Vicious, Wolves and Men in America… by Jon T. Coleman

This is a hard book to read but so necessary to understand the history of wolf persecution in this country.  I can reveal the title of the book is not referring to wolves.

“Some of their motives were comprehensible. But once they caught their animal foes, why did they beat, bait, torture and humiliate them? What explains the pleasure so many found in wolf abuse? One answer: human nature. They may smile, hug, rescue kittens, write thank you notes, and attend support groups, but people are vicious at the core.” (Page 228)


The Atlantic Monthly Review

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. )

More Reviews Courtesy Yale University Press:

“This is a remarkably well-written, provocative and insightful work of history on a timely and important topic.”—Alan Taylor, University of California at Davis

“This is a bold, smart, and original book, written with verve and imagination. Far more than a history of wolves in America, it is a meditation on the meanings of time, history, and culture, and an inquiry into the nature of cruelty and hatred.”—Andrew Cayton, Distinguished Professor of History, Miami University

“A fabulous book. Coleman is a witty, incisive writer who has unearthed a new history for America’s hate-love relationship with wolves. This is a work of exceptional ambition at the cutting edge of environmental history.”—Louis Warren, author of Hunter’s Game, and W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History, University of California, Davis

“Coleman writes with a vibrancy that puts much academic history to shame.  He uses vivid language, deploys a wide range of metaphors, chooses telling examples, and generally knows how to tell a good story.  In part because of his skill as a writer, once I picked the book up, I didn’t want to put it down again.”—Mark V. Barrow, Jr.

“A fascinating book which draws on historical, biological and cultural insights in a penetrating analysis of how Americans have interacted with a major predator. Coleman’s approach allows us to understand fully why we eliminated wolves from the United States, and why recent debates over wolf reintroduction have been so heated.”—Robert Keiter, author of Keeping Faith with Nature and The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (also Wallace Stegner Professor of Law and director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah)

“Ambitious. . . . By revisiting a painful past, Coleman will help keep progress for today’s wolves heading in the right direction.”—Hillary Rosner, Audubon

Vicious seeks to explain the social history that catapulted an animal once uniformly reviled to (for many) near-iconic status. . . . Hard to read in places, hard to believe in others, Vicious provides fascinating documentation of the savagery lurking just beneath humanity’s civilized surface.”—Adrian Barnett, California Wild

“Engaging and well documented from primary sources, Vicious forces readers to reflect on the relationship between human beings and this magnificent predator, and on people’s responsibilities to the wider world. Recommended.”—Choice

“Coleman chronicles the 300-year old relationship between European Americans and their canid contemporaries. . . . His remarkable book reveals the limits of human rationality, its inability to penetrate a mystery as old as Genesis. Although his work will be catalogued as social history, it is also a remarkable breviary on the problem of evil.”Mark Ralls, Christian Century

“This is a provocative history of wolves in America and of the humans who first destroyed them and now offer them protection.”—Fort Collins Coloradoan

“An excellent new book . . . a groundbreaking study that examines the particular folk tales at work in individual episodes of wolf killing. . . . Full of new ideas, animated by a lively narrative, Vicious is a tremendous accomplishment that deserves a wide public audience.”—Jim Williams, International Wolf

“Coleman delineates human-canine interactions with lively prose and copious detail. He deftly weaves together the histories of settler and lupine societies, raising important questions of how we relate to nature en route. . . . A provocative, scholarly, and readable text.”—Karen R. Jones, Journal of American History

“This book blends cultural, social and economic history with biology in a fascinating tale of the interactions between two predatory species. . . . [Coleman] examines in eloquent fashion the legendary and mythical origins of human’s hatred of wolves. . . . This book will be of great interest to historians and biologists and should be read by everyone.”—Gary Hulett, Journal of the West

“Coleman tells a wonderfully nuanced history of [the] practices and policies [of predator control]. What makes the book so compelling, however, is the story of how wolf killing was woven into the fabric of American culture and folklore. . . . [Vicious] makes a significant contribution to the effort of environmental scholars to illuminate the complex relationship between nature and culture. Thoughtfully conceived, insightful, and well written, Vicious is a wicked good read.”—Andrew Kirk, Montana

“[A] fine book. . . . As wolves expand their range . . . one cannot help but conclude that animals have remade us just as surely as we have remade them. . . . Coleman ably explain[s] how this happened in North America, and [his] work suggests that it might well be time to dispose of outworn sartorial metaphors.”—Joseph Cullon, New England Quarterly

“The information on wolf behavior and research is exceptional. Extensive notes reflect the dissertation quality of the text. Overall, this volume is an excellent blending of biology, history, and folklore. It is also a welcome addition to the shelf of environmental books.”—Patricia Ann Owens, South Dakota History

“This is a fine book.”—Brett L. Walker, American Historical Review

Vicious, historian Jon Coleman’s first book, is a smart, engagingly written, wildly imaginative study of specific regions and times that Coleman uses to distill the human/wolf relationship in America over the past four hundred years. The book is a case study approach using New England, Ohio, the Great Plains, the Central Rockies, and to some extent, Colorado to convey its interpretation.”—Dan Flores, Western Historical Quarterly

Vicious is well written and easy to read. . . . A good read and a book that deserves a wide readership.”—Current Anthropology

“Marvelous. . . . Vicious deserves a wide audience. The storytelling is superb, the analysis fascinating, and the descriptions of both science and folklore bring clarity and life to what can be technical and arcane. Coleman even adds a dash of humor to the mix, making this the sort of book that undergraduates and general readers will appreciate.”—Tim Lehman, H-Net Reviews

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

It will give you a whole new perspective on what wolves have had to endure from us.

Ask yourself, is this behavior rearing its ugly head once more? You decide.


Top Photo: Courtesy Yale Press

Bottom Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Posted in: Wolf Wars

Tags: wolf persecution, wolf torture, intolerance, vicious behavior, history repeating itself?

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