Northern Michigan Story: Canvassing for Wolves in the Wake of Money

Opinion

Northern Michigan Outdoors: The first man to blow me off has a dog. I've stopped to pet her—a big, long-haired, orangish female—and in the process asked if this man would be interested in signing a petition to stop Northern Michigan's wolves from being hunted for sport.

I can see that this man loves the dog. It's cold outside—15 degrees or so—and he has her wrapped in a coat, which is also decorated with reflective material. The dog stands beside him and wags while I run my fingers through the thick hair under her ears, thinking to myself, Yes, it's the ones who love some wildness that are going to get these signatures. The ones who know something about creatures.

“I don't sign petitions,” the man says, and walks away.

I turn too, feeling slightly embarrassed, though I'm not certain if it's embarrassment for myself, the man, or the dog for having this man holding the other end of the leash she lives on. 

This happens on my first day—ever—out canvassing. That I'm doing it at all surprises me. It's not in my nature to ask people I don't know for things that they may or may not want to give. It's not in my nature to ask people I know for things I'm certain they would be happy to give.  But this is for Northern Michigan's wolves, who, thanks to a lame duck bill Governor Snyder signed into legislature in December of last year, might possibly be approved for hunting as trophies. Nearly 40 years on the federal Endangered Species List, and the moment they're not in imminent danger of extinction in Michigan, our legislators (and their lobbyists) have put targets on their backs once again. My goal—and the goal of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected, the organization I'm volunteering with— is to gather 225,000 signatures by the end of March in order to place a referendum on Michigan's statewide ballot in 2014, so that Michigan's residents can decide for themselves whether or not to enact this law. 

The truth is, though, it's not just the asking that feels tricky. If I can catch someone's eye, and get out that I'm not asking for money, just a signature, then most everyone is willing, even eager, to sign. It's been on NPR and the local news stations, and people are upset. 

“People don't eat wolves, right?” many ask. No, people do not eat wolves. 

“And if what I've heard is true, this wouldn't have any impact on laws that still allow farmers to protect their livestock from wolves, right?” That's right, farmers always have, and will continue to have, the right to protect their livestock from wolves. This law is entirely separate from that. It designates the grey wolf as a game species, allowing hunters to hunt wolves for trophies if the Natural Resources Commission decides to allow that. I leave out the part about the cruel hunting techniques this could possibly include, depending on the way the regulations would be written: leg-hold traps, shooting wolves over piles of bait, using packs of dogs to track and kill, the grotesque images that come up when you google wolf hunt. If the person appears patient, interested, I offer a little more information. Not to mention that there are federal and state organizations in place specifically to compensate farmers for any lost livestock. Which is rarely necessary, anyway, since only 8% of ranches have experienced depredation.   

“What's the other side, then? Why?”

Here I pause, because it's a legitimate question, and one that should have a legitimate answer. Every lead, however, every argument in defense of a hunting season on wolves in Michigan, leads exactly nowhere. Some do not acknowledge that there is already an effective wolf management policy in place for farmers, and so the issue has become tangled in misinformation. Some like to claim the wolf population in Isle Royale is wiping out the moose population, despite five decades of scientific research, which concludes that “wolf and moose abundances are neither positively nor negatively related.”  Others want to hunt wolves because they kill deer, but they fail to look at the numbers: Northern Michigan's Upper Peninsula is home to around a quarter million deer. Wolves kill approximately 23,000 deer each year, while malnutrition kills more than twice that number in an average winter. Hunters, as well, kill twice as many deer as wolves in a typical hunting season. Not to mention that automobiles alone kill about 10,000 deer each year.

And still, there are those who simply take their cues from fairytales and call them facts, no mention of the fact that there has never, not once, been a documented wolf attack on a human in Michigan. What nobody says, at least not straight-out, is tax revenue. So then, how has this law come to pass? Because finally, the human heart is full of complexities, contradictions, irrational fears, desires that are sometimes without logic. And they're powerful desires, and sometimes they make people do powerfully wrong things; for power, for sport, for money, to feel like a man in a world with Justin Biebers and Calvin Klein underwear models wiping out the Indiana Jones' and Steve McQueens. Like, for example, taking a creature from the wild to stuff and put in a showroom. What will they say? I killed that, and they'll tell the story of the trek through the woods, following tracks, waiting in the brush with their faces painted green and muddy while the sun went down and the sounds of daylight dwindled into wilder cries. I got that boy just as he turned his head and spotted me. He knew I had him, too. Put a bullet slap in his heart. Isn't he a beauty? But instead I find myself biting my lip, saying I wish, I wish I understood that myself.  “Men,” one woman says, shaking her head. I nod, because this isn't the time to disagree, but I can't help picturing Sarah Palin flying over Alaska in her helicopter, eye on the scope, high-powered rifle aimed at that blur of grey in the snow. This isn't about gender, not really, not entirely. This is about that beating thing in human beings that wants to feel big. Or at least, it's not about farmers losing their rights. And it's not about moose or deer. And it's not about wolves threatening civilized society. And it sure as hell isn't about controlling the wolf population.

