I was visiting my parents in Massachusetts around Thanksgiving and happened to drop by a neighborhood party, an affair which brought my childhood briefly back to life. The party was hosted by a woman who is a puppeteer and whose sense of creativity and storytelling – and commitment to conservation – were an influence on me from a young age. Her award-winning work focuses on animal tales, and she is a fan of Thornton Burgess, whose writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created a host of animal characters that fostered a public sense of empathy for wildlife at a crucial time in conservation history.
A copy of Mother West Wind “Where” Stories, Burgess’ first book, happened to be on the coffee table at the party, and I happened to pick it up, and it happened to flip open to a story entitled “Where Glutton the Wolverine Got His Name.” After I got over being dumbfounded by a what-are-the-odds sense of coincidence at wolverine information falling into my lap yet again, I found myself smiling as I read the story. It so perfectly reiterates all the old stereotypes about the anti-social, mean-spirited, voracious animal of legend. And yet within the story lurks a grudging respect for the creature’s intelligence and independence, not to mention a fair amount of accurate detail about where wolverines fit into the animal kingdom. The link above leads back to the story, although it can be pretty much summed up by Burgess’ conclusion: “…there is no more cunning thief, no greedier rascal, and no one with a meaner disposition in all the Great Woods of the Far North than Glutton the Wolverine.”
I was struck that Burgess, who lived his life in Massachusetts and mostly wrote about creatures of the New England agricultural landscape, thought to include a story of a wolverine, even if it is told by way of rumor, a myth from a far-off northern land. He wasn’t the only New Englander to hear tales of the Glutton. Henry David Thoreau also gave wolverines (or, as he writes, “wolverenes”) some thought, referring to them as among the “nobler animals” (Thank you, Thoreau, for being probably the first human being to acknowledge the nobility of the wolverine!) and lamenting their passing. Sadly, I became aware of Thoreau’s thoughts in conjunction with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement that they consider the eastern cougar extinct, as of last Wednesday. I’m not sure this is true, but I leave that to discussion on someone’s mountain lion blog. For now, suffice to say that it’s easy to share Thoreau’s broader sentiment that without these species among us, we would be living in a sadly diminished world: “I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.”
Staying on the topic of rumors of wolverines in New England, a number of people end up on this blog looking for information on wolverines in New Hampshire, Maine, or Massachusetts. New England is not currently considered part of the wolverine’s range, and, Thoreau notwithstanding, we’re unsure that wolverines were in New England at any time after the Pleistocene. Ice age wolverine fossils have been found as far south as Maryland and Pennsylvania, but evidence for gulos south of eastern Canada in historic times, even during the colonial period, is scant. We get periodic reports of wolverines in New England, some of which are probably actually fishers, the smaller but similarly badass cousin of the wolverine (Fishers specialize in killing porcupines. Enough said.) We do know that New England no longer has the necessary habitat requirements for wolverines – that is, deep snow through late spring – and so there is no possibility that the region hosts a breeding population. Released captives are another possible explanation for anyone who thinks they’ve seen a wolverine in New England. But let us know – or check out the the Wolverine Foundation’s wolverine ID page and then drop them a line – if you think you’ve seen one, and especially if you have photographic evidence.