Successful European efforts to protect the wolf population over several decades have created a situation seen now to pose an existential threat to a pastoral French way of life. To the great chagrin of some 60,000 shepherds in the French Alps region, the rebound of the now-thriving wolves has been due in no small part to their feasting on area livestock, with tens of thousands of sheep reported killed in recent years. The various efforts to combat the killings—and the general sense of remote French life in the haunting shadow of wolves—struck a chord with Jay M. Smith, author of Monsters of the Gévaudan, who weighs in below on this episode’s historical parallels.
In a recent story on the proliferation of wolves, and wolf attacks, in the French Alps, the New York Times unwittingly sounded echoes from the distant past. To any readers attuned to French lore, all the major chords would have sounded familiar. Stealthy, vicious predators. Fearful and angry sheepherders. Economic disruption. Bungled hunts and missing firearms. Rural communities steeped in anxiety and fearing for their future. Expensive but ineffectual measures from the national authorities. The whole episode drenched, as the Times reporter operatically intoned, in “a great quantity of blood.”
The Times story focused on the concerns of shepherds in the southern French Alps who have lost, by one official count, 20,000 sheep to wolf attack since 2008. Those Alpine shepherds would probably find little consolation in being reminded of one of history’s most constant lessons: however bleak current conditions, others have had it worse. A wolf panic strikingly similar to the one roiling the Alps gripped the southern Massif Central, about two hundred miles to the west of today’s affected area, in the middle 1760s. Then, too, sheepherders feared for their livelihoods as murderous attacks in the hilly pastures of the Gévaudan disrupted markets and left many afraid to venture into their fields. The killer or killers were hard to track, and official policies limiting access to firearms caused a sense of helplessness among locals. Indecisiveness and fitful action from the government compounded frustrations. The bloodshed continued for several years.
But there were important differences, the most important being that the eighteenth-century casualties were human. The predator or predators in the Gévaudan were attracted not to the many sheep of the region, who escaped the rampage largely unscathed, but rather to the frail, slightly built, often adolescent shepherds charged with the responsibility of taking the family flocks to water and pasture. Unarmed and ill-equipped to offer resistance, they offered inviting targets to hungry beasts who typically attacked from behind and struck first at the neck—often to the point of decapitation. Between July of 1764 and June of 1767, more than a hundred pitiful victims fell to the “beast of the Gévaudan” as it came to be called. The horror was so great, the atmosphere so frightening, the losses so heart-rending that the locals (as well as the urban sophisticates learning about the distant terror from newspapers far more titillating than the New York Times) construed the attacks as the work of a single, exceptionally atrocious, malefactor—perhaps an agent of divine retribution or, more likely, a “monster” of mysterious provenance.
Priests, naturalists, and huntsmen offered differing theories about the nature of the enemy they faced, until at last the weight of evidence pointed unmistakably to wolves. Local hunters eliminated one large wolf in 1767, after which chastened authorities working in the vicinity of Paris developed effective hunting and trapping techniques that seem to have eliminated the offending wolf population in the Gévaudan by the late 1760s (though there would be occasional flare-ups for the next half century). The killer of the Gévaudan lives on in myth and memory as something much more terrible than a wolf: a hybrid, an exotic creature from Africa, a cryptid from prehistoric times, even a human serial killer. But the historical evidence points squarely to wolves, and the authorities’ belated recognition of the reality of wolf infestation in the 1760s led to a happy turning point in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, after which wolves posed an ever diminishing threat to humans on French soil.
One of the ironies of the situation faced by today’s French sheep herders is that, once again, the locals are having difficulty coordinating with the authorities and reaching consensus on the proper ecological strategy to combat the destruction of flocks. The French government, the European Union and all who support environmentalist policies are reluctant to authorize mass hunts in the Alps for fear of imperiling a protected species. It has long been the orthodoxy that wolves will never harm humans (and thankfully, all signs suggest that twenty-first century wolves, having learned just how dangerous armed humans can be, have no inclination to do battle with homo sapiens), but on top of this dogma rests the powerful ideal of the balance of nature—the proposition that human intervention in predator-prey relations will always tend to backfire. In the 1760s, authorities with cooler heads had to overcome that portion of the local populace that saw “the beast” as a demon or a witch, but this time an end to the carnage may require a kind of historical inversion. Grounded, pragmatic locals may need to overturn or neutralize myths long cherished by authorities in distant places.