Binding Fenrir

What are our responsibilities to wild animals in a human-altered world?

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Many people who identify as environmentalists also love animals, and I have always counted myself as a member of both clubs. I absorbed the importance of protecting the environment from the culture I grew up in: a broadly outdoorsy, politically liberal Seattle circle of friends and family. I went to Audubon Day Camp in the summers and learned how to tell a Douglas fir from a western red cedar. I went car camping with my family and even backpacked across the Cascades when I was around ten years old. I wrote nature poetry. I accepted as given that wilderness was worth protecting, that extinctions were a tragedy, that biodiversity was important. 

My personal experience with individual animals was not extensive. My mother was not the pet type, but she once made an exception when our local bookstore was giving away a tortoiseshell kitten. Harriet was perhaps even less of a human-lover than my mother was a cat-lover. Among her favorite pastimes was pressing herself against a riser on our staircase so that she would be invisible to anyone descending. As soon as you put your foot on her step, she would slash at your ankles with her claws. When my parents divorced, one of the conditions my mother insisted on was that my father take the cat. He did, and she lived a long, busy life, only parts of which he was privy to. 

Apart from Harriet, my early ideas about animals were mostly formed by books, wildlife documentaries, and the zoo. My grandmother took me and my brothers to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo often; it was just a mile from our house. From our backyard, we could even hear the hooting of the zoo’s siamangs— large, loud gibbons from Southeast Asia. The Woodland Park Zoo was an early leader in presenting animals in naturalistic “habitats” and positioning zoos as champions of nature conservation. Although I couldn’t have really explained it to you, as a kid, I felt sure that the zoo was somehow saving wild animals. 

The zoo trained me to see animals primarily as instances of their species, and to value them more if they belonged to a rare species. On a class trip “behind the scenes,” I even got scratched by a snow leopard. My classmates were jealous, and I experienced a strange thrill knowing that an endangered species had touched me. It didn’t feel at all the same as being unpleasantly surprised by Harriet’s claws while carrying a laundry basket down the stairs.

After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in English in 2001, I returned to Seattle and got a job as a secretary at the University of Washington’s botany department. During my short stint there, botany merged with zoology to become biology. I remember well the apprehension of the botanists, who were, it must be said, generally quieter, less aggressive, and nicer than the zoologists. They didn’t relish the idea of being bedfellows with the strong personalities who studied predators and other charismatic animals. Our office moved across the street to a different building and the smell of the food they gave the fruit flies made me queasy. I realized that I identified with the botanists. 

I left that job to study science writing, and in 2005 I started working as a reporter for the journal Nature in Washington, DC, with ecology and conservation as part of my beat. I wrote a lot of stories about animals, in part because readers loved them, but I always tried to convince my editors to cover more plant science. I still identified with the botanists. 

Most ecosystems comprise animals as well as plants, though, and you can’t fully understand one without looking at the other. In my 15- year career covering environmental science, I’ve been lucky to have close encounters with wombats and wolves, European bison and howler monkeys, humpback whales and Galápagos tortoises, wallabies and takahÄ“. For many of those years, I causally assumed that conservationists, who work to save species, were the best human friends that wild animals had. After all, they try to stop animals from going extinct and they preserve their habitats. 

In the early years of my career, I found myself questioning many assumptions about “nature” and “wilderness” that were common in conservation at the time. Were all introduced species really bad? Was there any true “wilderness” left? Did the concept even make sense in a world where Indigenous people shaped ecosystems for thousands of years before European colonists arrived? These questions would lead me to write my first book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Broadly, I concluded that conservation must focus on protecting the ability of ecosystems to adapt and change in a changing world, rather than attempting to stop or reverse all change.

In more recent years, I’ve increasingly reported on specific cases where the interests of individual animals seem to conflict with the goal of biodiversity preservation. In order to save species, conservationists kill a surprising number of individual animals. And they treat animals very differently depending on whether they are common or rare; “invasive” or native; domesticated, “feral,” or “wild.”

It was when I moved to Oregon in 2013 that I really began to examine how conservation did and did not make the lives of individual animals better. My husband got a job teaching philosophy at Oregon Tech, a small polytechnic university in Klamath Falls, a former timber town of about 20,000 tucked between the conifer forests of the Cascade Mountains and the vast, arid Great Basin. 

