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The Sea Wolves: Living Wild in the Great Bear Rainforest

By Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read

Wolf Spirit: A Story of Healing, Wolves and Wonder

By Gudrun Pflüger

Review By Stephanie Rutherford

May 5, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 234-237


A pitted debate about the value of wolves emerged in 2015 and 2016, centring on the wolf cull established by British Columbia’s Ministry of the Environment. The plan to save declining stocks of caribou involved the killing of wolves (often by helicopter) in northeastern BC. A firestorm erupted. On one side were those who suggested that such a cull was the only management tool available to save the caribou. On the other, environmentalists (including Ian McAllister) and animal rights activists argued that the cull merely covered up the real root of the caribou crisis — habitat loss and fragmentation due to government-enabled resource development — that could not be solved by killing wolves (Hume 2016). Celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Pamela Anderson entered the fray, attempting to shame the BC Government into a policy reversal. Premier Christy Clark remained unmoved, suggesting she would consult Cyrus if she wanted to know how to “twerk,” but that wolf policy was beyond her expertise (ctvnews.ca 2015). In the end, the 2016 season’s wolf cull resulted in the death of 163 wolves (Pacific Wild 2016). This policy will remain in effect in the coming years. Expect wolf losses to mount.

            The contest over the relative value of predator and prey species has a long history in this and other contexts. Wolves, along with coyotes, bears, and cougars, have often been at the losing end of these debates. What the two books under review here attempt to do is wade into this discussion by taking the side of the wolf. Both aim to recuperate the wolf, such that we recognize the importance of wolves, rather than seeing all things lupine as villainous. Put another way, they ask how can we learn to love the wolf? In this effort, they are not alone. They follow a long tradition of Canadian texts that reveal the untold story of the wolf as noble, social, curious, and intelligent — from Ernest Thompson Seton (1898) to Farley Mowat (1963). But Sea Wolves and Wolf Spirit do so in fundamentally different ways: one pedagogically framed, the other autobiographical in composition; one using science to annunciate the centrality of coastal wolves to the Great Bear Rainforest ecosystem, the other recounting, in sometimes mystical terms, how the spirit of the wolf saved a life. But what they share is a commitment to re-storying the wolf in ways that would make the actions of the BC Ministry of the Environment impossible.

Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read offer a thoughtful book on the wolves of British Columbia’s rugged coast, animals of both the forest and the sea. What is first striking about the book is McAllister’s visually arresting photography; almost every page is adorned with a remarkable image of BC’s Great Bear Rainforest and its breathtaking wildness. Indeed, it is the only book I’ve ever reviewed that my five-year old clamoured to see. Through both text and image, McAllister and Read weave together a narrative whose main purpose is to dispel myths about wolves as rapacious beasts, instead suggesting that they are “a national treasure” (17). Both McAllister and Read are wolf advocates, a fact that shines through in the strength with which they press their claim. While the authors effectively convince the reader of the ways in which these wolves are unique, they also offer yet another example of how the human relationship to nature has gone horribly awry. Impending loss underpins the narrative of Sea Wolves, of the habitats because of resource development and climate change, of the salmon who feed them, and of the wolves themselves as a result of sport hunting and the longer misunderstanding of their role within ecosystems.

For those familiar with the history of human encounters with wolves, McAllister and Read’s volume won’t hold many surprises. But that isn’t its intent. Instead, it offers an accessible, neatly-packaged resource for both teachers and students who are interested in wolf behaviour and biology, one that has been approved by the Educational Resource Acquisition Consortium for use in BC schools. That said, there are surprises here for even the most knowledgeable. For example, for many readers outside of British Columbia, the idea that wolves swim and fish will be counter-intuitive; wolves are often thought to be resolutely a land-dwelling, deer-eating creature. Even more interesting is that they eat only the salmon heads, so when a salmon is caught by a wolf, not only does it feed itself but the entire ecosystem. By highlighting the ways in which these wolves are different from their “inland cousins” (11), McAllister and Read effectively persuade the reader that action needs to be taken so that they can continue to thrive.

