The inhumane and indiscriminate poisoning, snaring and shooting of thousands of Alberta wolves could soon be judged by a global audience, says local conservationist Anna-Marie Ferguson.
A hard-hitting documentary about the cruel treatment of wolves in this province won a prestigious international award. Unnatural Enemies: The War on Wolves, directed by Geordie Day, received the Genesis Award for International TV Documentary from the Humane Society of the United States.
This elevates the 60-minute film made by Calgary’s Pyramid Productions Inc. for CTV into distinguished company. Other documentaries that won a Genesis Award include the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, about the Japanese dolphin hunt; the Oscar-nominated film Virunga, about efforts to protect a wildlife park in Congo; and Blackfish, which helped change the practice of aquariums keeping captive orcas.
Red Deer resident Ferguson hopes the award will draw the world’s attention to Unnatural Enemies and Alberta’s callous wolf killings. As author of the public awareness booklet, Alberta’s Wild Wolves: A Call from the Wild, Ferguson is interviewed in the documentary — along with hunters, trappers, rangers, environmentalists, biologist and animal activists.
Also interviewed is Dwight Rodtka, a retired provincial wildlife officer from Rocky Mountain House who spent 39 years as a problem animals specialist. (The narrator is conservationist and author Kevin Van Tighem, a former Banff National Park superintendent.)
Both Ferguson and Rodtka express dismay in the film about how an unknown multitude of wolves are being killed in horrible ways, including slow suffocation in snares and spasmodic agony and asphyxiation by strychnine poisoning.
There’s very little difference between the way Alberta treats wolves and the way it treats rats, says Rodtka. “They can be shot 12 months of the year … It’s (incredible) how little respect we have for wolves.”
He believes part of the problem is a historic prejudice against a top carnivore that hunts in packs and tracks its prey. But studies indicate wolves are highly social beings, and much more intelligent than domestic dogs. A trapper recounts in the documentary how a tracked she-wolf, who studied his movements, crawled on her belly so as not to leave paw prints in the snow.
Wolves are attentive parents and make strong emotional bonds within family groupings, said Ferguson. Stories are recounted about wolves sticking around to support one of their number who’s caught in a snare. Wolves have also been known to mourn a dead pack member.
Many of Alberta’s wolf killings — including those shot from planes and poisoned by carcasses left in the forest — are linked to government efforts to keep a small caribou herd thriving in the Little Smoky area, near Valleyview.
More than 1,000 wolves were killed in the region over nine years. As well, 700 other animals died from eating the poisoned wolf bait. The killings continue, even though a government report concluded it’s not helping expand the caribou herd that’s lost habitat to energy activities in the area, and that new wolves are just moving in to fill the imbalance between predators and prey.
A government spokesman in the film restates that the caribou are endangered and must be protected.
But Ferguson is critical of the fact Alberta has no annual limit on how many wolves are killed. She discovered the death toll is mounting because of bounties set by groups that seek to preserve trophy animals, such as big-horned sheep, for hunters.
Rodtka said there’s no end to hunting season for wolves on private land. He knows of wolf pups that have been left to starve in their den after mother wolves are killed.
Some of the wolf slaughter is reportedly linked to livestock kills.
But Ferguson said simple things like leaving a parked vehicle near animal pens is shown to be effective at keeping wolves at bay because they avoid human contact.
If problems persist on a ranch, she believes the specific wolf could be killed humanely with a gun, not poison or snares.
Rodtka is adamantly against snares, “the No. 1 killer of wolves in Alberta.” He said trapped animals can suffer for days or weeks.
The film shows graphic images of a dead wolf who’d worn a snare wire into his bloodied neck.
Unnatural Enemies has aired several times on CTV, and makers are hoping it can soon be seen on Netflix. In the meantime, a preview is available on YouTube.
Ferguson and Rodtka hope Albertans who care about animal welfare will write or call their MLAs and Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips to change the way wolves are treated in this province.