Once we moved in, I looked for stories to tell in my new stomping grounds. One story that was in the local paper nearly every week was the return of wild wolves to the area, two generations after they had been intentionally eradicated from most of the United States by a mass poisoning campaign. At the time there were only about 60 wolves in the state. They were (and are) frequently hazed away from livestock and occasionally shot by state officials if they got a taste for sheep or cattle. Some were shot by poachers. Environmentalists wanted them left alone to thrive and multiply, thrilled to have them back in Oregon. “For many, wolves are a symbol of freedom, wilderness, and the American west,” the conservation group Oregon Wild wrote. 

Just before I moved to Klamath County, so did the most famous wolf in Oregon, a handsome, long-legged gray wolf given the designation OR7 by state biologists and known as “Journey” by local conservation groups. In 2011, OR7 was tracked by state biologists as he walked from the far northeast of the state all the way across the California border, becoming the first wild wolf in the Golden State for almost a century. All told, the young male walked more than 1,000 miles. In 2013, he wandered back over the border to Oregon and the next year he found a mate and had some pups, forming the Rogue Pack, with a territory straddling Jackson and Klamath counties.

OR7 was the talk of the town, a subject of chatter at dinner parties and at the grocery store. A new friend swore he had crossed her lakeside property. Most ranchers were not too pleased by his presence, especially when the Rogue Pack started killing young steers in an aspen- studded valley just south of Crater Lake, but many neighbors I talked to were intrigued by the wolves and even respected them, in a way. Friends who worked for federal and state land management agencies in the area were downright gleeful. Suddenly, Klamath County felt a lot wilder. 

But how wild was OR7 really? Thanks to his GPS collar, the state of Oregon knew exactly where he was at all times. State biologists had samples of his DNA and could trace his ancestry. He had both a name and a nickname. He even had a Twitter account, maintained by some of his fans. If the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wanted to, they could easily have killed him—that is, until his collar went dead and he refused to walk into any of the traps biologists set for him in an effort to replace it. 

I began to wonder whether animals that were this heavily monitored and controlled were really wild. Was everything that wasn’t a pet or livestock “wild”? What about animals that weren’t pets or livestock but that were controlled or managed by humans? Reintroducing wolves, in a world on its way to nine billion people before the century’s end, means managing the wolf to keep conflicts with humans to a minimum. And it seems hard to argue that management by humans does not decrease wildness. For what is wildness if not the absence of human control? 

In Norse mythology, there is a story of a supernatural wolf called Fenrir. He is the god Loki’s son and, at first, he lives with the gods. But he becomes worryingly large and powerful and they decide to bind him. After he breaks free from a series of increasingly robust physical chains, the gods control him by binding him with Gleipnir, a magic fetter of paradoxes: the breath of a fish, the beard of a woman, the sound of a cat walking. These dreamlike, impossible ideas seem analogous to me to the intangible laws, rules, and political boundaries that determine where wolves exist today. I’ve always wondered why the gods didn’t just kill the threatening Fenrir, why they preferred a bound wolf to a dead wolf. Today, using GPS collars and tranquilizer darts and “wolf plans” as our fetters, we seem to have made the same choice. 

The more I wrote about wolf reintroduction, the more I began to feel uneasy about it. Bringing wolves back may have changed dynamics in some ecosystems, and it certainly made many people happy, but how happy were the wolves themselves? Because we were asking them to live in between human settlements and on the same lands as free-roaming herds of cattle, we were constantly trying to track them and modify their behavior. Some wolves were captured up to five times. And if they didn’t follow our rules, we killed them. 

According to Mark Hebblewhite, a wolf researcher at the University of Montana, the most common causes of death for wolves in most parts of the United States and Canada are trapping, hunting, poaching, car accidents, and culling by wildlife managers. In a study he did of 22 radio- collared gray wolves that died between 1987 to 2018 in and around to Banff National Park, 90 percent of the deaths were caused by humans. Just three died in “natural” ways: one in an avalanche, one falling from a cliff, and one from causes unknown. 

In Oregon, where I live, there are still fewer than 200 wolves total. In 2019, at least seven of them died. One older female died of a bacterial infection, five were hit by cars, and one was legally shot by a rancher because it was chasing his herding dog. I only know one place in the United States where “natural” wolf death is the norm: Yellowstone National Park. Data on 155 deaths of collared wolves between 1998 and 2010 showed 37 percent had been killed by other wolves. Another 27 percent died of “unknown natural causes.” If most wolves outside of National Parks die young because of human actions, I think it is legitimate to ask whether having wolves in the West is worth the cost to individual wolves. 

