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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Human?

I was actually working on a post on a much more pleasant topic, but I came across something today in the bowels of the Internet that I didn’t want to let go without comment.

In brief, it was a group of people who gather under the Internet’s cloak of anonymity to share in a hatred for wolves and coyotes that borders on the sociopathic (that’s a description, not a diagnosis, by the way; but if the shoe fits…).

From what I could gather from their writings, these individuals are operating under the assumption that wolves and other wild canids have nothing better to do—indeed, like nothing better—than to go around killing innocent, Disney-esque woodland creatures in as slow and horrific a manner as their wily, sadistic brains can concoct. These four-footed menaces also, it is conveyed, have a particular interest in demolishing the local livestock population. Because, you know, wolves sit up nights ruminating on how they might more fully ruin the livelihoods of nearby ranchers—their ancient, bespoke nemesis.

And so, in righteous retribution, the folks in this group support an all-out war of vengeance upon canid kind, meting out death in as slow and painful a way as they possibly can, as “punishment” for the perceived sins of wolves and their evolutionary cousins. This includes, amongst other things, encouraging hunters to go for the “gut shot, every time!” — the idea being to deliberately deliver a slow and painful death. As near as I can tell, the rationale is that these animals cause slow and painful deaths to their prey, so it is therefore the death they “deserve” in return.

One particularly illuminating image, which I’ve declined to share here, depicts a coyote with its entrails hanging out that was then strangled to death. The image carries the caption, “Anything after a gut shot is mercy.”

On my more ornery and borderline-misanthropic days, I tend to think that committing acts of sadism against members of any species should be considered a form of diagnosable sociopathy. But, my feelings on that subject (and research on the links between animal cruelty and violence) aside, what I find most interesting about this sort of thing is how neatly it reflects, in a real-world scenario, something I studied in a research setting a few years ago.

In the days before becoming a science journalist, my psychology master’s thesis was on people’s perceptions of the mental lives of animals—that is, what sort of emotional and intellectual “stuff” people believe animals have going on in their heads—and how those perceptions change when the person sees the animal in question as threatening.

There were a number of things that came out of that research that I found interesting; but the one that stuck with me the most was what I’m going to call the “Big Bad Wolf” phenomenon: People who villainize predators don’t tend to think of them as mindless forces of nature, red in tooth and claw; instead, they ascribe to those animals very complex, human-like emotions—but all of them bad.

The Big Bad Wolf, you see, doesn’t feel positive complex emotions like love, or joy, or embarrassment; but what it does feel is hatred, anger, spite, and sadism. To the wolf-hater, these predators aren’t “just doing what comes naturally.” They are fundamentally vicious and cruel creatures—making it a moral decision to respond to them with viciousness and cruelty in kind.

This was the least graphic image I could find on the website that instigated this response. The caption there read, “There used to be a time when trapping a wolf made you a hero.”

When fighting the Big Bad Wolf—not a creature obeying millions of years of evolution, not a force of nature, but a willfully malicious and malevolent being, an embodiment of ancient and inhuman horror—the “right” course of action is to fight back. To punish. And to kill.