This July, an international consortium of behavioral and brain scientists at a Cambridge, England, conference wrote "The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness." This document asserts that animals -- mammals, birds and even insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus) -- possess states of attentiveness and sleep; have decision-making abilities; can experience emotional states much as humans do; and, like us, are conscious beings possessing awareness and exhibiting deliberate, intentional behaviors. From my own doctoral research on behavior, development and the effects of domestication of dogs compared to wolves, coyotes and foxes, I can assert that wolves are fundamentally no different from our domesticated canine companions in terms of their awareness and capacity to establish enduring emotional bonds associated with empathy. They show devoted caregiving behavior to their young and to injured companions, and mourn their death. Just like the family dog, wolves show fear, anxiety, depression, joyful anticipation, affectionate greeting and playful invitation.
Millions of people who love their dogs have a natural affinity and respect for the wolf. Others reject "big, bad wolf" folklore because they know something about wolf intelligence and highly evolved cooperative pack society and social dynamics. In the words of naturalist Henry Breston, wolves, like other creatures, "are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
Many Minnesotans who embrace such sentiment and ethics voiced opposition to proposed legislation to legalize the trapping and trophy hunting of wolves, knowing how these animals would suffer from such human predation. Nineteen days after Gov. Mark Dayton signed an omnibus bill approving this legislation, the state's Department of Natural Resources announced that it would accept public comments directed to its website, but that there would be no final public hearing. Some 5,809 people opposed and 1,542 supported what the governor had signed, though it was too late for any repeal or referendum.
Just because wolves are wild, why should they not enjoy the same protection under state animal welfare statutes as our dogs -- they are no less sentient and can suffer the same way. Wolves who are shot and not killed instantly suffer injuries leading to a slow death or become permanently disabled. Those caught in traps and snares will be in agony and terror before they escape by chewing off a paw or are killed by the trapper. The emotional loss and social strife to packmates losing leaders and relatives would be detrimental to pack integrity, hunting success and survival.
The law now recognizes that dogs can suffer physically and psychologically and are not mere objects of personal property but subjects of considerable emotional value, worthy of compensation in cases of neglect, cruelty and killing. Any person deliberately trapping or snaring dogs or shooting them for sport would be liable for prosecution. That wolves are now essentially state property, no longer protected by the government as an endangered or threatened species, does not erase the fact that the wolf is of great emotional, aesthetic and spiritual significance as a symbol of all that is wild and free. Wolves serve as a sacred totem to traditional Native Americans -- many of whom voiced opposition to Minnesota's wolf hunting and trapping legislation.
To ecologists and conservationists, the wolf is an indicator species of healthy ecosystems and one of the best wildlife managers, keeping deer herds healthy through population control. In Minnesota, this can mean competition with 250,000 deer hunters, so hungry wolves prey on livestock, for which farmers are compensated by the state. In 2011, almost 250 wolves were killed for preying on livestock and entering private land. Add this figure to the proposed hunting and trapping limit of 400 wolves out of a questionable, if not overestimated, population of 3,000 wolves in Minnesota, it is possible that one quarter of the Minnesota wolf population could be killed and injured in the 2012 hunting and trapping season.
With a reported 23,000 hunters and trappers paying $4 to enter the lottery for a wolf killing license to the Department of Natural Resources, wolves will help replenish state coffers. In-state residents -- 98 percent of those getting licenses -- will pay $30 if they win a license, and out-of-state winners will pay $250. "Wildlife must pay its own way," and "regulated hunting is the best conservation" are wildlife farming claims that amount to a death tax on the wolf, whose killing by sport hunters in Alaska is touted by outfitters as "helping with predator control."
Wolves are regarded as state property on public lands, but public trust is betrayed when the protection of wolf and wilderness is sacrificed for the pleasure and profit of an anarchistic minority whose ethically unexamined activities are sanctioned by the laws they enact to justify and protect what they deem culturally acceptable. Anarchism, the antithesis of democratic process, flourishes when policymakers dismiss public polls and referendums because of the demographic bias of larger urban versus rural populations. Wolves have been long vilified, persecuted and feared, often for understandable reasons in times past. They are a highly evolved species, far more ancient than we humans, with their own social rituals, affiliations and intelligent survival strategies. Surely we can evolve ourselves as a society and culture to put an end to killing them for sport and for their fur -- reasons legitimized not by science or ethics, but by the principles of power, profit and pleasure.
I like to believe that we, as a species and a nation, are not incapable of working toward peace and harmony with other nations and species. Our relationship with the wolf today may well predict our own future and fate of the Earth, which will be determined by the measure of our compassion, humility and respect for all beings, human and nonhuman, domestic and wild.
The politics of exploitation and extinction of species, ecosystems and cultures is the antithesis of a democracy of spirit and of laws that give equally fair consideration to protecting the rights and interests of all beings. Transcultural and transspecies democracy is altruism's enlightened self-interest, which translates into justice and freedom for all.
(Send all mail to email@example.com or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox's website at www.twobitdog.com/DrFox.)