Written by Michael Runtz, October 30, 2019
With Halloween just past, there have been recent sightings of vampires, goblins, and
werewolves. While those monsters might bring fear into many a poor soul’s heart, the natural
world lacks anything quite as terrifying as those fictitious beings. Yet, some people experience
uncontrollable fear when they encounter bears, snakes, or wolves.
Wolves in particular face unjustified persecution because they are not only feared but
greatly misunderstood. Many years ago, when I was attending public school in Arnprior, one of
the teachers drove in with a large animal draped over the hood of his truck. That animal was, in
his words, a “Brush Wolf,” and he proudly stated that he hunted them because they were evil
killers. I still feel my emotions when I saw his “trophy.” There was great admiration for the
animal’s large canine teeth and deep sorrow for its death.
Years later, I began working in Algonquin Park as a seasonal naturalist. Part of my job
was to interpret to visitors the importance of Algonquin’s wolves. We explained (as we were
taught) that these animals were a small, colourful race of Gray (Timber) Wolves, the animals
that Farley Mowat wrote about in his fictitious book “Never Cry Wolf.”
Today I know that both identifications were wrong. Brush Wolves were actually Eastern
Coyotes while the wolves in Algonquin were not Gray Wolves but a distinct species now called
the Eastern Wolf (a.k.a. the Algonquin Wolf).
Ontario has three species of large wild dogs. The largest is the Gray Wolf, which resides
in northern Ontario. The smallest is the Eastern Coyote, widespread through southern Ontario
and also found in western Ontario near the Manitoba border. Algonquin Park and some of the
neighbouring area including western Quebec are home to the rare Eastern Wolf. Recently I had
the pleasure of attending a talk on all three animals by Dr. Brent Patterson, a research biologist
with MNRF and world expert on Ontario’s canids.
Afterwards, we talked about how people inappropriately call Eastern Wolves and
Coyotes “Coywolves.” That misnomer arose because there has been some genetic mixing
between the two species, which historically had very different ranges. Coyotes were prairie
animals while Eastern Wolves ranged through the forests of eastern North America. When the
forests were decimated and wolves largely exterminated, Coyotes moved east to fill the void.
Some hybridization did occur but for the most part the wolves in Algonquin Park are the purest
examples of Eastern Wolves in existence while through southern Ontario, Eastern Coyotes
prevail. The behaviour, social structure, vocalizations, and even diet of these two species for
the most part remain different. Indeed, neither are “Coywolves.”
An alarming amount of misinformation about wolves and coyotes exists on the internet.
Fans of Algonquin Park have a Facebook site on which photos of “Coywolves” are regularly
posted. The hair rises on my neck whenever I see those but not because of fear. It is because of
not only the scientific inaccuracy of that term but also the injustice being done to those
magnificent animals, which are not hybrids but a species at risk deserving full protection.
I doubt my hair would rise any higher if the animals had been called “Werewolves!”