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Posts Tagged ‘Wolf of Ansbach’

Wolves very rarely prey upon people. However, under certain conditions, wolves will consider humans a prey source.

Although we can find modern and historical examples of wolves preying upon humans, some of the historical examples include so much local prejudice and folklore that one might start questioning the credibility of the account.

Take the case of the wolf of Ansbach.

Modern-day Ansbach is a city in Bavaria, but in the seventeenth century, Ansbach was the main city of a principality within the Holy Roman Empire (the thing that was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire and included most of the lands in which German is spoken today.)

In 1685, wolf began to prey upon lifestock.

And then it started to hunt both women and children.

Nobody knows how many peasants from Ansbach were victims of the wolf, but it was enough for it to be a major hazard.

Now, the rumor among the peasantry was that the wolf was the reincarnation of  cruel Bürgermeister.

From that rumor, the maneating wolf became a werewolf.

Hunters pursued the wolf. Anyone who killed such a menace would have become a hero, for not only would he have killed the living wolf that had been killing women, children, and livestock, he would have exacted revenge upon the Bürgermeister for his various atrocities against the people.

One day, the hounds chased the wolf until it couldn’t run anymore, and it jumped into an uncovered well to escape.

Of course, that wasn’t such a smart move.

The hunters found the wolf in the well and dispatched him.

As as happened so many times when such a predator is killed, the body of the wolf was paraded down the streets of Ansbach and displayed in the market place.

But because everyone believed that this was no mere wolf,  its carcass was not treated in the way one might expect.

The muzzle was cut off, and the body was dressed in human clothing.  A wig was placed upon its head. A mask covered its face. A beard was placed upon its chin.

The animal became the hated Bürgermeister.

And to exact full revenge upon that tyrant, the clothed and disfigured wolf was hanged from a gibbet for all to see.

They had been unable to overthrow the tyrant while he lived, but in executing this wolf, they were able to symbolically overthrow him.

It is a very unusual story.

It is certain that there was a maneating wolf in the Principality of Ansbach, which had once been ruled by a tyrannical Bürgermeister.

In the lore of peasants, the two beings had to be the same, for both menaced the people of the principality at roughly the same time.

Perhaps some of the people believed it.

Or more likely, it is possible that in killing the wolf and displaying his body in this way, the people were better able to cope with the hardships they experienced under such tyrannical rule.

Or maybe the new Bürgermeister wanted some symbol to show that the reign of his predecessor was finally over. Trust your new ruler. I’m not like him.

Whatever it was,  the real animal’s mythic and symbolic status exceeded his real attacks upon the people.

With wolves, such embellishment is not unusual. It is almost de rigueur. The wolves of the Old West that preyed upon the cattle herds and spent years evading traps, bullets, and poison developed a similar legendary status.  (See the Custer Wolf).

These stories tell us so much more about our species than about theirs.

They are predators. They kill because it is their nature.

We are humans.

We believe ourselves to be separate from the other animals.

We also believe that we are above nature.

Animals that attack us or our livestock are an affront to that worldview.

And they must be destroyed.

To destroy them, we must cast the predator as an evil person.

The Custer wolf becomes the ranging desperado. The wolf of Ansbach becomes the evil tyrant.

To kill the wolf is to kill evil.

In killing evil, man is redeemed.

Man regains control.

The delusion of being separate from and in control over the rest of creation regains currency.

But the wolf itself is no more evil than the man who hunts deer or butchers pigs.

It is a part of nature. It is subject to the real forces of ecology and economy.

But man must feel he is separate from it.

It is a comforting delusion, but it is one that is as dangerous as it is beguiling.

To maim a dead wolf and dress him as a man shows us for what we are.

It  really says very little about the wolf.

***

I think now we should have a discussion on something a little more important and bigger than our crazed symbolism about wolves.  When do wolves attack people?

I found this piece by Valerius Geist on when wolves become dangerous to people, and I think it is very good for framing a discussion on the wolf and its relation to man.

They aren’t particularly dangerous to people.

But one should remember that all wolves are individuals. All wolf packs have different “cultures.” All ecosystems teach wolves different things.

Some wolves might consider people a food source under certain conditions.

Dogs kill people. Many Indians in the Caribbean and Latin America were actually dispatched by heavy greyhounds and mastiffs of the conquistadors, who occasionally killed Indians just to feed their bloodthirsty dogs.

So why is it so hard to accept that wolves sometimes kill people?

Animals that kill people should be killed.

However, we should not use the reality of predation in the way we historically have.

We should not use an act of wolf predation upon stock or people as an excuse to extirpate the whole species.

That’s folly. And it should be condemned.

But the longer we say that wolves never attack people, the more desperate and denialist we sound.

We sound like we’re bullshitting.

And when we’re dealing with animals as complex and intelligent as wolves, we need to be careful about our absolutes.

Only when we deal with the real organism can we work to conserve it.

The wolf is neither evil incarnate nor some kind of wild golden retriever that lives on mice.

It is a being.

It is complex.

It is incapable of being fully under our control.

It is incapable of being reduced to our prejudices.

That’s really what makes them so fascinating.

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