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A Timely Reflection

Book Review: White Fang

| Chantelle Spicer | With the end of term comes the ability to read for pleasure again. There is nothing more pleasurable and comfortinf for me than returning to some of my favourite literature from childhood. First on the list this spring was White Fang by Jack London. I loved this book so much as a child for it’s great story about a wolf; however, as an adult, I am able to see it from so many different angles, deepening my love and appreciation of this classic. This book is especially relevant for me given recent news about wolf culls due to what are seen as predatory stressors on declining caribou populations. First published in 1906, White Fang examines an environment, set of ethics, and lifestyle very different from the Victorian upbringing that Jack London and his readership were saturated in at the time. It opened the minds of many minds of that era to not only a different worldview, but also a presented a divergence from classical literature as it was contemporarily known.  

Within the wild and stark beauty of the Canadian Yukon, the reader is transported to a potential freedom that most of us dream of today. In both an economic sense, such as the Gold Rush, and a personal or spiritual sense, through the splendor of the natural world, the characters and reader are allowed to dream of a life which is truly theirs. The main human character of the story, Weedon Scott, is doing exactly this, journeying into the depths of the frozen North, searching for gold to secure a better life. Little does he know, that along the way, he will become, through the eyes of London, the portrayal of the best in humanity. 

The main protagonist of this book is, untraditionally, a wolf-dog, White Fang, born into the wild and introduced into “civilized” human existence through abuse and cruelty as a pit-fighting dog. This kind of existence, shown no kindness whatsoever by his owners, shapes him to be an aggressive and morose animal. When he is nearly killed in a fight against a bull-dog, he is saved, both physically and emotionally, by Scott. White Fang’s transformation from a viscous beast into a loving animal is a marvelous study by London in the transformative power of love, affection, and kindness.  

The underlying themes of this story are elegant and hopeful, driven home by the virtuous spirit of Weedon Scott. At a time when the Gold Rush was introducing European culture to the traditional ways of the people of the Yukon, when humans were trying to shape the existence of nature, we are shown there is hope that kindness can be an influencing factor. Another theme lies in the representation of Nature (capital N!) within London’s writing, which illustrates the pristine beauty as well as the incredible power of the land. While the Industrial Revolution was happening in both the US and Britain during the late 1800s to early 1900s, it was important to for London to point out that “Nature” is a power unto itself and works by rules outside of our own human goals and morals. These types of messages make the story truly timeless outside of its early 20th century setting and are especially relevant to our current relationship with “Nature,” with landscapes having shifted from places to be feared, then domains to be exploited, and finally as regions to be saved.

This reading of the story is particularly timely in conjunction with a current environmental practice occurring within B.C. and Alberta – the wolf cull. The relationship that we have with these animals is incredibly interesting – we revere our companions, the domesticated dogs, while making villains their kin, wolves. This feeling of animosity towards wolves has been a part of humanity’s relationship with nature of centuries – an animosity based in economic fear for farmers, feelings of fear against the wildness of the animals themselves.  

This comes to a head in contemporary society through the unscientific and unethical dilemma of the cull in our Northern lands. The governments of both provinces have declared that the “wolf control program will have to go on for at least a decade, [with] other animals [needing] to be killed” in an effort to protect at risk caribou herds.

In 2015, Deputy Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, Resource Stewardship Division, Tom Ethier stated that 180 wolves being shot from helicopter in the South Peace and South Selkirk regions during one winter as part of a five year project. The multi-year, immediate action program, with a goal of 1,400 wolves eventually being culled to save dwindling isolated caribou herds, such as the South Selkirk herd, which is the only mountain caribou herd in the world. This population of caribou have seen their numbers drop from the hundreds, to 46 in 2009 and then to 18 in March of this year. 

Ethier stated at the time that “we’re going to be doing this for the next five years. At the end of those five years, we’re going to do that analysis as to whether this effort was worth it.”

Given that the Selkirk herds were listed as locally extinct in January of this year, it seems the death of these animals was in vain. The loss of this caribou population is significant when viewing the animals as ambassadors of the local environment and forestry policy.

Young caribou are kept in a captive pen in Northern BC to protect them from predators such as wolves

Following decline in the forestry industry around 2018, the industry has rebounded, creating jobs and supporting communities. However, the impact on the forests has been an increasingly fractured landscapes. This has a cumulative impact which not only removes habitat, but also disrupts migration patterns and makes herds more susceptible to things such as predation and road collisions. Rather than focus on protection of these areas, the government has focused on a more short-sighted, band-aid view of the situation, which has resulted in a tax-payer funded kill program of one of BC’s most iconic wild animals – wolves.  

At this time, 51 individual scientists, 19 environmental groups, and thousands of citizens have petitioned the provincial government to reform and eliminate this cull. The Valhalla Wilderness Society has proposed a 251,000 hectare protection area which contains critical habitat, which along with the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement and the Endangered Species Act, would take great strides towards properly protecting caribou herds for the long-term.  

In Northern BC, management of caribou, wolves, and the forest has created deep divisions within Northern BC communities. With the forestry industry calling for more supports and protections for the sector’s jobs and Indigenous communities and environmentalists calling for more supports for landscapes under increasing industrial pressures, great strides will need to be made for balanced policy. It will also take a shift in how we understand the issue in that that both industry and caribou require the same thing – mature conifer forests. There is a desperate need to stop pitting workers against the environment, recognizing that evidence-based caribou protection and supports are actually good for sustainable forestry management and jobs.

Also, please go and (re)read White Fang or any other favourite childhood literature – it really was a treat.