Canis lupus lupus
In November I asked some of my students to tell me about this picture. It was the first wolf I had seen here. The explanations they gave convinced me that Mongolians have an even more complicated relationship with Canis lupus lupus
than we do in the United States.
“The wolf is spirit animal for Mongolians.”
“If the person can see the wolf his life will be great. And if he can hunt the wolf his life will be greater than the person who sees the wolf.”
“Our country has many wolves. The wolf usually eats weak animals in the nature. It is nature's guard.”
“Mongolian people said that if someone is taking wolf's ankle, they will be good luck.”
“Why hunt the wolf has many sides such as hobby, need for meat or skin, to be proud of themselves, or to have money.”
“Wolves are god-like for Mongolians.”
Their dependence on herd animals sets them up as being logical adversaries of the wolf, just as we have treated wolves historically in the United States. But here there is another element that is at once spiritual, superstitious, and puzzling, for as revered as it is said to be, its frozen body is tossed around like cordwood. Seeing a wolf is said to be good luck. Shooting a wolf is said to be good luck. Carrying a wolf on the hood of your car is said to be good luck. A wolf's ankle bone that is threaded onto a piece of leather that is tied to the side of your boot is said to be good luck.
It also seems that good luck is for sale. Having your picture taken with a wolf on New Years Eve is said, at least by one photographer, to be good luck. Ankle bones are sold in gift shops, but the whole wolf can be purchased at the market. And although I have only heard one person support this hunch—"Maybe someone is trying to cheat another person,"—there may even be trade in counterfeit good luck, for that's the only explanation I can imagine for the corpse of a large dog that is missing all four feet. (The difference between a wolf's ankle bone and a dog's may not be detectable to those who are badly in need of good luck. In this case, good luck would be turning four dog ankle bones into 100,000₮.) In addition to the ankle bone, a wolf's meat is thought to be healthy, and the skin is very warm.
So far, I haven't heard anyone talk about the fact that if you kill enough wolves you will no longer even see them, much less be able to carry them on the hood of your car. In our country's expansion, we have done this with several species, large and small. Mongolia is a large country with roughly one percent of the population of the United States. It has so far avoided our country's bad luck of only being able to learn this lesson in hindsight, by shooting a species to the edge of extinction—or beyond. (Just this side for our bison, the other side for several species of majestic birds.) Especially in the northwest United States, we are still arguing over the role that our wolves will play. In Mongolia, the next precarious species is the snow leopard. I hope they have better luck than our wolves have had.