The Big Wolf Study on Campus
Trent School of Environment professor investigates the social history of wolves in Canada
Whether their aloof nature sparks a sense of intrigue, or their mournful howl sends shivers down your spine, wolves have been a source of fascination for generations.
But how has the human, and more specifically, Canadian perception of this elusive animal shifted over the years and what lessons can be learned from our relationship with wolves? Dr. Stephanie Rutherford, associate professor in the Trent School of the Environment, has dedicated the past decade to studying our historical and contemporary relationship with these animals.
“I was really interested in writing this history of the present and having this conversation about nation and nature,” explains Professor Rutherford, who recently published a book based on her research, Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada. “It is important to look at our historical relationship with these animals to see what has led us to the biodiversity crisis that we are facing, which not only threatens them but threatens us as well. I wanted to understand this historical trajectory so we can do things differently as we move forward.”
From fable to fact: An interdisciplinary tale
In true Trent fashion, Prof. Rutherford’s research draws from several disciplines, facilitating collaboration with colleagues in both Canadian Studies and Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences.
“Trent is the perfect place to do this kind of work,” says Prof. Rutherford. “There's such strength across Canadian Studies, Indigenous Studies and Environmental Studies and such generosity from my colleagues and students to talk about this topic from a scientific perspective and an Indigenous perspective. There is something special about Trent that makes imaginative and interdisciplinary work possible and I think it produces better work at the end of the day.”
According to Prof. Rutherford, her interactions with colleagues in Indigenous Environmental Studies and Science, as well as in the Sustainability Studies graduate program, really changed the trajectory of her research. Her initial focus was only on settler relationships with wolves, but she realized that that would be starting the story in the middle.
She explains that the real lesson in historical work, such as her research, is contingency. Choices made in the past steer our relationships with each other and with nature. Prof. Rutherford believes that Indigenous ways of relating with wolves and other animals provide us with an alternative way of living.
“There are these already existing relationships with the nonhuman world, models to do things better, that I think really need to be amplified,” she explains. “If we want to reimagine our relationship with nature in ways that are premised on flourishing, justice and solidarity, then I think we have to let Indigenous folks take the lead on that.”
No lone wolf: Students central to research
Over the years, several graduate students contributed to different parts of Prof. Rutherford’s research project, including digging through archival resources or summarizing scientific works. She describes these students’ contributions as “wonderful gifts” without which her book would not have been possible.
“I think Trent really attracts some thoughtful and truly interdisciplinary graduate students who can do this complex thinking – working in both the humanities and sciences – and really develop projects that embrace the kind of trans-disciplinarity,” says Prof. Rutherford.
A tale of resilience and justice
Prof. Rutherford believes that wolves are a modern example of resilience, surviving despite the active efforts to kill them.
“I think they represent an opportunity to reflect on conservation practice and about the impact of demonizing an animal like that,” she explains. “We have a second chance to actually do things differently.”
Prof. Rutherford is now moving on from her justice work for wolves to focus on a new community-integrated project focused on the intersections of environmental justice and equity and has received a $138,316 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Partnership Development Grant.
Listen to Prof. Rutherford's recent interview with CBC's The Sunday Magazine, talking about her new book.