Hunting Season

Women, wolves, and our fight for our lives

This is the mid-week issue of Men Yell at Me. A newsletter that is opinions, essays, and journalism about politics and gender in the middle of America. You can read past issues here. If you like it, you can subscribe. If you don’t like it, you can still subscribe.

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It’s hunting season.

In Idaho, federal agents killed eight wolf pups. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack defended their deaths, noting that wolves have killed 108 livestock since the beginning of 2021. Killing the pups would encourage the wolves to move and prevent the further murder of wolves, Vilsack argued in a letter dated October 1. There are 2 million cattle in the state of Idaho. There are only 1,500 wolves. And the state already compensates ranchers who lose cattle to wolves.

The Biden administration has refused to roll back a Trump-era policy that removed wolves from the endangered-species list. This policy has allowed states like Montana and Idaho to legalize the hunting of wolves. In Montana, the Wildlife and Gaming Commission approved the use of neck snaring, trap baiting, and night hunting on private land to hunt wolves, allowing for a more aggressive hunt. The majority of Montanans did not approve of the new rules and commissioner Pat Byorth noted, “My largest concern is that we are selling our souls and our fair chase in order to provide methods that are unnecessary and more likely to have repercussions.”

Wolves were nearly extinct a century ago. They were hunted into extinction, not just by hunters, but by the federal government, which approved the use of poisons and traps, decimating the species. According to Dan Flores’ book Coyote America, by 1898 park officials in Yellowstone were actively poisoning predators—mountain lions, coyotes, and wolves. The mass extermination wasn’t about safety; it was about money and the interests of cattle ranchers. By the 1920s, wolves had been murdered into near extinction. 

It’s hunting season.

In Texas, lawmakers passed Texas Senate Bill 8 (SB 8), which allows private citizens to become de facto abortion bounty hunters, suing anyone who assists in providing an abortion after six weeks. The law has already put women’s lives at risk and closed up abortion clinics, making access to qualified reproductive care just that much harder for women. Making saving our own lives just that much more difficult. Disbarred former attorney Oscar Stilley was the first private citizen to try to collect on the bounty by suing Dr. Alan Braid, a doctor who publicly declared he had assisted in an abortion after the Texas law had passed. Stilley told the Washington Post, “If the state of Texas decided it’s going to give a $10,000 bounty, why shouldn’t I get that 10,000 bounty?” 

The day that SB 8 goes into effect, I am in a live press event with Planned Parenthood. “This will happen in Iowa,” I warn.

Someone, I don’t know who, asks what evidence I have for saying that.

I tell them to look at our state, where since 2017, four Planned Parenthoods have already been forced to close due to laws that remove state funds, sending them instead to a ridiculous hodgepodge of “family planning” clinics, which according to a 2018 investigation included a blood lab, religious centers with no doctors on staff, and a dentist’s office. I tell them to look at how many maternity wards have closed down in rural areas. How many times our state has passed unconstitutional laws restricting abortion only to have them slapped down by the court. I told them to look at how, even now, despite overwhelming opposition, state lawmakers were trying to change the state constitution to specifically not protect the right to an abortion.

What I don’t say is that it feels like being penned in from all sides, your rights slowly restricted until you are trapped. There is nowhere to go. What I don’t say is that I know what it’s like to be afraid. To need help. And to have the freedom to choose to live.

In January of 2020, I am alone and depressed. I’ve been fired from my job. It’s winter and a pandemic. And the days my children aren’t with me, I am alone. Deeply alone in a way I’ve never been before. Normally, I am a busy person. I like to wake up early and work. I rarely nap. I never watch TV in the middle of the day. I had a hard time watching TV at all. It’s a kind of mania. It’s how I cope. Long runs. Staying up late to work. But suddenly, I have no work. I have nothing. And I start taking long long walks and going on longer runs. But mostly I just watch The Great British Baking Show on my couch and order take-out. A friend of mine tells me to come with her and look at some Alaskan Malamute puppies. She has malamutes and I’m obsessed with them. Those big sweet bear dogs. I go to look at the puppies and come home with one. On the car ride home, I decide to name her Dolly.

