Anthropomorphism, Anthropocentrism, and Asha the Wandering Wolf

Photograph Source: Clark, Jim (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) – Public Domain

The Mexican gray wolf Asha’s return to the wilds has garnered nationwide attention, thanks to reporting by the Associated Press and southwestern news outlets. The AP story includes a statement attributed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service throwing shade on the schoolchildren who named the wolf “Asha.” The agency sought to wrap itself up in scientific superiority by stating it does not anthropomorphize by using human or pet names.

Instead, the USFWS instead applies the name “Female Wolf 2745,” as if that would be a natural – or nonhuman – name for a wolf.

I am a published behavioral ecologist, and my field research on Alaskan moose helped uncover the factors behind the evolution of social behavior in large mammals. We named our study animals with both human names and numbers. Among the harem-master bulls, there was Big Boy and Grizzly, and also Channel 8 and Channel 6 (where we could find them by radio telemetry). For the females, there were Cow 21 and Cow 19, but also Holly and Maggie. None of these moose were anthropomorphized, because we didn’t attribute human behaviors, thoughts, or feelings to them. They didn’t have personalities, they had “moose-analities.”

The individual behavioral tendencies of these animals were fascinating. Grizzly aggressively attacked the yearling bulls that other moose would tolerate along the periphery of the herd. Big Boy had a method of placing himself on the uphill side during dominance fights, catching his opponent on his antlers and getting shoved uphill, then going into overdrive once the opponent is tired and defeating him in an instant. We couldn’t know what thoughts or feelings they might, or might not have. We didn’t speak moose (although we could imitate their vocalizations).

We scientists can be fond of puffing ourselves up by looking down on others for “anthropomorphizing,” or treating other animals with human attributes. As if there are behaviors that are human and those that are animal, and never the twain shall meet. But wiser scientists recognize that the world of vertebrates can never be divided between “humans” and “animals,” because, after all, humans are animals just like the rest of them.

The human exceptionalism required to assert that animals (particularly social mammals like Mexican wolves) are incapable of thought or feeling comes off as pretty arrogant. Asha has a brain with neurons that fire, capable of sensory experience and memory. She has neuroreceptors that feel.

We might never really know or understand what a wolf like Asha is thinking or feeling. But we might also never be able to demonstrate that a wolf cannot have thoughts or feelings of her own.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has shown itself guilty of anthropocentrism, or treating humans as the most important consideration. Their Mexican wolf Recovery Plan puts the preferences of fearful ranchers and politicians ahead of the recovery of the rare and imperiled lobo. That’s a pretty ironic approach for an agency charged with protecting and recovering wildlife and plants that were driven to the brink of extinction by people who were putting their own needs and desires ahead of responsible wildlife stewardship.

Wolves that wander freely beyond arbitrary political boundaries do not need to be captured and incarcerated. That’s an anthropomorphic approach. Wildlife agencies should treat wolves like the wild species they are, free to roam and repopulate habitats they themselves find suitable. If they did so, they wouldn’t have to track down wildlife when they cross ecologically meaningless boundaries, set up for the convenience of the livestock industry or divert them into captive breeding programs.

Asha’s northward trek captured our imaginations. She ignored the imaginary and ecologically inappropriate boundary of Interstate 40, and kept heading north into historic Mexican wolf habitat. While the powers that be have not deemed the area north of Interstate 40 suitable for wolf repopulation, Asha shows us that it is. The schoolkids, and all of us, are right to cheer her on.

Turning a wolf into a number rather than a named animal exposes a cynical motive: return this wolf to anonymity, so the public won’t be rooting for her to thrive wherever she chooses to go. The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to throw off the yoke of their scientifically bankrupt Recovery Plan, and give lobos the freedom to roam.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.