No, it's not just the asking, the approaching strangers, that can feel difficult at times. What's tricky is the desperation I feel as I count the people walking down the opposite side of the street, or driving by in cars, or the numbers I imagine to be inside of the large buildings in Downtown Ann Arbor, and knowing how many times I've breezed past people with clipboards and signs on sticks and tags around their necks. 

I ask another girl who is trying very hard not to look at me, speed walking even, the sort who's eye I can't quite catch. She responds with a theatrical, “Oh man, I'm super late for a class,” and keeps going. Another woman, with a puffy hat and lipstick the color of blood oranges, just responds, “No,” before I've even told her what the petition is for. And it makes me mad. Furious, even, because I don't know what else to do, and because I've also been known to cross the street to avoid canvassers, or take imaginary phone calls to dodge the kids with the clipboards and their questions that want something from me, or shaken my head 'no' without hearing someone out.

There's too much out there, and still, it's not enough. Every day on the street corner of Ann Arbor's State and South U there are groups from Greenpeace or Mott's or various nonprofits working to save this or save that or build this or don't build that or stop the prosecution on this party or prosecute that corporation. Every day I receive any number of emails from any number of organizations asking me to sign a petition or write a letter or make a donation, to keep the captured baby elephants from being sent to a Chinese zoo or save an innocent man from the death penalty or to end gender-based violence. And when you sign one, ten others pop up, just a quick note, just a quick typing of your name to help end hunger in Nigeria or child labor in China or horse slaughter here in the USA or the U.S. Navy's plans to kill whales and dolphins with their sonar exercises. Everybody is screaming help, and everybody who's not is doing a little harm in some pocket of the world. And it's too easy to hit the “No, Thanks” button and go scramble some eggs. 

People travel in masses, waves, like birds. Sometimes I feel like the point they're shifting around. Either I'm alone on the side of the road, or they flock to me. If I've managed to gather a group, more come. If someone skims the edge of my vision, sweeps past me without a glance, and others see, they do the same. It's when I'm standing on the inside looking out at the ones I can't reach—women pushing strollers at speeds that seem superhuman, men jingling the keys in their pockets and shifting their eyes from the street to whatever's ahead—that I've begun to think about my brain, what it's worth, and how I came to be standing on this or that street corner, asking for two minutes and a signature. After all, I have a Bachelor's. I have a Master's in poetry. I teach undergraduates at the University of Michigan. I'm a writer. I've calculated, during those periods of time when nobody's interested, that my brain is worth approximately 300K. Which is worth approximately… nothing. Or at least not when it comes to saving wolves. The one thing I can do to protect these creatures at this moment in time is something anybody with a birthday before 1995 can do, and still, to some, two minutes and a signature seems quite a bit to spare.  And this is the realization that stuns, that stings a little.

February in Michigan is cold. It's windy. It's full of snow and ice and grey and people who either want to be on the slopes or want to be in Hawaii. What's certain is that most people don't want to be stopped walking to and from their cars, to and from the gym, to and from work.  It's what I've been thinking about after being thrown out of a store downtown following a miscommunication with an employee who gave me permission to petition indoors, permission she apparently did not have the authority to give. 

Still, the past half hour or so has been successful; people stopping to talk with me, the majority of them happy to sign, some more eager than others. I'm getting to know the way a person will respond based on any number of factors: their level of eye contact, speed, and yes, age.  The 20-something's are perhaps the most hesitant. They're broke, for starters, and unlikely to give me the time to clarify that I'm not asking for money. They're also a little suspicious and a little cool and more than a little overwhelmed. I was one of them a few months ago, and I know the feeling: you're responsible for knowing everything, having all the information, and making something of it. Pick a place to live. Pick a career. Pick a spouse. Pick a cause. Pick where you're going to party this weekend. With so much, it's easy to tune out, walk by, keep your eye on the one and only prize. What's your signature going to do to help when the world is so big, and threatening to melt out of existence, anyway?

It's the elderly people who nearly always sign, a discovery that's surprised me.  “What's happening now?” they ask, shaking their heads as they reach for the pen. Very little, if any, of the information I pass along seems to shock them. They've been part of this world for awhile, and they've also seen that change is possible. They've rioted, carried signs, witnessed the evolution of women's rights and gay rights and they've witnessed a day impossible at their birth: the inauguration of a black president. They've signed their names. It's what they can do. It's what I can do. And it's something.

On the corner of Washington and Ashley, a man comes out of a restaurant. He's middle-aged, greying, eyes that look a little mad inventor-ish, smiling. Would you be interested in signing a petition to stop Michigan's wolves from being hunted for sport?  “You know,” he says, pointing to the restaurant,“someone from the DA is in there. You should ask him to sign.”  I will, thanks. I appreciate that.  “I was just talking to him about Ann Arbor. So many people living on the streets. We really have to do something. Do you know about it?”  I know a little. I completely agree with you. There are so many people who need help.  “That's right. We need to help these people.”  We do. The whole world needs a lot of help. There's a lot of work to be done.  “That's right.”  The man nods and turns to go.  In the spirit of helping those who can't help themselves, would you like to add your signature?  The man looks at me. He's still smiling.  “No thanks,” he says.  “But God bless you.”

To find a petition-signing location please visit www.keepwolvesprotected.com.

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