Why do we have such different rules for how we treat wild animals versus how we treat our pets and livestock? The question goes beyond wolves. Even in carefully managed parks, wild animals like deer frequently starve to death or are eaten by predators that we lovingly reintroduced in an effort to restore ecosystems to the way they once were. Every day, wild animals die excruciating deaths that would be considered animal cruelty if we let them happen to our horses or dogs. 

As a conservationist, I had long been comfortable with the suffering of individual animals in “the wild.” But with humans increasingly taking active management roles in “the wild,” the premise that we had no ethical obligations to the animals there seemed harder to maintain. If we reintroduced the wolves and managed their numbers and whereabouts, it seemed to me that we were in some way responsible for their welfare and maybe even for the deer they preyed upon. But if that was true, then what about animals whose lives are shaped by us unintentionally by climate change, land development, and species we have moved around? Would they be our responsibility too? The thought induced a kind of intellectual vertigo. Could humans possibly have ethical obligations to all the untold millions of animals on Earth, to every sparrow and ground squirrel and city rat and white-tailed deer? I was overwhelmed. 

I began to delve into the vast body of thought and writing about human ethical obligations to other animals, but I found that much of it focused on pets and farm animals. Most of the smaller number of works about our relationship with wild animals tend to assume that they are completely independent of humans, that they live their lives somewhere “out there” beyond the influence of human civilization. Our ethical obligations to wild animals are often presented as being straightforward: we should simply leave them alone and protect their habitat. 

The thing is, there is no more “out there.” The whole Earth is like a larger version of Kaua‘i, with its flora and fauna from all over the planet, legacies of human management going back hundreds of years, and rare animals barely hanging on to existence at the fringes in ecosystems that are warmer and weirder than they once were. 

In my previous book, I challenged the idea that there is such a thing as pristine wilderness in the twenty-first century. Humans have dramatically changed the entire world. Starting thousands of years ago, we’ve changed ecosystems with fire, driven some species extinct, and domesticated dozens of others. In modern times, we’ve cut down vast forests, converted grasslands to croplands, diverted rivers, and moved mountains. We’ve built cities, polluted fresh and salt water, sprinkled plastic over everything, lit up the night with artificial lights, filled the air and seas with the noises of billions of machines, crisscrossed the continents with roads, moved plants and animals to new places, and significantly transformed the climate. These changes affect wild animals even hundreds of miles from the closest human settlement. 

We’ve touched many animal species so deeply with our wholesale reshaping of planet Earth that we have likely altered their evolutionary trajectories. I wanted to know whether the massive human impact on Earth changes our obligations to animals. What about animals, like the polar bear, that have lost their hunting grounds because of melting sea ice? Do we have an obligation to feed them? What about wild wolves who mate with feral dogs? Should we stop them? What about introduced mice preying on rare seabirds? Should we poison them? In a human-altered world, it seems impossible to just keep saying that our only ethical responsibility to “wild” animals is to “let nature take its course.” It was still unclear to me, though, exactly what this enhanced responsibility might include. Should we be, in some sense, caring for all wild animals? But if we do, will we make them even less wild, less free? 

If we could better understand our ethical obligations to our non-human kin, it could significantly improve the way we make decisions in conservation and wildlife management and even in fields like urban planning, veterinary science, pest control, or agriculture. At the moment, whether we legally protect an animal or blithely put it to an agonizing death depends more on the context of the action and the rarity of the species than on whether the animal can feel pain or suffer. Our rules and mores for interacting with animals are capricious and self- contradictory. We can do better. 

Some changes must be made in policy or law, but others can be made by individuals. With a better understanding of the ethical choices we are making, we’ll be better equipped to decide whether or not to buy an exotic pet, to visit a zoo, to hunt for meat or trophies, or to trap “invasive” species in our backyards. 

Non-human animals are different from us, and we can never completely know what it is like to be them. And yet we can love them with a pure, simple love it is sometimes hard to have for other humans. We can be overcome with awe in their presence. They can terrify us—the coiled cat in the night, the howl outside the tent. Our emotions about animals have always been strong, but are our intuitions about how—and whether—to interact with them still correct? 


Excerpted from Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World, reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © Emma Marris, 2021.


Environment, Climate, Nature


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Making Pre-K Possible

Building a Bridge for Mental Health

Binding Fenrir

Simple Respect




People, Places, Things

Discussion Questions and Further Reading: Care