Wolves Were Skinned Alive!
by Harry Styron
Two hundred years ago, the Ozarks teemed with wildlife of a much different assortment than we now know.
Bison, elk and even antelope were sustained by the extensive grasslands of the uplands. Bear and wolves roamed the deep woods. The streams ran full through bottomland jungles of massive hardwoods, cane and vines, where gaudy Carolina parakeets and tropical warblers found shelter and panthers slumbered through the days.
Otter played in streams where eel and shovelnose sturgeon cruised over shoals of mussels and clams. Vast flocks of passenger pigeons and throngs of whistling and trumpeter swans heralded the changing seasons.
This was the Ozarks without carp, starlings, house sparrows, Asian honeysuckle, multiflora rose, fescue, kudzu, Russian thistle, and many other plants and animals we no longer think of as exotic.
Otter, black bear, whitetail deer, wild turkey and bald eagles, never completely gone, are back in large numbers. But not wolves.
Two kinds of wolves were found in the Ozarks, the timber wolf, also called the gray wolf (though its colors range from white to black), and its smaller cousin, the red wolf, which sometimes interbreeds with coyotes and wild dogs. The adult timber wolf, in this range, probably weighed 80 to 120 pounds; its footprint was about 5 inches from front to back. The red wolf was somewhat smaller.
Wolves have often been seen as the embodiment of evil, perhaps because they have competed with humans for the same prey, where humans have been hunters. Where humans arc stock raisers, wolves prey on their flocks and herds. In the Ozarks, as well as the rest of North America, wolves were seen as a part of the “howling wilderness,” which the white settlers sought to subdue.
Child Kills Wolf
Joe McGill, whose family raised sheep, told this story from 1855, which took place near the first loop of the White River from Missouri to Arkansas: “One day when I was nine years old, there was a great commotion among the sheep, and I saw a big gray wolf bounding among them. I was scared; he looked as big as a horse to me, and I ran to the house for help, but there was nobody there, so I grabbed a gun from the corner and ran back again, and there was the wolf, and the flock scattering. I got behind a clump of dogwood saplings and happened to catch my gun across the fork of a little sapling, and then I thought, ‘why don’t I shoot?’ and shoot I did and killed old Mr. Wolf dead—just an accident, mind you—didn’t aim or know I was going to get him, but that was my first wolf. He had killed three sheep before I got him.”
Not Merely Kill, But Torture
Elias Keesee told S. C. Turnbo of the resentment of wolves among the early settlers of Ozark County, Missouri, on the Little North Fork. “We…did all in our power to destroy as many wolves as possible. These animals made awful inroads on sheep, hogs, calves and young colts and our temper was irritated to the highest pitch. Sometimes when we captured a wolf alive we confined it and took off its hide.”
Skinning a live wolf was not an isolated incident. Turnbo collected other accounts. Here is another: “The crowd was angry and thirsted for vengeance in payment for stock destroyed. The animal was doomed. It must be skinned alive.. .The suffering animal did not utter a sound until after they had taken the hide from its body and legs and while they were stripping its tail by force it gave a moaning growl, the men now turned it loose and it struggled to its feet and ran about a hundred yards and staggered and fell and death soon relieved its horrible suffering.”
Such incidents were not peculiar to the Ozarks, but widespread throughout North America, wherever livestock raising was being established in the wilds. Barry Lopez, in his 1978 classic, Of Wolves and Men, suggests that we should not condemn these cruel acts, but attempt to learn from them.
Thomas Allen, Vanishing Wildlife of North America, Washington: The National
Geographic Society, 1974.
Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men, New York: Charles Scrlbner’s Sons, 1978.
S. C Turnbo, The White River Chronicles of S C. Turnbo. James F. Keefe and Lynn`Morrow, eds. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1994