need to be extra-perceptive to determine which species want their friendship. It's such a rare thing that it's easy to spot. Dogs, of course, made that choice thousands of years ago, unique in its intimacy. Cats (typically) remain undecided, and horses' involvement has never been anything but involuntary. Ravens and dolphins seem interested in seeking out the company of man - company, not domestication. And that's more or less it - the rest of what Kipling would call the free peoples of the Earth want nothing from mankind other than to be left alone.

Left completely alone, which includes no photographer's shutter whirring in the distance.


beepy said...

"The heart of all equal rights considerations - Negro, Sioux, female..."

...does this mean you'll be letting me off my chain any time soon?

beepy said...

Ugh. This book sounds horrible. Even I flinched...and flinched...and flinched and I don't agree with everything you said. Sure, leading a wild creature about by a chain is wrong. Sure, writing trite little captions under photos of natural events is wrong (by the way, I take offense with that "don't look at me. I'm naked" comment not only because it's not wolf-natural but because it's so demeaning to the females of the world. Yeah, we are all squealy girlies) But I have no problem with man photographing animals in their environment, trying to understand them and study them. It's good that we do so. It's good that we see their dignity. It's a good way to see that they are equal to us; that they exist outside of ourselves and our influence. It's a good way to see that they are no less complex than we are.

In the meantime, I plan to hold my nose and walk on by this book. A better one will come along soon.

Sam said...

No Beepy, you stay in your tub--we can't have you swimming up the Hudson River again, riling the Coast Guard and getting your blubbery mug all over the local news.

Jeff E. said...

I would like to see Steve's outline for a properly dignified interactive wolf exhibit for high schools, nature advocacy groups, and general audiences. At the very least it would include 8 wolves, total freedom to hunt among the crowd (nothing like a realistic demonstration, right?), and possibly a bucket full of human babies to toss out as treats like herring for dolphins.

steve said...

Think about my Abolitionist example! My point is, there's NO WAY you can 'exhibit' another advanced living species without degrading it. If little kids want to learn about wolves, a hand-held Sims-wolf with Richard Kiley narration ('spared no expense') will do just nicely.

Although that part about baby-tossing sounds awful good right about now ...