Historical Notes: A caring, playful, fabulous killer

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the first books I remember being read as a child was a volume of fairy tales. It had full-plate illustrations and the one that most captivated me was of Little Red Riding Hood meeting the wolf. The wolf was beautiful: enormous, sleek and dignified, with a smile like George Sanders. Red Riding Hood, by contrast, who only came up to his knee, looked ugly and gormless.

I had managed to get the wrong idea about this story: I had always assumed that the wolf was the hero and so when he was killed I used to burst into tears. I later discovered that in the first written version of the tale, by Charles Perrault in 1697, the wolf gets to eat Ms Hood and grandma and lives happily ever after - in my view a more fitting, if less politically correct, ending. I was recently given a T-shirt that says "Little Red Riding Hood Had It Coming!"

My most recent book, The Loop, is set in the American West. A pack of wolves returns to a valley where, a century ago, they were slaughtered in vast numbers. Their return reawakens an ancient hatred that tears the community apart. The background to the story is true: ranchers hate wolves - and the bunny-hugger environmentalists who seek to protect them.

The more I learned about wolves, the more intrigued I became about why they have been so demonised. If you put the DNA of a wolf alongside that of a dog, you can't tell them apart. Dogs are simply wolves who have sold out. Yet, one is deemed man's best friend, the other his worst enemy.

It wasn't always so. Older cultures revered the wolf not merely as a great hunter, but also as a wise, nurturing animal. You only have to recall Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf to know what the Romans thought. Yet in the last two thousand years, with the spread of Christianity, it has changed.

No animal, according to Christian dogma, possessed a soul. But some animals were, undoubtedly "better" than others, most notably the biddable sheep and cattle that safely grazed the green pastures. Beyond, however, was The Wild, The Dark Forest, where all kinds of awful things went on: the ancient religion was practised, Pan and pagan ran amok, Bacchanalian orgies took place - all those things that threaten a de-cent, controllable, "civilised" Christian society.

The animals that dwelt there came to embody all that was evil. And prime among them was the wolf. It was handy to have a walking personification of the devil with which to scare wayward children.

Throughout Europe wolves were slaughtered and became virtually extinct. The early white settlers in America, steeped in this Euro-Christian tradition, set about the slaughter of the wolf with a vengeance. Because the wolf's natural prey had also been slaughtered (70 million buffalo in just 15 years), they did sometimes kill cattle, but never as many as ranchers claimed.

And the punishment far outstripped the crime, fired by some manic, religious zeal. In Kansas, "wolfers" cobbled their camp road with wolf skulls. Wolves were burnt like witches and torn limb from limb in special rodeos.

Yet, in the entire history of North America, there is not a single recorded killing of a human being by a wolf. Wolves know that man is best avoided.

I spent many weeks hiking the mountain forests of Montana with wolf biologists researching for the book. I observed several wolf packs and learned to radio-track them and trap them to fit radio collars. And I have learned to love this animal and see it for what it is: a caring, social, highly intelligent, playful creature that also happens to be a fabulous killer. Not a bad definition for the human race, really, is it?

Nicholas Evans is the author of `The Loop' (Corgi, 8 July, pounds 5.99)