There are few carnivores which possess quite such a hold over our imaginations as wolves, entering singly into fairy tales and in packs into stories. Once very widespread and a real danger to inhabitants of rural areas, they were exterminated in most areas of the United States by the mid 1930s.
They were still present when settlers were moving onto the prairies. In ‘Little house on the prairie’ Laura Ingalls describes her family’s brush with a pack of fifty huge so-called buffalo wolves, some of which stood three feet at the shoulder.
Her father, Charles Ingalls, is out riding on his mustang when he finds himself surrounded by the pack which luckily seem to have full stomachs and not to be interested in him. He has no gun, but as he explains to his wife Caroline:
“You can’t fight fifty wolves with one gun.”
Nor could his terrified horse have outrun them. It was all he could do to rein it in and prevent it from attracting the wolves’ attention by behaving like prey.
The pack veers away towards the creek and Pa gives his horse its head to gallop to the house, afraid that the pack may have got there before him. It hasn’t, but the encounter isn’t all the wolves have in store for the pioneer family.
Later that night Laura wakes up to the sound of a wolf howling and Pa holds her up to the windows, one after the other, to show her that the pack is completely surrounding the house, their eyes glittering green and the sound of their breathing penetrating the wooden walls. As yet they only have a quilt across the door, but next day Pa makes a proper door.
In this episode, we see the wolves through the eyes of a small girl who has faith in her father and the family dog, as well as the sturdy walls of their log cabin. She’s interested more than afraid, and in fact in a later book she expresses an admiration for wolves, declaring that she prefers them to cattle.
Wolf attacks and killings were rare but they did occur. An example, which bears similarities to the potential danger experienced by Laura Ingalls, took place in North Dakota in 1888. A woman witnessed from inside her house a large pack of wolves surround, attack, kill and eat her husband and son. She was about fifty metres away. The pack then tried to get into the house but the woman defended it successfully.
This must be one of the more horrific incidents, but wolves generally need to be very hungry to attack humans. Their presence is of great benefit to ecosystems especially because they keep the numbers of deer and elk in check and, by making them wary at the margins of rivers, prevent browsing and the consequent erosion which would otherwise occur. In addition they’re noble beasts, affectionate, loyal and well-ordered in their communal life. Many places are the richer for their reintroduction.