The Myth of the Predator: When Fear Becomes Reality

Humankind’s relationship with the big bad wolf is an interesting one. Although the pervasive rhetoric surrounding the wolf is one of ruthless killing, humans appear to have done the majority of the killing.

A comprehensive 2002 report from the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe found that fatal wolf encounters in North America historically have been few and far between. “The vast majority of wolf research has occurred in North America, so it should be expected that wolf attacks on people should be particularly well documented from this region. However, it appears that there have been relatively few wolf attacks [in the 20th century],” the report’s authors wrote.

On the other hand, an early 20th-century U.S. government-sponsored predator eradication program claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 wolves in Yellowstone National Park in a single year. By the 1930s, wolves, which were once abundant across the continent, had been effectively eliminated from much of the United States.

In hindsight, it’s widely accepted that the government-sanctioned eradication program, which was supported by local farmers and cattle ranchers looking to protect their herds, was detrimental to the park’s ecology.

“Sometimes people support bad policies when they are coming from a place of fear,” David M. Shafie, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, explained. “Persistent scary myths sometimes prevent us from seeing the importance of the whole ecological web.”

Later in the century, the National Park Service launched an initiative aimed at re-introducing wolves to Yellowstone in an attempt to undo earlier ecological damage. In a few short decades, the population of wolves in the park has exceeded 400, sending positive shockwaves through the ecosystem.

“After wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone, the elk population declined, which was a good thing because the park’s carrying capacity had been exceeded. This strengthened the herd because wolves would mainly prey on the old and sick members,” Shafie adds.

“It also had an impact on the flora, because willow and aspen saplings began growing again. The new young trees are keeping the rivers and streams cool, and scientists think it may help stem the decline in trout populations.”

In Yellowstone and many other ecosystems worldwide, wolves are a keystone species, a species that “has a disproportionately large effect on the communities in which it occurs,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Without a keystone species, the structure of checks and balances within an ecosystem can collapse, leaving populations of some species to flourish while others flounder.

Despite their ecological importance, wolves, sharks, bears and other predators often get a bad rap as ruthless killers. We frequently hear stories of humans being attacked by a variety of predatory animals. Headlines promise sensational tales of vicious attacks and brave stories of triumph emerge as victims recover and live to tell their tale.

According to Dr. Christopher Neff, a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Sydney, our fear of predatory animals is grounded in a natural emotion that keeps us safe. “People have an instinctual fear of [predators] that is innate and biologically hard-wired to help prevent extinction,” he explains.

The 2015 Chapman University Survey on American Fears found that nearly 13% of respondents identify as “afraid” or “very afraid” of animals. Shafie, who helped conduct the survey, believes that common stories and folklore that are passed down from generation to generation could help rationalize our fear of and aggression toward predators.

“There are stories we humans tell to justify the things we do to other species. One example is the ‘big bad wolf,'” he tells Discovery via email. “The wolf is a fellow apex predator and a rival because it hunts many of the same game animals, and it’s easier to justify killing them if we’re taught that they are scary.”

The Big Bad Wolf has been a staple of common folklore for centuries. From a young age, children hear tales of menacing, ruthless wolves — in Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs and The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the wolf is constantly presented as a villain up to no good, a dangerous force out for blood.

“The vast majority of our encounters with predatory animals are intensely mediated, whether in zoos or media representations,” says Dr. Rebecca A. Adelman, an Associate Professor of Media & Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Animals and their behavior are radically decontextualized and often presented with very minimal explanation from experts.”

Consider your personal, firsthand interactions with wolves. For those of us living in the developed world, there’s a low likelihood that we’ve ever had such an encounter, yet we have a deeply ingrained understanding of how a wolf “should” behave, regardless of the animals’ actual behavior. That myth-driven perception of animals has impacted our environmental policy, from shark culls in Australia to wolf eradication in Yellowstone, despite conflicting ecological evidence.

In recent years, however, stronger science and more accurate media representations have been instrumental in protecting even the animals deemed ‘menacing’ by popular culture.

“Public opinion is changing as we understand shark behavior better and shift the way we look at the beach. The acknowledgment that the beach is actually the wild ocean and the entry point to a dynamic ecosystem is just as important as our changing views about sharks,” Neff explains.

Much of his recent research has focused on the perception of sharks in Ballina, Australia and Cape Town, South Africa, coastal communities with high levels of shark bites.

“In Ballina, [respondents] were asked if they thought shark bites were intentional or accidental and 55% said accidental. My research shows a public that is sophisticated and can distinguish between myths and reality,” he remarks.

The work isn’t done yet, though. Every day, animals around the globe are threatened by misguided policy and uninformed public opinion — and it’s up to us to save them.

“Conservation is an exceptional quality that humans have. To protect and preserve some species that may harm you is a move past instinctual fears and demonstrates the best in human capacity,” Neff adds.

This article originally appeared on on October 21, 2015 || Photo: Cole Young/Flickr