Event explores folklore and science behind the wolf

From childhood to adulthood, Americans are taught to fear wolves. As kids, we're told fables of wolves eating grandmothers and blowing down houses. And then we grow up and flock to theaters to watch actors like Liam Neeson fight gray wolves (though Neeson is clearly more menacing than the animal).

“Wolves and humans have co-existed in a lot of different places around the world, and there's been a lot of conflict, particularly in the Old World societies [like] Europe and parts of Asia,” said Dr. Andreas Chavez, an assistant professor in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University. “So, when Europeans settled in North America, they brought this baggage with them.”

Once widespread throughout the United States, wolf packs were thinned by poisoning, shooting and habitat destruction until the animal was declared an endangered species in the 1970s. People felt they needed to protect their safety and their livestock.

“This kind of relationship is different from other societies that actually had more reverence for wolves,” Chavez explained. “A lot of Native American tribes had favorable mythologies and stories that factored wolves into their origins and belief systems.”

To explore those different perspectives, Chavez and Meagan Horn will lead “Demons or Heroes,” a storytelling event at Up Front at Shadowbox Live (formerly Backstage Bistro) on Thursday, Oct. 4. Attendees will hear tales from the legend of the last wolf in Ohio — now haunting his old territory — to a more uplifting story originating with the Pawnee tribe.

“I'm providing the science side of wolves and [Horn] is telling the mythologies and the stories,” Chavez said.

Prior to teaching at OSU, Chavez was a wolf biologist. For his master's research, he studied wolf-livestock interaction in Northern Minnesota. Then, he worked as a trapper for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which leads wolf-recovery programs.

“That agency had brought wolves from Canada into Yellowstone [National Park] and Idaho in the mid-'90s,” he said. “So those populations got established … and then grew so big that they were spilling out of the parks in these protected areas. And they wanted to still monitor those wolves that were leaving.”

Though the federal government has changed its stance on wolf extermination, private landowners argue the animal is still a threat to livestock. And there are also concerns about the impact of reintroducing wolves into ecosystems.

“Most people in the agricultural community just assumed I was a wolf-lover,” Chavez said. “And I do like wolves … but they just assumed whatever results I got were always going to be favorable to wolves. … So I wanted to do my best to try to minimize any kind of bias I had.”

That meant not even entertaining the mythologies he will be discussing at Up Front. But today, his profession doesn't present a conflict of interest.

“I study shrews and squirrels now,” he said.