By contrast, Gudrun Pflüger seeks to elaborate less the importance of a unique species than to suggest that there is something in wolves that can teach people how to live. Wolf Spirit offers the story of an Austrian woman, a former elite athlete and cancer survivor, who finds herself in the wilds of Canada working on a range of research projects for and about wolves. Written in the form of pseudo journal entries interspersed with environmental analysis, Pflüger recounts her life with wolves and provides insights into the less glamorous work of biologists. But these stories provide the backdrop to Pflüger’s larger story of how she beat cancer. Each feeds into a longer narrative about how wolves taught her endurance and courage, such that when she was diagnosed with cancer, she was able to overcome it by invoking her “wolf spirit.” Its hard not to admire Pflüger’s relentless positivity and capacity for self actualization in all aspects of her story, whether it’s her ability to collect mountains of wolf scat, resist gender bias in sport, or fight against the ravages of brain cancer. What is clear in Wolf Spirit is that Gudrun Pflüger is a force to be reckoned with; one is left with the sense that she can accomplish almost anything, as long as she sets her indomitable will to it.

However, from my perspective, this book falls short in some respects. First, the choice to write Wolf Spirit as if it were composed of journal entries personalizes the account, but it also disjoints the narrative. The reader is propelled forward and backward among different years, different locations, and different projects. It can be difficult to re-orient oneself every few minutes, given that the entries are often quite short. And although Wolf Spirit often includes a discussion of the broader environmental contexts that wolves navigate, it is often both thin and, at turns, moralizing. For example, Pflüger’s disdain for modern consumer lifestyles, for ATVs, for genetic modification, and for pit mining, among other things, is crystal clear; indeed she names the Ekati diamond mine in the Northwest Territories as “the entrance to hell on Earth” (194). This is, of course, Pflüger’s prerogative; it is her story, and so her positions on a variety of issues matter. Where this becomes trickier is when the author turns to Indigenous issues. Referencing the same mine, Pflüger contends that the Dene who work for Ekati “pay a high price” for their employment, “namely the loss of their pristine nature and, with it, their roots and identity (196). Later on, she suggests again that some Indigenous people “‘sell’ their natural heritage to hunting parties or even themselves shoot animals that have become rare, only to sell them on the black market” (213). The notion that working for a mine or hunting a wolf is a zero-sum game for Indigenous people and ultimately leads to the loss of their identity feeds into a “vanishing Indian” narrative that is deeply problematic. Moreover, such a line of argument pays little attention to the contemporary political struggles of Indigenous people in this country, including both decolonization and resurgence, which are much more complex and radical than the kind of analysis Pflüger provides. While not the focus of the book, Pflüger’s throwaway comments sometimes diminish the book’s strength.

In the end, the stakes of learning to love the wolf are high. Both Sea Wolves and Wolf Spirit provide us different entry points to begin that journey.

ctvnews.ca. 10 September 2015. “BC doesn’t need advice from twerking singer Miley Cyrus: Clark.” http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/b-c-doesn-t-need-advice-from-twerking-singe…

Hume, Mark. 20 January 2016. “Environmentalists challenge B.C.’s controversial wolf cull,” Globe & Mail. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/opponents-of-bcs-controversial-wolf-cull-take-fight-against-province-to-court/article28289580/

Mowat, Farley. 1963. Never Cry Wolf. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Pacific Wild. 3 May 2016. “Update: Wolf kill numbers nearly double in 2016.” http://pacificwild.org/news-and-resources/great-bear-blog/update-wolf-ki…

Seton, Ernest Thompson. 1898. Wild Animals I Have Known. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

The Sea Wolves: Living Wild in the Great Bear Rainforest
Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read
Victoria: Orca Book Publishers, 2010, pp184 $19.95 paperback

Wolf Spirit: A Story of Healing, Wolves and Wonder
Gudrun Pflüger
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2015, pp. 256, $28.00 hardcover