One week later, I slip on the ice and break my wrist. Now I can’t run, not really. My depression deepens. And the days my children are not with me, I have no reason to get out of bed, except Dolly. I try to have my friend take Dolly on walks, but Dolly refuses to walk for anyone but me. It’s bitterly cold outside. Below zero most days now, and I’m afraid to fall again. I have to buy a whole new coat to accommodate my large cast. 

Walking a malamute puppy in the snow with a broken arm is hard. She pulls the leash, and it hurts my wrist and by extension my entire body. Sometimes, the sharp pull makes me scream. Once, I buy a prong collar, but it leaves us both crying. I throw it away. Slowly we develop a rhythm. I shuffle through the snow and the ice, swearing at her as she yanks and pulls. I don’t have a choice. She won’t walk for anyone else. And if I don’t walk her, she will destroy my home. I start calling her my wolf dog.

This is when I become obsessed with wolves. I start listening to books about wolves on my long walks. Call of the Wild. White Fang. Julie of the Wolves. Coyote America. The Rise of Number 8. Once There Were Wolves. I try reading books about dogs. But I don’t want books about dogs. I don’t want cozy domesticated stories. I don’t want EB White’s darling observations about human nature. I want stories about blood, loss, fear, and primal rage. I want to read about teeth shredding flesh. I want to read about wildness.

I think that Jack London is very silly to imagine the wolves’ inner life. But I also cry when he writes about the primal howl of the wolf. That it’s a call to some larger history. Something so much more than ourselves.

“And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him.”

When I do talk to people, I start telling them stories about wolves. I can hear their silence. But I can’t stop. 

There is a six percent genetic difference between wolves and coyotes, I say. But that’s the difference between us and the orangutan. 

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, writes, “Wildlife and the Wild Woman are both endangered species.… It is not so difficult to comprehend why old forests and old women are viewed as not very important resources. It is not such a mystery. It is not so coincidental that wolves and coyotes, bears and wildish women have similar reputations. They all share related instinctual archetypes, and as such, both are erroneously reputed to be ingracious, wholly and innately dangerous, and ravenous.”

And, I am ravenous. When I break my wrist, my doctor tells me I am anemic. So stop being a vegetarian and start eating meat again. I read about wolves and chew rib meat off the bone. 

Estés’ book has become my de facto Bible. I read it and reread it as I write. I studied it while writing my second book. I am reading it again as I write my third. Am also concurrently reading a lot of foundational feminist texts that I have never read before. I never took a Women’s Studies class. I was homeschooled. But as I read Estés and other feminist writers in my wolf phase, I get angry. What do I care if I unleash my inner wild woman? What do I care if I find my full sense of self in my primal nature? What do I care if I am the only woman left howling at some cold moon? My furious, sharp-toothed psyche. Isn’t that what always gets me into trouble? And what’s the point in me being free if so many women are being hurt and hunted.

I make a list of all the ways women are being trapped:

My friend Rachel Yoder writes a book about a mother who turns into a dog. A feral wild dog. One who craves blood. I read the book hungrily. And then again. It’s not a metaphor. In the book, Rachel writes, “What is more unbelievable than pushing a small human from a hole between your legs, or having a masked, robed stranger slice open your belly and pull from it a mewling, bloodied babe? Both are absolutely preposterous propositions, not able to be believed and yet undeniable in the presence of the child, a factual reality.”

Rachel is a friend and a beautiful quiet woman. Now when I see her, I think of blood, and sinew. I think how her own fury bled on the page and ripped her up inside. She is like me, I think. Maybe we are all like this. Maybe we are all blood thirsty, furious predators.

I feel like what is asked of women is impossible. Absolutely impossible. We are supposed to survive while being trapped. Supposed to self-care while the world is closing in around us?

