Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 4 · no. 1 · October 2003
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An adjunct assistant professor at Indiana University at Indianapolis, Jon T. Coleman is the author of Vicious: Wolves and American History, forthcoming from Yale University Press.

 

 

"Would-be conquerors might hold up animal brain cases as signs of their authority, but other observers interpreted the disembodied icons according to their own assumptions about power."

Terms of Dismemberment
Jon T. Coleman

Part I | II | III

On April 24, 1995, Chad McKittrick, an underemployed lover of guns, beer, and bear hunting, shot an animal he hoped was a wolf outside of Red Lodge, Montana. McKittrick and his associate, Dusty Steinmasel, walked to the canid sprawled in the mud. The scene–two hunters standing over a beast leaking from a high-caliber wound–qualified as a cliché in this part of the American West. Montanans had been pumping bullets into wild things for over a century. This killing, however, elicited none of the customary reactions. McKittrick and Steinmasel stared with anxiety, not victory, at the two red United States Department of Fish and Wildlife tags dangled from the wolf’s ears. The black alpha male labeled R-10 (r for red) belonged to the "experimental-nonessential population" of eight Canadian wolves released in Yellowstone National Park in January 1995. R-10 had wandered out of the preserve with his mate, R-9, in search of a denning site. The fight over reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone had raged for years, and the communities around the park buzzed with wolf talk. McKittrick and Steinmasal knew the red tags signaled trouble, and Stienmasal nearly convinced McKittrick that they might avoid thousands of dollars in fines and jail time if they reported the incident immediately to a Fish and Wildlife agent. This was good advice. The "experimental-nonessential" designation voided the harshest penalties of the 1969 Endangered Species Act, giving hunters and livestock owners a pass if they killed a wolf by accident or in the act of slaughtering a domestic animal. All McKittrick had to do was notify the proper authorities within twenty-four hours, say the shooting was an accident, and he could have escaped without punishment. But he had other plans.

He wanted a trophy and would risk federal prosecution to keep the wolf’s skull and hide. The men hauled the cadaver into the woods. They strung the body up with bailing twine, sliced off the skin, and lopped off the head. The choice remains of R-10 traveled to McKittrick’s cabin in a garbage bag. Steinmasal took charge of the animal’s radio collar, tossing the device into a road culvert near his home. The still-transmitting collar (broadcasting in "mortality mode" since the wolf stopped moving) led the Fish and Wildlife officials to Steinmasal. He led them to McKittrick. The killer of R-10 received a six-month jail sentence and a ten thousand dollar fine. He also won a prominent place in Red Lodge’s Fourth of July parade, waving to the crowd on horseback attired in a t-shirt that declared his allegiance to the "Northern Rockies Wolf Reduction Project."

wolf

Severing the head of a predator trucked across an international boundary to satisfy an endangered species law signed by Richard Nixon may seem a peculiarly modern transgression, but wolf reintroduction linked the past and the present in ways that help illuminate over three centuries of American colonial history. McKittrick extended a historical relationship when he destroyed and took possession of R-10’s skull.

Colonial Rhode Islanders, who displayed their victims’ heads in public after collecting the cash bounties offered by the town, would have understood Chad McKittrick’s decision to keep incriminating body parts. A jobless construction worker in a Montana town wracked by the fickle economies of ranching and tourism, he collected mementos of power. R-10’s skull entered a stockpile of masculine totems–guns, skins, and antlers–that helped a small man feel big.

In colonial Providence, wolf heads set on a fencepost near the settlement’s meetinghouse stood for the community’s resolve to punish livestock thieves and control their environment. They were tokens of power. But wolf heads are unsteady symbols. Would-be conquerors might hold up animal brain cases as signs of their authority, but other observers interpreted the disembodied icons according to their own assumptions about power. Over the course of American history, livestock owners, Native Americans, bounty hunters, animal rights activists, and wilderness enthusiasts have disputed and revised the meaning of wolf skulls. Instead of telling a tale of absolute dominion, the heads embody the ambiguity of the North American conquest.

In seventeenth-century Middleboro, Massachusetts, John and James Soule farmed side-by-side in the shadow of Wolf-Trap Hill. A family folktale explained the mound’s name. At dawn each day, one of the brothers hiked the hill to check the pit trap they had dug to catch wolves. One morning, the inspector peered into the trench and discovered a wolf balled up at one end and an Indian shivering at the other; both had crashed through the boughs that covered the ditch in the night. The farmer killed the wolf, and "after an examination he found that the Indian was on his way from Nemasket to Plymouth upon legitimate business, so he was released and allowed to continue his journey." The promontory overlooking the Soule’s neighborhood swallowed a thieving canine and a suspicious human in one gulp.

Wolf killing in colonial New England created landscapes of frustration and distrust. English colonists imported domestic beasts that ranged beyond the humans’ ability to safeguard them, and, to prevent wolves from gutting their investments, they dug traps, offered bounties, erected fences, and experimented with exotic technologies like mackerel hooks and "wolf bullets with adder’s tongues." Towns urged residents to purchase hounds and mastiffs and train them to hunt wolves. Governments asked and, when they could, forced Native Americans to help slaughter them. All these efforts failed to eliminate the menace at a pace satisfactory to livestock owners. Wolves continued to eat property and farmers continued to kill wolves well into the eighteenth century. European colonists did not march across New England from east to west driving wolves before them. Instead, humans and wolves co-existed belligerently for over a hundred years in a patchwork landscape of agricultural strongholds and feral interstices.

The region’s wolf place names documented this landscape. English colonists affixed wolf names to fields, meadows, brooks, swamps, and forests. In Hopkinton, New Hampshire, there was a local spot called Wolf Meadow, for "the frequency with which wolves were once observed in the vicinity." Colonists fashioned wolf landmarks to notify each other of the location of their pit traps. Indians might survive in a hole with a wolf, but no farmer wanted to see if his neighbor’s daughter could survive overnight with a ravenous beast. Place names like Wolf-Pitt Brook and Wolf Pit Neck Plain served as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century versions of flashing yellow construction lights.

Wolf traps lined the border between the wild and the pastoral, danger and safety, loss and profit. The trenches marked a cultural divide as well. The conflict between wolves and livestock gave New England’s humans the chance to unite as a species against an ecological rival. The Algonquians destroyed wolves and exchanged black wolf skins as ceremonial gifts, and the English seemed prepared to enter and expand this trade, offering native hunters cloth, corn, and ammunition in return for wolf heads. But in the end, predator eradication drove the humans apart rather than together. The Algonquians saw the heads as symbols of equality, while the English understood them as tokens of submission. As the Soule episode demonstrated, suspicion and wolves strode the woods of New England together. The Indian who fell into the pit on Wolf-Trap Hill had to prove his legitimacy in order to continue his journey. Unsure of their Indian neighbors’ true loyalties, the English tried to make wolf heads icons of certainty and reassurance. Instead, the detached craniums became mementoes of the humans’ failure to understand and trust one another.

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