Langston on Rutherford, 'Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada'

Stephanie Rutherford. Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2022. Illustrations. 256 pp. $130.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-228-01107-1; $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-228-01108-8

Reviewed by Nancy Langston (Michigan Technological University)
Published on H-Environment (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

Stephanie Rutherford’s Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada is a fascinating monograph that explores the complex relationship between wolves, humans, and the settler-colonial state in what has become Canada. Rutherford argues that the ways wolves have been perceived and treated in Canada are closely tied to the changing political and social climate of the colonial state. In the early days of European settlement, colonial settlers viewed wolves with terror, as a serious threat to the colonial project. By the late nineteenth century, this sense of horror was replaced by a sense of disgust, as the settler state redefined wolves as vermin that threatened livestock economies. After World War II, disgust was replaced by admiration, and attempted annihilation was replaced by management, reflecting larger shifts in postwar Canada.

Rutherford does an excellent job weaving together a wide range of sources and theories to explore the various forces that have shaped Canadian attempts to eradicate and then manage wolves. Her analysis of the tensions between the bounty system and bureaucratic control systems builds on Tina Loo’s 2006 analysis in States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century. Rutherford also draws heavily on the work of Michel Foucault, grounding her analysis in his theories of biopolitics and governmentality and extending them to an analysis of wildlife policies in Canada. She shows how biopolitics—how the modern nation-state exercises power over bodies and lives—is deeply interconnected with governmentality, the strategies colonial governments use to control Indigenous peoples and European settlers. Rutherford engages as well with necropolitics theory, describing how violent state power and coercion have been used to control or eliminate wolves, and to shape perceptions of wolves as well. Necropolitics theories ground her examination of wildlife ecology itself, as agencies have made decisions about which species or populations to prioritize or protect—caribou and deer—and which predators to control or eliminate.

Rutherford also uses affect theory in interesting ways, examining how the settler state produced, maintained, and transformed emotions and affective experiences. Her work illuminates how different affective experiences become connected to ongoing conflicts between settler and Indigenous knowledge and power.

Perhaps the most original and provocative contribution in Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin is the analysis of coywolves: the hybrids between wolves and coyotes that evolved in response to settler attempts to eradicate wolves. Rutherford starts with Bruno Latour's approaches to hybridity, as well as Donna Haraway's analysis of hybrid bodies.[1] She builds on these in fascinating ways to help us understand the ironies—and opportunities—presented by the emergence of coydogs as a key predator in much of North America.

One of the strengths of Rutherford’s approach is that she makes complex critical theories accessible to a broader public. Her writing is clear and often powerful, and her theoretical apparatus is core to her larger argument rather than just tacked on. Another major strength is her emphasis on Indigenous histories and philosophies, which ground her call to engage more deeply with more-than-human animals as kin rather than as instruments of power. She could, however, have considered some of the varied approaches to wolf culls that different First Nations communities in Canada have taken. Rutherford argues that settler biologists who are willing to cull wolves to prevent local extirpations of caribou populations are indulging in a form of necropolitics. Is this also true for First Nations communities that cull wolves to protect caribou calving? Why have different Indigenous communities taken such different approaches to wolf management? Does the biopolitics/governmentality/necropolitics theoretical apparatus that Rutherford uses to critique settler wildlife management also help us understand Indigenous management decisions?

Overall, Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin is a well-researched and thought-provoking book that offers a valuable contribution to our understanding of the complex relationship between wolves, humans, and the state in what has become Canada. It will be a useful addition to the library of scholars interested in critical geographies, animal studies, and Canadian environmental history.


[1]. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (1991; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); and Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Social-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," Social Review 80 (1985): 65-108.

Citation: Nancy Langston. Review of Rutherford, Stephanie, Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.