I tell this to another friend who tells me other women have it worse than me, than us. And maybe I should stop whining about my privileged. I know this. I know this. I know this. But, it’s a race to extinction? Is it a misery competition? Should we be happy inside our beautiful, gilded traps?

When I read The Feminine Mystique, a resounding message in the book that Friedan pushes back against is that women have it so well. Even then, even when women could not take out mortgages or start lines of credit alone, they were being told they had it so good. I wonder what poisons we are swallowing that our daughters will judge us for? What traps did we die in because we lacked the imagination to see them? What horrors did we incite because we didn’t have the imagination to see beyond the trap?

What do I care if I unleash my inner wild woman? What do I care if I find my full sense of self in my primal nature? What do I care if I am the only woman left howling at some cold moon? My furious, sharp-toothed psyche. Isn’t that what always gets me into trouble? And what’s the point in me being free if so many women are being hurt and hunted.

Coyotes are different from wolves. A wolf’s steady pack nature made it easy to hunt. But coyotes are different. They adapt more quickly. Dan Flores explains that, like humans, coyotes have a fission-fusion evolutionary response. “This enables them to either function as pack predators or as singles and pairs. When they’re persecuted, they tend to abandon the pack strategy and scatter across the landscape in singles and pairs. And the poison campaign was one of the things that kept scattering them across North America.”

I think about this as I walk my dog alone. I’ve been increasingly alone these past two years. As one of eight kids, I went to college, had roommates, married and then had kids—I’m not used to being alone. This pandemic has changed that, and I’m finding peace in it. Survival in the quiet.

A recent article in The Atlantic chides couples that marriage is hard work. The man writes this in a pandemic. As women are bearing the brunt of it all. As we are breaking. I read this and I snarl alone at home. “WHOSE WORK?! WHOSE WORK? Who sets up the therapy? Who communicates the needs and the pains. And why? Why is it even necessary work? Who is comforted by this work? It doesn’t have to be miserable!” 

How do we change in a world that traps us? That makes our misery look like martyrdom? How do we break from the fusion that traps us?

In 2009, after my sisters almost died in a car accident, I was in a group therapy class. The woman leading it told us a story about a dog who sits inside night after night, listening to the wolves howl. She leads us in exercises, designed to help us imagine ourselves as the dog, escaping the confines of the home and following our nature.

The group therapy is in a house run by a faith-based group. The home, at the time, was a women’s shelter, but made money by offering classes and Bible studies to the religious women in town. I sit in a group of two pastors’ wives, one worship leader, another woman like me, just a young person struggling with her life. I listen to them talk about how judged they feel by the men in their lives. By the rules in their lives. “What would it be like to be free?” our leader asks.

Eventually, I will decide my freedom means leaving my house, like that dog turned wolf, called out through the howls. Years later, I will have coffee with the woman who led the class. I will tell her I am divorcing. “Leaving that house to run with wolves, it wasn’t a metaphor after all,” I’ll say joking. But mostly not joking. She is kind to me. But she doesn’t laugh. She helps me buy my new house. The one where I adopt my wolf. The one where I will be free and howl and snarl in the pandemic and be so happy I am free.

All the other women in our class are still married. Still in their churches. In their lives. I wonder how they redefined freedom in order to remain trapped. I can’t ask. They don’t talk to me anymore. I see them sometimes and wave, but they look past me. I wonder if I am like a wild thing outside their doors. Do they even recognize me?

I know my survival came through fission. And I wonder how much more breaking apart has to happen for us to save ourselves. For us to save others.

It’s hunting season. And I am trying so hard not to be trapped.

Further Reading:

I will keep updating the list of ways women are trapped. But in the meantime, amazing editor and friend of the newsletter, Jessica Zimmerman sent me a link to this essay about wolf girls, which talks about the ways in which young girls identify with animals.

Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, sent on Wednesdays, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more.